In our other article, we have gone through how special education teachers are preparing for the new school year. Parents, however, are also struggling with this year's back-to-school, not in small part due to the oddness of the last year and the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on how education was delivered to students. We have prepared some tips on how parents can best support their SEN children with their recent return to school.
How are parents preparing for back to school?
Back-to-school can mean many things in a typical year: new class, new classmates, new teacher and subjects, or maybe even a completely new school. This period is stressful for all children, especially those in transitioning periods between education stages, and it can be doubly so for children with special needs. Children and young people are adaptable, yes, but they still need the support of their parents and carers to tackle these changes to the best of their capabilities, avoiding any mental health problems.
SEN parents have to, in addition to the regular tasks coming up with back-to-school, such as buying new clothes, textbooks and more, manage multiple other potential difficulties. As with what we suggested in our tips for SEN teachers, the first task on the to-do list for any parent is to plan ahead.
- Review and plan ahead
Glance back at your child's IEP (Individual Education Program) and make sure it is up to date and ready for the year. If necessary, consult with any professionals who have helped arrange the IEP. Open communication is key and, if you have any concerns, do not hesitate to contact the appropriate person.
- Communicate with the child's teacher
Teachers play a big role in a child's development and growth. They are as much educators as they are figures a child can look up to for support when apart from you at school. As such, teachers are often privy to how a child acts away from their parents or carers and can provide insight into areas that the child might be keeping secret from you.
Open communication with the teacher and any teaching assistants is also important to set proper tasks and accommodations for your child. As much as teachers know how your child acts when left to their own devices, you are still the one person most knowledgeable on your child's preferences and needs.
- Ask the teacher to go through academic plans for the year with you
If anything needs addressing that the IEP fails to cover or if you have any concerns regarding the academic plan, it is important to let the teacher know. School administrations need to handle hundreds of children at a time and every child, especially SEN, need individual, personalised approaches in their education. It is simply impossible for the system to do all the work in that situation, which is where you come in. If a teacher is unresponsive, chances are they are simply busy, so keep trying to contact them. SEN teachers are open, caring individuals, they will always be willing to lend an ear or a helping hand if you voice any concerns.
Sometimes you need to get into the nitty-gritty to get things done, especially if they are urgent.
How can you help your SEN child return to school?
For children, the start of school means the end of summer holidays, which means the end of having fun, or at least they can perceive it as such. School can feel like an obligation and a stressor in equal measure. If your child has social needs, it can appear daunting for them for the reasons most children would be looking forward to school: seeing their friends. It is important to give the child proper support in this period.
Ways to support your child
- Create a daily routine
Schedules are important to ease a child back into a structured daily rhythm. Start by moving the sleeping time to accommodate the school schedule. Afterwards, you can proceed by putting specific time aside for homework and other activities. Putting time aside for homework is specifically effective as it nurtures good habits in younger children.
For younger children, building a schedule using pictures can help them follow it easier.
- Do different activities
Education happens outside of school as much as it does in the school. Children have to develop mentally and socially as well. While the brunt of their social development will move away from the influence of their home and shift more towards the influence of their peers as they grow older, it is still important that the family provides a solid baseline on which to work on. Reading and writing as well. Encourage your children to read to prepare them for school or to not let their skills grow rusty!
Community libraries can sometimes hold summer reading programs and are a valuable resource with free access to literature. Nowadays, e-books can also be utilised if a child reacts better to technology.
- Communicate with your child
Children have their opinions as much as adults do. They can identify when something bothers them, but might not be willing to speak up about it. It is up to you as a parent to take notice when your child might be having problems and the teacher hasn't noticed or hasn't notified you of it yet. Be open and encouraging, and do not judge your child or they might retreat deeper into their shell.
Reducing back-to-school anxiety
As mentioned before, returning to school can be a big stressor, especially for SEN children. Change is always scary and it is a big one this year due to covid-19. Openly communicating with your child is key to reduce their stress, but there are some other things you can do to further help.
- Modelling behaviour
A child will often mirror their parents' levels of anxiety when trying to work around a new situation. It can happen that the anxiety you are showing is influencing your child with a much greater impact than you might think. It is always important to try and appear confident. Being well-prepared and following the rest of our advice above will surely help with that.
- Managing separation anxiety
Separation anxiety occurs when a child feels unsafe separated from their parents or carers. When going to school, this might cause them problems during class or with friends as they might retreat into themselves or become unable to focus properly. For younger children, you can devise rituals that will signify to them it is time to part ways. For example, it could be three kisses on the forehead or a specific greeting. This will help structure the child's time by signalling it is school time while letting them know they are safe, even if away from you for a while.
If problems persist, do not hesitate to call a carer or a therapist. Psychologists can help alleviate stress through proven practices and behavioural methods, and the school will easily be able to provide assistance in that regard as well.