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Tips for Helping Special Needs Kids Change Schools

How to ease anxiety-provoking transitions

Beth Arky

With the new school year on the horizon, most parents are busy stocking up on fall clothes and folders. But those of you with special-needs children have more than shopping on your mind. Kids and teens with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, or anxiety issues are already going to need more of your support than typically developing kids as they say goodbye to summer and prepare for the return to school. But if your child is transitioning to a less (or more) restrictive setting, that need will be even greater.

When you create your child’s annual individualized educational program (IEP) with your team of educators, the goal should always be to provide whatever support she needs to learn and grow in the least-restrictive setting. For instance, you and your team may have determined that she is ready to move from a small, self-contained class of special-needs children with a very low student-to-teacher ratio to a less restrictive setting. This could mean a bigger class where the majority of the students are typically developing, with fewer adults in the room. This new setting will require your child to be more independent, organized and self-regulating. Conversely, you may have agreed that she would benefit from a smaller, more restrictive setting, possibly with additional therapies.

“Change is inevitable and ought to be the goal,” says Kim Wombles, who has three children on the autism spectrum. “Change should signal progress.” Wombles has had to transition her oldest back and forth between less- and more-restrictive settings. “If the more restrictive environment is the right place, it’s easier,” she says. Still, “it’s all scary, no matter what direction it’s going.”

But with planning and proactivity, you can do much to alleviate your child’s stress, not to mention your own. Bear in mind that these tips should be tailored according to your child’s age, challenges and developmental level:

Communication is key

Let your child know she’s not doing this alone. Reassure her that change makes a lot of people nervous, even you, but a new school or setting can also mean fun and new friends. Get others—family members, friends, therapists and sitters—to also talk about the excitement and anxiety around trying new things. “The more information you can give a child,” Wombles says, “the more in control he or she will feel of the situation. Letting them get comfortable and helping them to imagine variations, and what to do if something doesn’t go as planned, is important.”

Accentuate the positive

You don’t have go overboard with statements like “You’re going to love your new school!” but you can help your child focus on the good things about the change while acknowledging that she’s going to miss her old friends. (If appropriate, assure her that you’ll make play dates with them.) Let her know how proud you are of her and ways this new setting is going to help her with her strengths—and weaknesses.

Obviously, this is easier to do when you welcome the change. Perhaps you’re angry and bitter because the old school has told you your child can’t stay, which can lead to a more-restrictive placement; you may see it as a setback. But if you have any negative feelings, keep them to yourself; it’s unfair to burden your child with your baggage.

Children with special needs are already at risk for low self-esteem, so frame any move in the best possible light. And keep in mind that a child may transition several times until she’s settled in the most appropriate setting.

Familiarize your child with her new surroundings

Your child may have already sat in on a class at her new school for one or more days as part of the application process. One dad, Phil, says the half-day visit required by the school before admitting son Peter helped him transition easily from a mainstream class to a more restrictive setting of 12 students, one teacher, and one assistant teacher. Peter “sat in on the class that he was eventually placed in so he got to meet the teacher and some of those students were in his class the following fall,” she says.

Whether your child had that opportunity or not, it’s something to keep in mind for the future. And there are other ways to help your child become comfortable. Ask if you can wander the halls, allowing her to peek in on rooms and possibly meet teachers and other professionals. See if you can take videos or pictures she can look at later. Short of getting inside the building, walk around the grounds, travel the likely bus route, and, if the school has a web site, invite her to check it out with you.

Joslyn Gray, who has blogged as Stark.Raving.Mad.Mommy, believes that her “Little Dude,” a 5-year-old with Asperger’s, is ready to transition to a full-day mainstream kindergarten “with lots of supports.” She’s excited about the change, but wary of leaving the “cocoon” of specialized classrooms where there’s “less chance of bullying, less chance that another child is going to be completely freaked out by something Little Dude does, less chance that someone is going to laugh at him, or make him feel badly, or inadvertently terrify him.” To ease the transition, they’re visiting the new building once a week until school starts “to help him feel more familiar with the layout, the office staff, etc. We’ve also been playing on that playground almost exclusively, so that he’ll feel like it’s ‘his’ playground.”

Use social stories and schedules

If you have a child on the autism spectrum, you may already know about Social Stories™, created by Carol Gray. But kids with other diagnoses may also find them both comforting and empowering. In a social story, which can be kept short and simple, your child is the main character, using narration, photos and drawings to prepare her for any situation, i.e. a vacation, a first trip to the dentist, even using a public bathroom. A story about starting at a new school or class might include things she might be nervous about, the fact that the other kids will also be nervous, the names of her teachers, ways to make a friend, and reminders about things she liked about the school, i.e. the computers, the library books, etc. If you can get those video recordings during a visit, you can incorporate these as well.

Using schedules can also be a real help, making expected tasks concrete and breaking down the days and weeks into manageable chunks. Find out as much as possible about your child’s school day beforehand so those details can be incorporated. “Once an event is scheduled,” Wombles says, “we start planning for it without it being the overwhelming focus. It goes on the calendar, we discuss it intermittently, and if it requires preparation, we figure out how far in advance we need to start preparing.”

Arrange play dates before school starts

Typically developing kids who attend the local school will already have friends, or at least recognize familiar faces when they walk into their new classrooms. But many special-needs kids and teens have to travel to schools outside their neighborhoods, so they don’t have that advantage. You can alleviate stress by arranging get-togethers with other kids who will be or already are attending your child’s new school; check out social networking sites to find like-minded parents. You might lay the groundwork for new friendships for both your child and yourself. These parents will “get” your kid and won’t judge you—plus you’ll add to your informational network.

Related: Kids Who Need a Little Help To Make Friends

Read engaging get-ready-for-school books

Gray says most of the other things she’s doing to help Little Dude are the same steps parents take for their typically developing kids. Along with having his older sisters tell stories about the fun they had in kindergarten and how many friends they made there, “We’re reading Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten; it’s upbeat and doesn’t feature kids and parents crying like lots of books about kindergarten.” Other titles include Yoko and My Kindergarten, both by Rosemary Wells (Max & Ruby), and I Am Too Absolutely Small for Kindergarten by Lauren Childs.

Younger middle grade kids may enjoy Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins, about a boy who has to deal with a bully and a best friend moving away. For older middle graders, check out The Detention Club by David Yoo, in which two best friends struggle with the transition from elementary to middle school.

Brief teachers and therapists about your child

It takes time for new professionals to get to know your child and begin figuring out her strengths and weaknesses. Dan Coulter, who has produced videos about life with Asperger’s, says that you can speed this process along by providing them with a short, easy-to-digest briefing document. Coulter, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult only after his son’s diagnosis, suggests keeping it to one page, increasing the chances that busy teachers will read it. “What are the most important things you want your child’s teacher to know?” he asks. “Consider putting key points in a summary at the top of the document.” If possible, try to meet with your child’s new teacher(s) as early as possible; the briefing document will help focus the conversation.

Of course, none of this prep work guarantees that your child won’t dig in his or her heels at least some of the time. “Some days he’s excited for kindergarten, and some days he says he’s not going,” Gray says of Little Dude. “That, at least, seems completely typical.”