Back to School: A Special Needs Parent's Guide to a Successful Transition

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Back to School: A Special Needs Parent's Guide to a Successful Transition

Summer vacation is winding down and kid's are heading back to school. For special needs parents and their children, this can be a challenging and overwhelming time. 

Here at The Noah Robert Project, we have provided some strategies to help families confidently transition into the school year.

Prepare Your Paperwork:

Over summer break, take the time to organize all your special education documents.  At the end of the year, always ask for copies of all records, such as IEP's, re-evaluations, psychology reports, therapist and teacher data, test scores, etc. During summer break, speak with your school’s registrar and ask for copies of anything you are missing. Place your documents neatly in a folder and keep in a safe but easily accessible place in your home. Any emails written regarding educational needs or behaviors, make a copy and add to your folder. I also recommend taking notes of any conversations that may take place leading up to the first day of school. This can be helpful when needing to remember all the information your given.

After reviewing your documents, make a list of questions for your child’s teachers, school staff and administration. Meeting your child’s teacher or visiting their school for the first time can be slightly overwhelming. If time is limited during open house or school orientation, I suggest printing a copy of your questions and request they respond via email. This way none of your questions are forgotten or go unanswered.

It is also important to put your child’s needs in writing prior to the first day of school. A written outline can be an invaluable resource for teachers and staff that will work with your child daily. Be sure to include a list of their strength, weaknesses, sensory issues/needs, dietary restrictions, allergies, behavior triggers and favorite reinforces. Be sure to offer a copy to their teacher, aides, principal, assistant principals, occupational therapists, speech therapists, PE instructors, music teachers, lunch staff, school nurse, school librarian, etc. Sometimes called a “Student Passport,” this document is usually compressed to one sheet that is clear and concise.

Review your paperwork and make sure everything is current before returning to school. Be certain all emergency numbers are updated and working. Update lists of medications and allergies. Be sure all doctors listed are current, with current information. In the event of an emergency, make sure your written expectations are clear and concise, with a list of all previous procedures and names of diagnosis and conditions. During back to school orientation or open house, make sure all information is updated.

I also suggest taking some time over summer break to review IEP laws and special needs rights. You do not have to be an expert, but it is good to have basic knowledge of what your school is required to do. Search for agencies, workshops, online information and trainings in your area to assist in your learning.

Prepare Your Child:

At least 2 weeks before the first day, talk about back to school with your child. Focusing on what to expect in comings weeks can help reduce their anxiety. You can also make a countdown calendar where your child can cross off the days, helping them to better understand when the school year begins. 

Start your new morning routine a couple of weeks before school begins. You can also make a visual schedule, starting with waking up till going on the bus. Even playing school with your child during the day can also help prepare for the real thing! Practicing what's to come can help your child slowly acclimate to new expectations, start times and routine.

Prepare Yourself:

Leave the past in the past. Just as you wouldn’t want your child’s teacher to not make assumptions about your child, do the same for them. Start each year fresh, not matter what your experience was the year before. Accept that teaching styles may change and personalities may be different, but the goal is always to meet your child’s academic needs. Believe your child’s teacher, school and IEP team want nothing but a happy and successful school year! And when you start to feel overwhelmed, remember to breathe. If you are anxious, your child will be anxious. Be sure you always present school and education as a positive. Connect with special needs social groups that offer support and encouragement. Connect with your spouse, family members or other special needs parents to vent your worries or frustrations. 

Prepare Your Home:

After school restraint collapse is a real thing children suffer from. After a long day of meeting goals and expectations, kids need to decompress. This is especially true for children with sensory issues. Create a sensory- safe space in your home for your child to retreat to and feel safe. It can be a tent, corner of the house, or a large cardboard box for example. Items like a weighted blanket and sensory toys can also help calm your child in their safe space.

Request Meetings:

Certain staff and administration are unable to sit down and talk with you without notice. We suggest a couple weeks prior to the first day of school, requesting to meet with your child's principal. Talk with them about their special needs experience. Ask what the expectation for teachers and staff are when working with autistic students. Make clear your expectations in the event your child is injured, having a meltdown, or needing disciplinary action. Ask and be sure you understand the school’s response to these types of situations.

It’s also important to request a meeting with your child’s case manager, especially important when attending a new school. Do not assume because you are in the same district, that your new school will uphold the IEP and/or accommodations the same. Meeting with the new case worker before school begins can help build a relationship and allow them to know you are involved and informed parent. Case workers will appreciate your assertiveness, as they too recognize you are a team.

You also have the right to request an IEP/504 meeting with the entire team prior to the start of a new school year. Together you can review goals, objectives and accommodations, and be certain the entire team is on the same page. This can also ensure all services are in place prior to the first day of school. Will your child be riding the bus? Does the bus meet his needs, such as needing a lift, seat belt or an aide? Will someone be meeting you at student drop off every morning to assist your child into the building, if needed? If an aide is required, have they been assigned and had time to review all needs prior to the first day of school? This is just an example of some of the things to double check with the IEP team. You can also request this meeting to create a behavior plan. Having one in place can save you, your child, and staff, a lot of grief should something happen (even on the first day of school).

