Don’t fall into the history trap.
As I wrote about earlier this week, the fear and anxiety around school is back, now that there is less than two weeks until back to school for Ricochet, my son with ADHD, mild autism, and dysgraphia. His history of school struggles has taught me to worry incessantly about how school will go. Couple that with starting a new school (our public middle school that serves 7th and 8th grade) and I’m in a full-on panic.
However, there are things we can all do to prepare for a new school year when we have a child with ADHD and/or autism, to ensure we, parents and kids alike, start with our best foot forward. Here are the five ways I prepare my son for a new school year.
First and foremost, keep a positive attitude. Fake it if you have to. When you have a 7-year track record of school hell like Ricochet’s, staying positive is a challenge. But I know that I’ve done everything I can to prepare him for this new school year and prepare the school to educate him, and I have to have faith in preparation.
Even if you don’t feel the tiniest bit of positivity about school for your child, fake it. Pretend that you are excited for the new school year. Encourage your child to look at it as a new opportunity to start fresh and succeed. Without confidence that it can go well for them, it likely won’t.
Pen an introduction.
For the last few years, I have had Ricochet write a letter of introduction to his teachers (there’s a sample of this letter in my book, What to Expect When Parenting Kids with ADHD). While I scribe/type for him, the letter is from him and in his own words. The majority of the letter is about his strengths and weaknesses. The last paragraph is where he briefly tells the teacher(s) what he struggles with and where he will need their help. This is an ideal way to let your child’s teachers know that they have special needs and some struggles without dropping the IEP in their face from day one. You don’t want to focus on the negative before the teacher(s) have a chance to get to know your child themselves, through personal interaction.
Meet the teacher.
In our area, all schools have a two-hour drop-in to meet your teachers the day before school starts. This is an absolute must, especially if your child has anxiety, is starting a new school, or has to change classes. Go in every classroom your child will have. Let them roam around the room and check everything out. Have them introduce themselves to the teacher and ask any questions they are wondering (or worrying) about. Don’t rush this process — let your child guide you on how long to stay and what they need to get comfortable.
If your child will be changing classes like mine, walk through the schedule over and over until they feel good about knowing where they are going. Walk to the locker in between classes when they will visit their locker. Note where the restrooms are in relation to their locker and their classes. Also find and visit the special education classroom (if they have an IEP they will have a special education teacher assigned to them to help them) and the guidance counselor. This pre-planning allows them to know how and where to get help during the school day when they need it.
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When working with a child that struggles with planning and organization, it’s important to let them have a say in what materials they need and what system they’ll use. If you tell them how they’ll stay organized and it doesn’t make sense to them, it will fail. Their thought process is key to establishing a planning and organization system for school.
Ricochet uses one large binder for all classes. It has one pocket for papers that need to come home, including homework, one pocket for papers that need to be turned in (including completed homework), and one pocket for everything else. We use a green-tinted clear plastic pocket for the papers that are ready to be turned in, and red for papers he needs to do something with — that stoplight color system makes sense to him. There’s also a planner or some way of tracking assignments and to-dos. I have actually been using a one-page weekly sheet (download our weekly one-page homework chart here) on the outside of a homework envelope so he doesn’t have to deal with a big planner and finding his spot in all those pages every time, which is just too overwhelming. He likes the one-pager better, too.
Make a plan.
Last but not least, discuss your child’s worries and fears about school and make a plan to address each one, should they come up. For example, last school year was the first time Ricochet had a locker. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to work the combination lock. We purchased a combo lock similar to what he would have on his locker at school a month before school started so he could practice opening this type of lock. By the first day of school, he felt sure he could open his locker successfully. Yet, we still made a plan for what he would do if he couldn’t get his locker open — he would ask a teacher or someone in the office for help. We discussed how they wouldn’t be mad at him for being late to his next class and/or not being prepared if they knew he was struggling to get into his locker.
For younger kids, they might worry that they won’t make friends, or the teacher will call on them and they won’t have the right answer, or they won’t understand what to do, etc. Kids worry about a lot of things when they are unknown, especially kids with a track record of struggling, so sit down and list their worries and fears and make a specific plan of how they will handle it if that worry comes true. Think of it like making a fire escape plan — you hope there won’t be a fire, but you want your child to know how to get out of the situation safely if there is a fire.
After that, all you can do is cross your fingers and have faith in the preparations you’ve made. That’s all the control we have for back-to-school.
How do you prepare your child for a new school year? What has worked for you? What would you add to my list?