186: Ensuring a Smooth Start to the New School Year, with Stephanie Pitts & Rachel Kapp

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Most parents look forward to the start of a new school year. Their kids no longer need to be entertained all day every day and they get a bit of a break. However, if you the parent of a neurodivergent kid who struggles in school, you probably dread the start of a new school year — I know I did. 

In this episode of the Beautifully Complex Podcast, I’m talking with educational therapists, Stephanie Pitts and Rachel Kapp about how to create a plan for a smooth start to the school year. You’ll learn about the 3 systems you need to support, how to simplify, and the communication necessary for your child to have a good school year.


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My Guest


Stephanie Pitts: Game and tech guru, Stephanie Pitts grew up in Los Angeles and attended both public and private schools. Even though she went to USC, Rachel still loves and adores Steph. Steph’s dogs are EVERYTHING and you can follow their adventures at @andytucker_thedoxies on social media.

After teaching elementary school, Steph’s executive functioning skills were commandeered by a family with seven children. For 9 years, Steph made things happen for the kids and the family before moving on to educational therapy. She loves to travel, her dogs, and living by the beach.

You can learn more about Stephanie’s educational therapy practice at www.myedtherapist.com

Rachel Kapp: Rachel grew up in sunny Los Angeles, California. After having a wonderful public school experience in LAUSD–yes, it exists!–Rachel went on to attend UC Berkeley. She studied abroad in Rome, Italy, which allowed her to combine a love of art and travel with nightly gelato. She found educational therapy after teaching preschool for 7 years in Los Angeles and is obsessed with helping struggling learners thrive in school. Rachel loves the path of least resistance and her absolute favorite thing is to get things done quickly (Steph tolerates this passion). When she is not working you’ll find Rachel at spin or baking.

You can learn more about Rachel’s educational therapy practice at www.kappedtherapy.com.



Stephanie Pitts 0:03

We all go into something new with this, I'm going to do this I'm going to be able to get through this year and you know, I have the motivation. Well, it's just like January 1, how many people say they're gonna go to the gym and then like it peters out, right? Like, you have to set something up that's actually going to be able to be attainable.

Penny Williams 0:30

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the beautifully complex Podcast. I'm excited to have Rachel and Stephanie of the Learn Smarter podcast back with us again, we're going to talk about creating a smooth start to the new school year. School is coming up for a lot of families or some have even started in the middle of the summer. And so we're gonna give you some strategies that will really help to make that transition back into school as smooth as possible. Thanks for being here. Ladies. We always have fun chatting together. Do you want to start by introducing yourselves?

Rachel Kapp 1:27

Yeah, sure. Thanks for having us back. I am Rachel Kapp. I am the owner of Kapp educational therapy group where we focus on learners with ADHD and or executive functioning skills challenges. Also, we are educational therapists. And we co host learn smarter, the educational therapy podcast stuff. Hi, everybody.

Stephanie Pitts 1:51

I'm Stephanie Pitts, and I am the owner of my ED therapist located in Redondo Beach, California, or Los Angeles, and everywhere and everywhere. Yep. And we do all the things helping all the kids and adults. And we are very happy to be here sharing with you some of the things that we think will be helpful for the new school year for you guys.

Penny Williams 2:17

Yeah, I immediately thought of you guys for this conversation. And because you are just a wealth of a million strategies, and you've worked with so many different kids with all sorts of differences. So I think this will be a really useful and powerful conversation. Let's start at the beginning, which I think is preparation before school actually starts, right. So where should a parent start with us with really sort of laying a good solid foundation.