Call your districts transportation department and request to meet your child's bus driver. Every school district is different, but it’s worth a try, especially for a child who has never rode a bus or suffers from separation anxiety. If possible, walk around the inside of the bus, practice wearing any seatbelts or safety harnesses, and encourage your child to interact with their driver. Some school districts may even allow a "ride-a-long." Ask to take a picture of the driver and post it somewhere visible in your home. Be sure to reference it often and practice learning their name.

During Open House / Back To School Orientation:

Tour your child's school, especially if it is new. Meet your child's teacher and take his or her photo. Post it somewhere in your house and reference who they are over time. Walk through the classroom and visit areas like the library, bathrooms, nurse’s office, cafeteria, playground and sensory room. While visiting, ask if you can walk through the class schedule, in order. You can take photos of each area and put them in order of the school day, and review at home.

While visiting, take the time to educate staff on the use of your child’s devices and equipment. Create a printout with step by step instructions for navigating your child's device (this is especially important if it is an augmentative device). Make sure your child's teachers and aides knows how to reboot, navigate apps, charge, etc. If your child utilizes motorized medical equipment, such as a motorized chair, be sure staff know what to do, especially with younger children. Any medical equipment, be certain to review with your school nurse as well. This will ease your mind as a parent, as we know sending expensive and needed equipment to school can be very nerve wracking. 

Back To School Shopping:

In addition to school supplies, purchase and pack favorite sensory items. Kid's on the spectrum and those with sensory issues can find great comfort in having their favorite sensory items available. This can also be a form of intervention to help deescalate any behaviors that may arise. While you’re at it, be sure to make back to school shopping a fun eventIf this is something your child would enjoy, make a day of it! Allowing them to be involved in supply shopping or purchasing new clothes can help your child feel involved and familiar to all the new items. Once you’ve made your purchases, be sure to get clothes and shoes ready. I suggest letting your child with sensory issues break in new shoes PRIOR to the first day. You’ll also want to wash all new clothes to remove unfamiliar store scents and to soften the material, and don’t forget to remove all scratchy tags.

When School Begins:

Get involved with your child’s day to day. Make your own notes regarding your child’s progress starting day one. Share and compare your notes with your child’s teacher quarterly. Your input makes a difference in your child’s education! You can also consider signing up as a classroom volunteer or “room parent.” Not only is this greatly appreciated, but it sends the message to your child’s school that you are actively involved in their education. This can also offer piece of mind for a nervous parent working with a new school, or during your child’s first years of formal education. Another thing to consider would be sending thank you notes and encouraging words throughout the year, reminding teachers and staff that they are appreciated. Most special needs parents are immensely grateful for their child’s teacher and school, but sometimes fail in vocalizing that. 

Once school starts, set up a play date with your child's classmates. Not only will this help your child form new friendships but connect you with parents who can provide support and understanding. Some teachers may offer a class directory to help make this easier for families. If not offered, ask your teacher if you can create one for the class! (This is often considered a room parent task as well!)

You can also request a peer buddy for your childA Peer buddy is another student from a mainstream classroom that will visit with your child and assist them in tasks like reading, changing classes, helping at lunch and over all building a positive relationship. These programs are extremely helpful in teaching students about inclusion and lessening the stigma of disabilities. It may even be helpful to see if your child’s peer buddy can be someone from your neighborhood so they can continue their friendship during breaks!

Lastly, once school begins, take the time to create an afternoon routine. You can make a schedule that shows from bus drop off to bed, similar to your morning routine. Some children need freedom after such a structured day, while others need to know whats coming next at all times. 

At-a-Glance Back to School Check List:

Prepare Your Paperwork

  • Organize all your special education documents
  • Ask for copies of all records
  • Make a list of questions
  • Put your child’s needs in writing
  • Make sure all information is updated
  • Review IEP laws and special needs rights

Prepare Your Child

  • Talk about back to school
  • Make a countdown calendar
  • Start your new morning routine
  • Make a visual schedule

Prepare Yourself

  • Start each year fresh
  • Breathe

Prepare Your Home

  • Create a sensory- safe space in your home

Request Meetings

  • Principal
  • Case manager
  • IEP/504 team
  • Create a behavior plan
  • Bus driver

During Open House / Back To School Orientation

  • Tour your child's school
  • Educate staff on the use of your child’s devices and equipment

Back to School Shopping

  • Purchase and pack favorite sensory items
  • Make back to school shopping a fun event
  • Get clothes and shoes ready

When School Begins

  • Get involved
  • Set up a play date with your child's classmates
  • Request a peer buddy for your child
  • Create an afternoon routine
Back to School: A Special Needs Parent's Guide to a Successful Transition

    Visit our Back to School Pinterest board for more planning tips and resources.

    Written by Holly Terei, the founder of The Noah Robert Project, and the author of "Jacob the Flapping Dinosaur Goes to School".
    Feel free to share your back to school experience. Comment below, we'd love to hear form you! 
    Interested in becoming a guest blogger for The Noah Robert Project? Email us your ideas at

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