Preparing special needs children to return to school amid new challenges

special needs child

September looms, and is associated with hope and anxiety for all families of special needs children. While it can be exciting to think about the learning and social opportunities a new school year will bring, it is also a time to prepare young learners for any anticipated challenges.

These can range from issues about unfamiliar environments, new teachers and new peers.

It can also involve concerns about keeping children safe from illness and all the challenges that go along with that, especially since COVID. Special needs children can be challenged by the need for social distancing, frequent handwashing, and mask-wearing. These concerns persist as new variants emerge, along with the new concern about Monkey Pox.

COVID precautions

The more frequently parents practice physical distancing, wearing masks, and frequent hand-washing during the course of their everyday life, the more special needs children will be accustomed to them, without fear and trepidation. Try the best you can to do these things at home and while running errands, giving them as much practice as possible.

Try to make new things fun

Kristin Coffey, child life specialist with the Autism Spectrum Center, has suggested letting kids pick the color or pattern for their masks, as some may be motivated by having preferred patterns or characters. “Whether they choose a print or a cartoon theme, picking out their mask can give kids a sense of ownership when there are so few things they can control,” she said.

Be positive

Given all of the restrictions necessary to prevent COVID, it’s easy to focus on things that will be off limits at school. Rather than concentrating on all the things kids can no longer do, try to suggest positive, alternative actions they can employ. Instead of hugging and close physical contact, they can air hug or fist-bump.

Do your best to remove apprehension

Routines help kids (and adults), especially those with special needs. But, when schedules are disrupted, anxiety may set in. Dr. Nicole Baumer, director of the Down Syndrome Program and physician in the Autism Spectrum Center, has suggested color-coding the family calendar. Use the child’s favorite colors to note days at home, days at school and days with special events. She says these visual cues can help normalize them in a child’s mind. Parents know their children best; think of ways your child might be motivated.

Communicate with school officials

It’s important for educators to know how their students’ needs have changed. Parents should never shy away from having conferences with teachers and administrators, even if it’s just an email “heads-up” to let them know of a child’s new struggle or challenge. These communiques will make it easier for educators to do their job.

Keep routines at home standard

No matter how well you prepare your kids for change, some struggles are likely. Maintaining consistent routines at home will help your child by creating “safe space” where surprises are rare and comfort is reliable. This goes for homework time, TV/game time, reading, dinner, snacks, etc. You can also standardize treats like a night to stay up late on the weekend, or popcorn on a certain night of the week. Preparing for these challenges serves several functions, as families can anticipate challenges, plan for support and practice relevant skills. It will never be perfect, but we can make smooth transitions, ease discomfort, and make things better for children.

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By Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D.