Rachel Kapp 2:50

So the one place you really want to start is systems. And everybody we should say is coming into the school year, hopefully rejuvenated after the summer. And what we have found with the learners that we work with, everybody comes in with a lot of energy. And it's about sustaining that motivation over the course of the whole year. So you want to create systems that are simple to create and simple to maintain. Because it's not just about creating systems, it's about maintaining them as well. So there's three main systems that we like to look at. The first is a system for organizing your time. And it is never too early to start teaching your learner about their time, even if they're in that elementary age range where either all the homework is due at the end of the week, or is due the next day, we still want to sort of build those habits and get them really familiar with the calendar. And then we always like to remind families that when you're building out a calendar, a system for managing your time, you also want to be very clear about putting homework on the day that it is do not the day that is the scientists learners get older. And we have bunch of resources, we're happy to share with your audience to on our podcast about all the things that should be on the calendar all the time. And so we're happy to share that with you guys. I will link it up perfect. And then the next system is the system for managing yourself physically. So that's creating a backpack that makes sense.

Oftentimes, learners that we work with love a backpack with a lot of different pockets, a lot of different places to hide things. And what that means is a lot of different places to lose things. So the simplest backpack you can find will be the easiest thing because we want to mitigate the amount of choices that a learner that we work with has. If you have a backpack with five pockets, you've now just created an opportunity for homework to be in each one of those pockets. So simplifying that is essential and we have episodes where we talk we have an episode titled What is your backpack look like that. Hidden gets, that's always a question. And so we talk in that episode in depth about how to simplify that. And the third and final system that is really critical for learners is a system for managing themselves digitally. And what we mean by that is making rules about where things are going to live on their computer. So that for us, a lot of the students that we work with the role is everything in Google Drive, don't bother using a Word document, they won't label it anyway, you won't know what it is. And Google Drive allows our learners to just search key words, and they're able to find the document that they need. And there's only one option of where it is. Oftentimes, learners come to us and their desktops are full of all sorts of interesting things that they don't even know what it is, you can't even see the image in the background, because there's so many documents on there. And so getting all that sort of cleared out, in addition to simplifying how many emails they have to check, so a lot of the learners that we work with have multiple email addresses, at most, all they really require is to usually a school email and a personal and oftentimes our learners will create like burner, spam email addresses. So when they sign up for a, like a discount, or a coupon, they get it to that address. Well, now we've just created another location for them to go and look and check and maintain. And really, we just gotta teach them to unsubscribe, and keep that sort of maintenance going. So those are the three systems that we want to establish. And then those are the three systems that we want to continuously ritualistically check in with and make sure that they are being maintained appropriately. stuff. What would you add?

Stephanie Pitts 6:52

I was just gonna add in there about the physical maintaining of a system, not only the backpack that we want simple, we love one binder. Yep. Kids love all the colors, all the binders, all the things everywhere. And I can't tell you how many times oh, I put that in my math binder. But I only brought home my English binder. Yeah. Great. That's really helpful. When you can't get what you need when you need it. And school is all about can you produce information and physical things when you need them? So one binder, one system, about doing things, I like to do things chronologically. Yep. And Rachel does too. And I don't want all the pockets, doing all the things and then just stuffing.

Rachel Kapp 7:44

So let's go into that chronological because I think being specific about that can really help. And sometimes you have to work with what teachers are requesting to know. And we collaborate with the teachers to make sure their needs are met. But what we mean by that is don't put notes in one section, don't put quizzes and tests in another section. Don't put homework assignments in a third section. Because now you've just created a choice that a learner has to make each and every time they have a piece of paper. So the only choice that we offer our students is chronological, because most of the kids we work with can remember before and after, by looking at papers. So and we actually do want the quizzes and tests matched up with the notes that the quizzes and tests were on. That's how you build a long term study packet as well. And, we're not fans of what are the folder stuff, the accordion, thank you the accordion folder, they're not easy to use, and they're cumbersome to hold. Keep things simple, keep the choices simple. And understand that it's probably not realistic for most of the learners we work with to maintain those systems immediately, and requires the level of support and attendance to and with the ultimate goal being independence and autonomy. But that's going to take time. It's not just about creating those systems. It's about checking in and maintaining with them.

Penny Williams 9:14

Yeah. So what I hear you guys saying is simple, simple, simple. systems and routine structure. And continued support. To boil it down.

Stephanie Pitts 9:26

And not 100 have everything you don't need 100 pencils.

