With just one week to go until school is out here in Ontario, many of us are counting the days, if not the hours. Students are already vibrating with the promise of leisurely summer days at cottages and beaches. Parents are either jumping for joy at the thought of no more school runs and Mommy taxi duty, or cowering in fear at the possibility that their children will run amok all summer. Either way, you are not off free yet. If you parent a child with special needs there are some details that still need to be managed and ironed out in this final week of school. If they are not taken care of yet, September, and the start of a brand new school year could be a mess for your child. That’s reality. An ounce of prevention and preparation and everyone will benefit in September. (As some of you know I am the parent of a child with special needs, well actually two girls with special needs, I sit on the Thames Valley SEAC – special education advisory panel, and am on half a dozen committees for parents and advocates. I travel around North America speaking about and researching advocacy and FASD – fetal alcohol spectrum disorder – and I run a non profit. Preparation and knowledge help. They are special needs parent’s most powerful tools.)
Five Tips For Special Needs Children Starting School in September 2012
1. JK is not mandatory. SK is not mandatory. Is your child ready? You need to know legally that in Ontario your child doesn’t need to be enrolled in school until the age of six. That’s right JK and SK are optional. So if you feel your child isn’t ready for the transition, or if you feel the chaos of school every other day doesn’t work, you can opt out. You do not have to register your child for JK. Many parents choose to keep their child at day care for the year. It is one less transition. Keep them home for another year getting one on one with you, or do a different placement at preschool. We kept our youngest at the preschool where they understood her best for as long as we could. She did not go to school until she turned six. Her preschool had a better ratio of children to teachers and she also received more resource support where she was.
2. If you plan to register you should have done so already. Go Monday. First thing. Get yourself to the school immediately if you haven’t done so already. They need to be prepared. Even neurotypical children require support. Schools have to hire the right number of teachers, so they need to know how many kids are coming. They really need to know if your child has special needs so they can plan to support them as needed. (This really should have been started back in January or February, but now you still have time for damage control. In September it will be chaos.)
3. Contact your Area Learning Coordinator. Phone the board where you live and ask to speak to the area learning coordinator. If you have not done this yet, you should touch base. This person can be an excellent resource and a bridge between school and your child. They can attend school meetings and communicate what they think the school needs to do to help your child. I have found ours to be an excellent resource. The January before my child moved to grade one, bridging preschool and public school grade one, I called our area learning coordinator and told her my concerns. I told her my child’s diagnoses and I told her the school my daughter planned to attend. I also described to her what happens when my youngest is not monitored 24/7 or supported. We had a fabulous EA for half days and a team that really supported my daughter well in grade one. They were ready and prepared to help. We still had difficulty, but for the most part the year went very well. Preparation was key.
4. Visit the school with your child. We have always done a lot of transition work with my child. She needs to see the physical space she will be in and she needs to feel safe. She needs to rehearse new situations. We drove her to the school that year many times and we played nearby at the park and watched them building a new parking lot etc. Then in August the lovely principal and teacher called us in to visit the classroom. The teacher in grade one gave my daughter a teddy bear and tried to make her feel welcome. It was really a kind and gentle approach that should be the standard for all students with special needs. Gather as much information as you can and build a picture for them of what will happen at school, take pictures if you want and you can show him or her what to expect thereby reducing stress. It helps anxious children and many with special needs to know who will be teaching them in advance of the first day of school.
5. Prepare A Small booklet called An All About Me. Or a small page. Depending on the age of the child, he or she can help. It doesn’t have to be too fancy. A page or two with a picture of your child. Tell what the diagnosis is, or if you don’t wish to tell the exact DX, you can describe what the needs are. My child is a runner, so she needed to be safe and still does. So I stated simply that my daughter is a runner and someone needs to watch her at all times. She doesn’t mean to run but will do so when threatened or overwhelmed. I have always given them a blueprint to my girl. In grade one it looked like this. My name is Ainsley. I have sensory processing disorder. When I am upset or overwhelmed, I run away. I also have a brain injury that means I cannot process cause and effect thinking. So if I run and a car is coming I may not even see it, or I may run in front of it because I am stressed. Tips that I am stressed: I clench my fists. My voice gets louder. I start running in circles. Please tell me to stop and help me to stop. Tap me on the shoulder and whisper to me. That gets my attention sometimes. In the past I have done a lot of sensory and occupational therapy to help me. I often need to carry heavy weighted equipment to help me feel safe and grounded. It gives me the right amount of feedback for my muscles.I always end it saying Thanks for your help. I am a bright productive helpful little girl and I want to succeed and make friends, but I need your help.
It’s never too late to do these things. And if you need help with any of it you can contact me by email. I will prepare a booklet for you as a writing service. Preparation is key. Good luck and have a great summer!