By Rachel Turniansky
Coordinator of Special Needs Programming
Macks Center for Jewish Education
For some parents the end of the summer is the most wonderful time of the year. For others it’s a bittersweet time where the low-key routine of sleeping in a bit and unplanned fun slips away into the hustle and bustle of the routine of back to school. For families with special needs this time can be one of anxiety for parents as well as children.
The start of the school year coincides with the start of the new Jewish year. Many similar themes can be expressed as we get ready to start another year of learning. The start of the Jewish year is a time of reflecting on the past and thinking ahead. The new school year is the chance for a fresh start full of potential. With simple planning and a few tips, the transition can be smoother.
Start with a positive attitude. The new school year is one of possibilities. Even if you know there will be challenges, try to project an air of hopefulness and positive anticipation to your child. Talk about all the great things to look forward to.
Take care of business. Review back-to-school packets. Take care of forms or tasks as early as you can so as to avoid any last-minute scrambling. Buy school supplies early. Checking off items on the list can be a fun way to stir up enthusiasm for the first day of school.
Establish an open line of communication with your child’s school and teachers. Set the stage for working as a team. Arrange a conversation with the teacher(s) to let them know as much about your child as you can. Not only does this give valuable information to the teacher, it lets him/her know that you’re an active, involved parent who is willing to be a strong partner.
Visit the school before classes begin. If you can arrange for your child to meet with the teacher, even for a short time, that would be ideal. If your child is starting a new school or even a new classroom, this will give your child the chance to have a mental image of the physical space. If it’s not possible, set aside time to drive past the building so your child has some frame of reference.
Social stories can be a great way to set the stage for a smooth start to the school year. Social stories are written by parents and/or teachers to describe social situations and help children understand what to expect in unknown situations. For more information about writing and using social stories, see thegraycenter.org/social-stories. You can also find books about going back to school and include them in your regular summer reading routine.
Arrange play dates with classmates. If your child will be returning to school with old friends, this can be a way to get him/her excited about going back to school. If s/he will be meeting new classmates, and you can meet them before class starts, it can be a great way to support a new friendship.
Ease back into structure if your summer has featured a relaxed daily routine. It’s a good idea to get back into a more structured schedule before the first day of school. Wake up a little earlier and stick to a consistent bedtime routine. Create a visual schedule for the morning routine by using pictures, icons and photographs to show your child what steps s/he needs to get done each morning.
Create a family calendar for all to see with everyone’s events marked: back-to-school night, first day of school, etc. Using this visual aid can cut down on chaos. Take the opportunity to look at a Jewish calendar and talk about how the cycle of holidays works throughout the school calendar. Making a family calendar a useful tool throughout the year can be a lifesaver.
Set up the environment to make things run as smoothly as possible. Select a spot to keep backpacks, lunch boxes, coats and shoes to avoid scrambling around in the morning. Check to make sure school clothes from last year fit. Even if last year’s clothes fit, getting a few new items can give your child something else to look forward to. You and your child can take the opportunity to say the Shechianu blessing, a tradition when wearing new clothes.
The night before the first day, plan ahead. Set the breakfast table as you clear the dinner dishes, and plan what breakfast foods will be served. Have the kids lay out their clothes the night before. Make lunches the night before. Leave plenty of extra time in the morning to start the day off on a calm note and allow for any last minute things that might come up. Keep that first week of school simple, both at home and work, to allow for flexibility and make things more relaxed.
Get involved in your child’s school. Volunteering can be a way to develop a good relationship with the teachers and staff as well as building connections between school and home. It’s another way to show your child that you care about his/her learning environment.
Extracurricular activities can be a great opportunity to have fun, learn new skills and develop social skills in a low stress setting outside of the classroom. Choose one or two worthwhile activities. Shared experiences with friends and classmates can help maintain interest in the activity and build connections that deepen the friendship.
Whether it’s the first day of school or the last, one of the most important keys to success is open communication between home and school, as well as between you and your child. By building a relationship and working together towards the same goal, the year ahead will be sure to be one of not just learning, but real growth.
Learn about CJE’s special needs educational programming.