Penny Williams 9:30

Well I don't know my kid might have needed 100 pencils. Every time he took one out. It was gone.

Rachel Kapp 9:36

But yeah, you can have 100 pencils at home, but the backpack only requires two at most.

Penny Williams 9:41

Yeah, that's a daily replenishment for sure.

Rachel Kapp 9:45

Which is you're maintaining your physical system for organizing, right?

Penny Williams 9:51

Pencils are disposable every day. And they have to be sharpened or they won't be used. That would be a great excuse not to do your work.

Rachel Kapp 10:00

Yes. Or you don't have lead?

Penny Williams 10:03

Right, it's empty. And these are the things that we just learn as we grow up with our kids, right? As we go along the process is with them, we have to learn about what each of our own independent kids needs to. And for us, that was one thing, but one binder was absolutely a requirement, always. And I just went to the teachers, and I thought he can't do the notebooks you're asking for, he will not have anything you will be frustrated, this will not work out. So this is what we're going to do instead. And I never had, I can't say never, I think one teacher in 13 years, was not happy about that. But most teachers are totally willing to tailor it if that's what the student needs. So parents just ask ask for what you know your kid be it's and set up all these systems.

Rachel Kapp 10:53

That can be uncomfortable for kids, the teachers requiring it, we often have teachers, the math teacher wants like a specific notebook. So that can often be an exception. But you can get a notebook that can live within the binder still. And so there's ways of sort of having the teacher's needs met. And oftentimes, the teacher's needs is just about the learner. But staff said, being able to produce what they need when they need it on demand. Yeah. And as long as they were able to do that, it usually isn't problematic.

Stephanie Pitts 11:22

And that leads to the other big thing that we want to talk about, which is communication. So it's really important for learners to communicate and learn what their needs are. If you know what their needs are, do they know what their needs are? Can they express it? So having those conversations is great, having meetings with a teacher before school starts is great. Waiting until after the school year starts to then have this meeting. And it's already been a struggle, and you've caught the teacher off guard, and it could have already started in a much more productive, successful way. Then the let's just see how he does sabotage. Yeah, it's really unfair. It is unfair, and it doesn't, you're testing somebody, it's not fair. Exactly. And it doesn't work, right. And the thing also that comes up is like Rachel said, we all go into something new with this, I'm going to do this, I'm going to be able to get through this year. And you know, I have the motivation. Well, it's just like January 1, how many people say they're gonna go to the gym and sign up and then like it teeters out, right? Like, you have to set something up, that's actually going to be able to be attainable. And using a lot of energy right off the bat, you only have so much gas in your gas tank. So yes, the summer you refilled it, but it's going to drain really quickly.

So I think making sure you have that communication between everyone is important. Then sitting down and talking about goals, bowls are really, really important for kids. And they don't necessarily know what goals are. They don't know short term goals, long term goals. You might ask them, what do they want out of the school year? And they'll say, I want A's? Well, okay, that's a big goal. You need some short goals, you need things that are steps in order to get to that end goal. So talking to them about what are the things that they can do to help them get up each step to reach that end goal is important. And this brings up intentionality. When you have a goal, you're intentional about things. And it's really important to have this intentionality so you don't get distracted along the way. You can't do all the things all at once. Yeah. So if you're intentional about picking one thing to create a new habit, remember it takes they say 21 days of repeating things in order to start a new habit. So if you pick one thing to start with, and you're intentional about it, and if that means literally, something as easy as we've talked about this before just writing their name on their homework, because they have a meltdown. Okay, that's what we start with. If that literally means getting out the door with breakfast eaten, then that's the goal, or making sure that they have, we've talked about, if they have a hard time getting out the door that maybe they put on their socks and shoes in the car or things like that, or they eat breakfast in the car, it's just getting whatever works for your family is going to be the goal that you guys set. And when the kids know the expectations and how this is going to look they're more likely to be able to actually meet those expectations.

