A New School Year and the Special Needs Child

Many parents look forward to the back-to-school time every year. For parents of neurotypical children, it’s a chance to finally have the house to themselves after a long summer vacation. For parents of children on the autism spectrum and other children with special needs, having a “parent break” is also incredibly important, but many parents face an uphill battle with the school system every year when it comes to specialized education and care for their child.

There are a few things to keep in mind. As school is only a few weeks in session, there’s no better time than the present to read up on how to navigate the school system and IEP. While it’s often helpful to hire an advocate, parents who are well-versed in the bureaucracy of the education system are often the best advocate for their child. There are also other things to keep in mind as well–as your child prepares for a new grade, new teacher, or new room, you want to ensure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Know the Class and the Teacher

By this point, you’ve probably already had a chance to visit the classroom and get to know the teacher and the paraprofessionals a bit. If you have not done so yet, this is the best time to start. Because of school security issues, many schools don’t let parents visit during the school day, and this is understandable. However, they must accommodate you if you want to set up a special time and day to go see the classroom and inquire what your child’s day is like.

That being said, you don’t have to call an IEP meeting just to have a quick conference with your child’s teacher. Whether it’s just to discuss a specific behavior or to talk about other issues concerning your child, most teachers are more than happy to sit down with parents and have a face-to-face meeting during the school day. It isn’t wise to ask for a weekly meeting with your child’s educators, but a good idea to make a list of things you’d like to talk about and have a sit-down every one or two months. This meeting will be quite different than the IEP (some states call it a PPT) meeting, which will be discussed later.

Set Up Communication

It can be awfully tough to ask your child’s teacher every pick-up or drop-off how their day was, or to prepare them for the day ahead. As it is still near the beginning of the school year, ask your child’s teacher how they would best like to communicate. Some teachers use sharing apps such as Seesaw or ClassDojo, while others prefer to use email. Depending on the teacher, he or she may also be okay with texts and phone calls. Just make sure you set up this mode of communication, so either parent or teacher can reach each other as soon as possible if something needs to be discussed.

Stick to Routines

Now that the school year is in full swing, it’s imperative that you have a solid routine at home. Keep bedtime and wake-up time the same, preferably even on weekends. Especially for ADHD kids and those on the autism spectrum, having a routine helps keep them grounded and successful. If you find yourself struggling or arguing with your child, create a social story every morning so they can understand the flow of the day and how plans are laid out. You can use an app such as Pictello, or you can create a board with pictures and Velcro (similar to the PECS system). While pictures work best, you can also write out the events of the day on an easel or chalkboard.

As long as your child understands the events of the day and what is expected, you should be okay. You can also think about creating a “if this, then” type of board. This is so your child understands that the preferred activity comes after the not-so-preferred activity. For example, if they’re resistant to going to school, let them know within the context of the social story that their favorite activity (screen time, watching a favorite show, playing outside) comes after successful completion of the school day.

Beyond the Teacher

Your child’s teacher and the overall experience in the classroom are of grave importance, but behind the teacher is always the bureaucracy of the school. Parents can find the IEP process daunting and intimidating. Some parents take no part in it; others become combative. It’s good to understand how things work and what your rights are. Do remember that specifics do differ from state to state.

To prepare for your first IEP, or even the first one of the school year, have all of your child’s recent medical visits and outside provider records handy. For example, if they receive speech or occupational therapy outside of the school, you will want the most recent reports and recommendations from these professionals, especially if you’re asking the school for more speech or OT within the context of the classroom.

While there will be a ready-made list of your child’s goals at school, it’s a good idea to bring your own. If these visions align perfectly, that’s a great sign. However, sometimes they do not. It is good to know where both you and the school stand as the meeting begins.

Remember that the IEP is a legal document. The goals and services mentioned within must be completely followed to the letter of the law. If your child’s IEP is not being followed in the classroom, it is time to notify the school of possible legal action if they do not comply.

The problem parents experience most, however, is not the lack of the IEP being followed; it is getting more services added to the IEP. If you feel your child is falling short of the goals outlined in the current IEP, then by all means advocate for more services. As you plan for this (and it may be a fight), review the IDEA (Disabilities Education Act). After you have reviewed the statutes and bylaws of this particular act, print out the most relevant parts and bring them to the IEP meeting. This lets the educators know that you are aware of the law, know the law, and are ready to enforce the law.

If by the end of the meeting, the IEP is not changed and the educators do not want to comply, then it is a good idea to consult a special education advocate. Most often, schools do not want the drawn-out argument with a parent, especially if the legal system is involved. However, it is possible that they will balk at adding more services, so be prepared to threaten (in a nice way) legal action.

One of the best things to remember while navigating this process is not to let your stress about the IEP be apparent to your child. Do not talk about the school in a negative light, and especially the teacher. Remember that the school is a bureaucracy, and your child’s teacher actually has very little to do with the legalities of the IEP. They can certainly set goals, but they are not authorized to simply make changes–in fact, that’s against the law too, even if it benefits your child.
In this situation, it’s a good idea to remember the old adage – “you catch more flies with honey” and “pick your battles wisely.”

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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