The summer has flown by and soon children will return to school. For some kids, this is an exciting prospect. For others, the approaching return to school may create anxiety. Whichever is the case for your child, this is an opportune time for you to employ strategies to make that first days of school as comfortable and stress-free as possible for your child and your family.
For many children with special needs, the abstract concept of time and days is difficult to grasp. Provide a special calendar for your child that indicates and even celebrates the day that school will begin. Create a daily designated time when the two of you cross off that day on the calendar and engage in thoughtful conversation. If your child expresses fears or anxiety about the return to school, truly tune in to what he is saying. Try to get him to articulate exactly what it is that worries and concerns him. Don’t dismiss his fears by saying all will be fine or telling him not to worry. Validate his feelings. Tell him you understand how these things would cause him to be fearful. Only then try to calm his fears by offering solutions and suggestions. If your child is eager for school to begin, the calendar will remind him that the time is almost here.
Since summer time is typically much less structured than the school year, it is a good idea to begin adding in simple routines before the summer has ended. For example, have your child go to bed and wake up at the times he will do so during the school year. You might even start having snacks and lunch at the times they are scheduled at school. This will make the transition easier for your little one.
If following directions is difficult for your child, you can engage in strategies that will help prepare your child for the school year. During the summer he may have become accustomed to focusing on his favorite activities and working at his own pace. To help return to greater structure, begin by redirecting him from one preferred activity to another preferred activity. Once he can follow your cues, move on to redirecting from a preferred activity to one that he does not prefer. Eventually, he will become more accustom to making transitions and following instructions.
If your child attends a camp or child care setting during the summer, ensure that you communicate with the staff to get them on board with whatever assistance you need to help prepare your child for school. If he is especially fearful, make certain the staff knows this as his anxiety could cause him to act out.
Communicate with your child’s school before the new term begins to set up a meeting with his new teacher in order to share effective strategies and other important information about your child. Try to include the teacher and other team members who worked with your child the previous year. They too should have beneficial information to share with the new team. If your child does not yet know the new teacher or if the physical space will differ from the previous year, ask the school to set up a tour for him prior to the first attendance day.
Hopefully, when the big day arrives and your child returns to school, your strategies will have helped him enter his new year on a relaxed and positive note and he will be ready to learn and play with both old and new friends in an environment of well facilitated inclusion. Children with disabilities and special needs benefit greatly when they are included in groups of typically developing children to act as role models. Their social, motor, and language skills develop more quickly than in segregated environments. They embrace challenges more readily and are more inclined to push themselves beyond their comfort levels when they are motivated to join in the activities of all of their friends.
How do children who are typically developing benefit from an inclusive classroom? Research shows that because of smaller group sizes that include specially trained teachers and therapists, these children also show accelerated growth in social skills, language development and motor ability.
The most wonderful benefit, however, is the great understanding and accepting of differences that grows through inclusion. Hopefully your child attends a school where skilled, caring staff do not leave this all-important component to chance; where they expertly and gently facilitate interactions between children that lead to understanding and acceptance; where they guide the child’s natural tendencies to look for the simple, true values in their friendships … smiles and hugs, sharing, playing together, just being nice. What could be better?
Dori Buschke is the director of programs at St. Francis Children’s Center.