Rachel Kapp 14:55

I've wanted to add something to what you said stuff because I think I couldn't agree more. But also, I think it can be deeply uncomfortable for parents sometimes to hear like they have this whole page of homework. And the goal is only to write their name to teachers expecting so much more. Which is why we always want to start that relationship off with the classroom teacher on the right font, and help them to understand where your kid is coming in. Because teachers are extremely reasonable when they have all the information. Yeah, and they also don't know what goes on in your house when you're not there. And so disclosing that sharing that and saying, I just want my kid to at least write on the homepage right now, that's all they can handle right now, that's a good first step in terms of getting the assignment. And with the ultimate goal being something we're long term. But just like we were saying that the systems need to be maintained and checked in with, we're big fans of like a family meeting, and checking in on these goals and being very intentional, and everybody knowing what everybody else is working on. So it's not just about the identified patient in your house, the one who's most problematic in quotes, it's about everybody is working on something. And then we can help support everybody work on that thing. But it has to be specific. It's what we all call a SMART goal, right? It has to be specific, measurable, you have to be able to tell if you've done it or not, has to be achievable. And realistic has to be time sensitive. So you know, when the goal is supposed to be met, and then really, you need a reward for a job well done, too. And so that's why we are saying start small because we want this to be achievable for our learners and our families that we all work with.

Penny Williams 16:51

Yeah, I love that you talk about everybody in the family, knowing what everyone's working on. And I think a lot of people cringe when they first hear that idea. But I think that it's very motivating for a kid who's struggling to see that everybody has things they struggle with, and everybody is working on something that they're having a hard time with. And to it's like your own little cheerleading group, right? Like, you can really support each other. And when somebody achieves a goal, you can make a big deal. And you're really noticing that things are happening when you're doing it as a group. So I love that idea. A lot. I think that can be really helpful. And oh, yeah, it could be really a five minute meeting, right? Because so many families are so overwhelmed. And we're telling them to add something else, but really like, and it could be over dinner or breakfast or you know, in the car.

Rachel Kapp 17:46

We'd love a car conversation. There's no escape.

Stephanie Pitts 17:49

Exactly. That's what my mother used to do to me all the time. So the other thing I want to throw out there not to just add to the list, but is if your child is transitioning to a new school, that is just um, you moved, or you're changing schools, or if they're transitioning from a, an elementary school to a middle school or middle school to a high school or high school to college, these transitions are hard, because you have to remember wherever they're coming from is something that they knew and knew well. So in order to prepare for a transition for a school, sometimes they have, well, hopefully you can attend and they have one, but one of those orientation days meet the teacher, yeah, meet the teacher, whatever it looks like. But the big important thing is, especially if they're going into a school where they need to change classes is that they have a map, they know you guys map out where they need to go when. So first you go to this building, then you go to this building, make sure that they have their schedule printed out and right on the front of their binder. That's something that they'll eventually memorize. And no, but depending on the school and how complicated it is, there's different varieties of how the changing schedule, the block schedule goes, and all of that. So having them be able to reference where they need to go and where they need to be when is really important. So if you practice it just like a fire drill, right, like you practice, and if that means you go to the campus and the lens, you practice and walk to each one look in the window, and this is where I need to be, this is where I'm gonna go, this is where my classes, they can visualize it. And then they can have a better sense of where they need to be when and it'll take away some of the anxiety.

Penny Williams 19:32

Yeah, we did that every year. And we took advantage of that meet the teacher period where people were in the building, and we would even work in visiting the locker smart. So we would go Okay, you go to this one, then let's go find your locker and then from your locker, you have to go to the sweat and eventually, he decided not to use a locker and that was not something that worked for him, but it really helped so much to reduce the anxiety of the unknown. Absolutely. And we would walk it as many times as he would allow, which was not as many as I wanted. But you know, we at least do it twice. Like we always have to do it twice, just so he knew the other thing we did too, in that same time period was find his person, which is usually his special ed teacher, and have a conversation. This is where their classroom is. And, Mr. So and so when Luke is feeling out of sorts, he's going to come and find you. And you're good with that, right? Yes, Luke, you should come and find me, very concrete plan. And it helps so much with like getting in the building the first few days and being somewhat saddled with that.

