15 Questions Every Parent of Kids With Disabilities Should Ask Before School Begins
This new school year, my daughter, who has cerebral palsy, will be moving up to middle school. This is the first time she will be using her wheelchair full-time while at school. The building is large, and she has to go from class to class on her own. To say she feels overwhelmed is an understatement. She also worries about bullying, as she has already experienced it in grade school and fears middle school will be worse.
We are constantly talking about what needs to happen for her to feel safe and give her confidence as the school year begins. We have come up with a plan — one that also applies to my youngest, who is still in grade school and has Down syndrome.
There are several things that can help my kids feel better about the transition to the new school year, but these things make me feel better, too.
So here are 15 questions to ask before school begins to help your kids (and your child’s team) begin the year right:
1. When can my child and I visit the school and the teachers before school begins?
This is something we have done since preschool. We schedule a visit with the school ahead of time to have a tour and meet all the teachers. This allows my kids the time to look around without being overwhelmed by large crowds. This is the visit where we also make sure sitting for my daughter with cerebral palsy is adequate in the classroom, as she has needed modifications to her desk throughout grade school. This way, when school begins, things are already set up for her. Visiting ahead of time also gives us an opportunity to meet their teachers on a more relaxed and one-on-one time and gives me an opportunity to share with them without feeling the pressure of other parents or children waiting in line at an open-house.
Tip: I like to bring iced coffee or a candy bar as a thank you to the teachers who make time for us to visit ahead of time.
2. What will my child’s day look like? What will their schedule be?
It helps my kids to talk through school schedules before school begins. This is especially helpful for my daughter with Down syndrome who has therapies at school as well as a special education teacher who works with her on academic skills. It helps her to know what to expect throughout her day, and talking things through is how she processes things.
As we enter middle school, having the schedule ahead of time will be especially helpful for my daughter with cerebral palsy. We plan to practice getting around the building following her schedule to make sure she knows where every classroom is, how to get there and to get an idea of how long it will take her to go from classroom to classroom. This is especially important to do before school begins and hallways are crowded.
3. Who will be providing supports for my child and when?
I have had several instances when my kids mention the name of a teacher or paraprofessional only for me to have no idea who they are talking about and what that particular person’s role is throughout their day. This doesn’t sit well with me, especially when I have no idea who the people are who spend time with my kids. I like to begin the school year knowing who will be providing supports and when. If the school doesn’t know yet, then I see that as a problem, as the school is responsible to have a plan and follow the IEP.
4. Have all my child’s teachers received a copy of the IEP?
This is especially important for kids in middle school and high school who have multiple teachers. It is amazing how many teachers do not receive copes of IEPs and have no idea their student needs supports or modifications. It is also concerning that some teachers have copies of the IEP but do not read it ahead of time to be prepared.
Tip: When you visit teachers ahead of time, bring a copy of the IEP for each teacher highlighting the important sections that apply to that particular class. Or, write your own “cheat sheet” version of the IEP and go through it with the teacher. Don’t just hand it out. Invite the teacher to ask questions, too.
5. What are the teachers’ expectations for my child?
I have found teacher expectations for my daughter with Down syndrome tend to be low. I have been the one asking to please send in homework for her and insist she should be working on school projects like other kids. For my daughter with cerebral palsy, I’ve had to ask homework be modified for her and explained why (thankfully some issues we have encountered are now in her IEP). When you meet with teachers, go through expectations. Some teachers have low expectations, and some may have unrealistic expectations you know will frustrate your child. Take this as an opportunity where only you, the teacher and your child can talk about this together.
Tip: Discuss academic, behavioral, social and physical expectations.
6. Are you aware of my child’s behaviors and triggers?
Some kids with disabilities may display behaviors due to being overwhelmed or not feeling regulated. Discuss this with all their teachers ahead of time. You will be helping not only the teachers but your child as well.
7. Do you know how to help my child when he is triggered or overwhelmed?
Take this as an opportunity to offer suggestions to the teachers. As the parent, you know best how to help. But invite your child, if they are able, to be the ones to offer suggestions.
8. What is the best way to contact you regarding my child and receive a timely response?
This is really important. Some teachers check their email constantly, some only once a day. Some might even be open to text messages. Make sure you know ahead of time what each teacher prefers and what is most likely to get a prompt response. Also, discuss with them what you consider to be a prompt response — and be reasonable. If you send an email on Friday evening, the teacher may not check their work email again till Monday morning. But if you send an email on Monday, it is reasonable to expect a response by Tuesday.
9. What is the plan if my child needs a break?
Pushing a child past a certain point can result in a meltdown when a break could have been sufficient to help them get regulated. When my daughter with Down syndrome was in kindergarten, her vocabulary was limited, her teacher made her a card that said, “I need a break.” Whenever she felt she needed a break, she would raise her card for the teacher to see. An aide would then take her to a separate room to get regulated. My kids are older, but occasionally they need a break. It is important to discuss with all teachers what they prefer our kid say or do when they need that break. Again, expectations.
10. Where can my child go if he/she feels overwhelmed or has a meltdown?
When kids are unable to get regulated, it is no surprise it results in being overwhelmed or having a meltdown. For some kids, it is important to know there is a place in the building they can go to if they are extremely overwhelmed or have a meltdown. Some schools have sensory rooms. Some teachers have pop-up tents in their classrooms. Kids need to know there is a safe pace in the school when their emotions feel out of control. What is that place?
11. Who are “safe people” my child can look for if they need help?
Who are the people your child can talk to if they begin to feel overwhelmed? Who does your child talk to if they are being bullied? Who are the safe people they know they can talk to outside of their teachers? Ask your child as well — they may have a preference. If they do, let teachers know who your child has designed as their “safe people.”
12. Who will my child be having lunch with?
It may seem like a silly question, but for some of our kids, this is important. You are basically asking, what is the lunch plan? Yes, most kids have lunch with their friends, but things like friendships can be a little different for our children with disabilities, especially for those who are nonverbal. Some kids have lunch with their special education class. Some kids end up eating lunch alone and being isolated. Some kids get bullied during lunch. Don’t be afraid to request someone keep an eye for your child during lunch, especially as school begins and your child establishes a routine.
13. Who do I contact if I have academic concerns?
Our kids tend to have more teachers involved than “typical” kids. So if you have a question about reading progress, do you contact thhomeroomom teacher, the special education teacher or the reading specialist? Knowing who to contact for academic concerns will make the process go better.
14. Who do I contact if I have concerns about my child’s social and emotional interactions at school?
For some of us who parent kids with disabilities, this is one of our worries. Typically, teachers only see what happens inside their classroom (and some things may go unnoticed). Knowing who the person is who can help your child if the need arises is crucial.
15. What will you do to prevent and tackle bullying?
Here is the thing, I have had different ideas on what to do when my child was bullied. It is not that the school did not handle things appropriately, I just would have handled things differently. It goes back to expectations, and I have two kids who are more vulnerable to be bullied. Knowing ahead of time what the school will do to prevent bullying or what they will do if it happens will get everyone on the same page.
Tip: Ask if you can send a letter to your child’s classmates “introducing” them and their disability. I have done this for my daughter who has Down syndrome, and several parents later told me they read the letter with their child and they learned about Down syndrome. I have also gone to their classes to talk about their disabilities, respectively. Bullying is often a result of ignorance. When kids know better, hopefully they act better.
Getty image by RomoloTavani