Rachel Kapp 20:42

I love that. How long did you do that for Penny?

Penny Williams 20:45

His last two years of school were COVID. And he wasn't in person. Before that, we did it every year. It's great every year from Middle School on, and then of course, the younger years, we just went to the classroom that he had to go to we would go like, see where Pe was and see where music was. But he didn't have to get himself there on his own. Right. So it was different. But yeah, as soon as he had to manage being in places on his own, and more than one we were walking that schedule.

Rachel Kapp 21:15

Which is why we advocate for one binder, because then you don't have to add in what do I need? Once I get there? Yeah, you just have to focus on getting there.

Stephanie Pitts 21:25

And remembering kids with ADHD are often timelines. So they don't know how long it actually takes or how long it will take to go to that locker and switch out the books or how long it actually takes to walk there, or how long it's been since they walked outside the classroom. And they were chatting with their friends, but they only have four minutes to get to the next class. So these sorts of things, helping them be intentional and know what they need to do. It's not a perfect system, but it's a start.

Penny Williams 21:51

Yeah, it's really helpful. And that was part of the reason that he stopped using his locker really quickly was that he felt like it would take too long and he would be late because he doesn't have a good sense of time. And the other was people crowding around, it was a total sensory nightmare for him to and I can totally see that. And so often now, every class doesn't have a separate book, like when I was in high school, you had a giant, thick textbook for every class, of course, you had to use your locker. But a lot of that is not happening now. And it's easier for them to do that. But even like, we would always ask for an end, top locker. So end of the row on the toss, they always accommodated him with that. So if he wanted to use it, he would have one he was comfortable with, so just getting to know like I said before getting to know your kid, figuring out why, at first he had a locker, he wasn't using it right? And I was like what is happening? We had to figure out why. But once we figured out why then we could help him create a plan that would work a system with what was in his backpack and so forth. That would work for him where he didn't have to use the locker. So there's a lot of, learning as parent too.

Rachel Kapp 23:02

It is a very interesting conversation. I don't think it's a conversation Stephen I've ever had either, which is about the locker and I'm just thinking back to my own academic experience. That was the thing that would stress me out at the start of every school year was getting a new locker wasn't gonna be close to my classes wasn't gonna work. All those sorts of things were very stressful. Yeah. And I love the fact that he was just like, not for me. Yeah. Now he can do that. Because you're not having those big cumbersome books.

Penny Williams 23:33

Yeah. And we would practice the combination to like, he would get lockers the first few years, we would go to we would stand there, he would keep opening it opening, opening it until he was comfortable. If we could get our own locks. That was always great. Because we could have it all summer. And he could Yeah, that's what I had. Well, you would that in practice it. But most of the time, they were built in built in. It's just different in different places. But thinking about I mean, I guess as a parent with anxiety, I know all the anxieties of like, I know everything I was freaking out about on the first day. And so I always thought about that for my own kids, but kids give you signals. Like you will see if your child is coming home with every single thing they have in their backpack every day. It's probably an issue with their locker, discomfort. It's not opening something they don't think they have time. Right? So just asking those questions, I think is really important, but trying to get that comfort level. You know, I know that anxiety causes the what ifs right and then I have to worry about well, what if this happens if I make a plan for all of those what ifs ahead of time.

I don't have to worry about what if that happens right now I have a plan for what if that happens, and that's what I tried to do at the beginning of the school year for him was let's make a plan for anything you think will go wrong. Anything I think might be uncomfortable or come up and That's what we did. And that helped. I was not as good about systems and stuff as you guys used to describe, I have to admit, it was super hard. Like this kid just shoved everything in the backpack or it was on the floor somewhere. And that was it like, and we would do daily afternoon meetings where we would sit down with the backpack, we find what we needed, we would try to get it in there. But he literally had one binder, I put three sharpened pencils in it every day. He had I think two or three clear folders and and they were color coded like Green was for what he needed to take a turn and it was ready to go. And read was like, what we needed to do something with right. And then he had an overflow for it. Yeah, let's figure it out. Yet another folder. Sometimes he used it sometimes again, that time blindness really hurt him because he would think at the end before the bell rang, he didn't have enough time to put it where it went, right. And he just had to get it done quick. And so it was really kind of things that we just kept working and working and trying to figure out having technology and having an iPad and doing all of his worksheets and stuff on an iPad really helped. Yeah, because we could organize that a lot easier wouldn't have to deal with paper. But yeah, just really getting to know your kid.

Rachel Kapp 26:17

Prepping and then reacting appropriately.

Penny Williams 26:21

And keeping it simple.

Stephanie Pitts 26:22

Keeping it simple. And I'm just going to throw this out there again, don't do all the things all at once.

Penny Williams 26:28

Yes, yes. And I you know, I'll share another story real quick before we close, when my son was in sixth grade and sixth grade when he was six in first grade, his first grade teacher recognized that something was going on, but we hadn't pinpointed it yet. And she stopped using the classroom behavior chart, where you turn your card over when you get in trouble. And she did two goals specific to him. And she made a chart that went on his desk and a little clear, sticky thing that was taped on his desk. And it had each section of the schedule. And he got a sticker if he met that goal during that small window of time, right. And there was nothing if he didn't know x, no negative, no even noticing it was just blank. And he got his own reward system. At the end of each day. If he had a certain number of stickers, he immediately got a reward except instead of the end of the week, right. And what happened was, he started feeling more confident, right, because he wasn't being shamed and having his card on read every day. He was meeting these goals.

He was learning skills. And he was meeting the goals and the goals were being changed out for new goals, which would not have happened without that system and that structure, right? And so he went through like six goals. He grew a ton in skills and stuff, but she also accommodated what he just couldn't do yet like that his desk and have all his things on or in his desk. It was all over. So he had a taped square on the carpet. As long as everything was in his square. He was okay. It was good. He was meeting his goals. Right? So adjusting those expectations. But yeah, love that the goal thing was so much better than like this behavior thing, which is so in tangible for kids anyway. But yeah, we can do the same as families, we can say, okay, let's have the same goal as the teacher, let's work on this one goal. And we're trying to support that at home too, and reward that at home too. And, that kind of stuff really works. It does. But again, that's going to your point, one thing at a time, like we would never even use old artwork on more than two bowls at a time. Yeah, it just wasn't doable. It diluted the efforts too much. So it was really powerful. And I'm so glad I learned that from her really early. You know, when he was super young.

Stephanie Pitts 28:57

What a wonderful teacher.

Penny Williams 28:58

She's amazing. I called her Miss marvelous and my book and we still have contact with her Actually, she's super awesome. But yeah, so those teachers can really teach us as parents a lot of things as well. And I would love to see some of the parents listening to ask for that kind of thing. Instead of that behavior modification that just doesn't work for neurodivergent kids anyway. And for the kids it does work for most of the time. It's just fear. You know, they're scared to step out of line. Yeah, we have another episode on that where Sarah and I ranted for a long time already. We are out of time today, unfortunately. But I think you guys have given everybody a really great starting point a lot to think about and work on conversations to have with our kids and their teachers and ways to really sort of tailor that school experience right so that they can succeed. It is doable. Thank you. Thank you as always being Spenny if you will go to the show notes, those who are listening will have linked up the stuff that Stephen Rachel had recommended to you and some of their past episodes, as well as links to their websites and their podcasts and all kinds of ways to connect and learn more from them. So I really encourage you to do that. The show notes are at parentingADHDandautism.com/186 for episode 186. In checkout Stephanie and Rachel on the school's struggles Summit, coming up September 15, through 15th, where they're talking about working with frustrated students and learners. I know that you'll learn a lot from them and the other guests as well. And I'm sure we'll have Stephanie and Rachel back in the future again. Yeah, can't wait would love it. And yill then, take care guys to you. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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