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4 Back-to-School Advocacy Tips for Parents of Kids With Disabilities

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could send your child back to school in September, trusting they would get the support they need to reach their full potential? Or at least make it through the day. While many parents of diverse learners wish for this, sadly with overstretched education systems, this isn’t the reality.

Every August, I get myself ready for a new school year. A new year of transitions for my child, new routine and new round of advocacy. With a new classroom teacher, and yet more decreases to in-school supports, the beginning of the school year is often fraught with anxiety, emotions and stress — for both me and my child.

Why does a new school year have to be such a battle?

Too often schools have to wait until a child is struggling, melting down or in crisis before they receive the support they need (and deserve). This despite all the diagnoses, letters from healthcare professionals and therapists, and funding designations.

Having a few years of bumpy September transitions under my belt, here are four tips to help you sharpen your advocacy skills for a new school year.

1. Start early.

Don’t wait until school starts to have a meeting to discuss your child’s supports. Most schools are open one to two weeks before classes resume, with principals and teachers getting prepared. Reach out and ask to meet with the principal and, if possible, the new classroom teacher.

Just like we frontload our kids to help them prepare for new situations, it’s important to frontload the school team. Let them know how your child is doing, any challenges they’ve had over the summer, and how best to support the transition in September.

For my child, September is extremely challenging. The change in routine and way too many new transitions often result in meltdowns. When he has an EA to help him navigate all the changes, he finds his footing in a couple of weeks. But without proper support, the meltdowns are frequent and it takes weeks for him to get settled.

2. Help create a roadmap.

In my meeting with the school team, I talk about the transition pieces he struggles with and the impact it has on not only him, but his classmates. While he may be the only one screaming, he’s definitely not the only student struggling.

Often, the transition pieces help others in the classroom adjust.

Some transition pieces I recommend for kids who get overwhelmed quickly are delaying the class entering the school or going first (so they aren’t trying to navigate a busy hallway), not rushing transitions (letting students have some space to get into the new routine) and checking in on students who need extra support to see how they’re doing before they get overwhelmed.

3. Make connections.

Many diverse learners and kids with disabilities spend the summer months getting extra support. This can include tutoring, therapy (ex. speech, OT, physio), counseling, and more.

Sending an email to the principal outlining the summer supports can also help with the transition. If possible, have your summer team write a letter summarizing the work that was done, any challenges or struggles as well as any successes.

Our child receives private speech therapy throughout the summer. Knowing there’s limited in-school therapy, I have our private therapist summarize the sounds that need to be worked on so the EA can hopefully help at school.

It also helps the classroom teacher have a quick summary so she knows what to expect and is aware of any speech challenges.

The key to these letters is to be as concise as possible (bullet points are great). They shouldn’t repeat what’s in the IEP (Individual Education Plan) but rather give a snapshot of current gains and struggles.

4. Be present.

The most important thing to help your child succeed is to be present. This doesn’t mean you have to be at the school every day, but rather you play an active role.

This can include:

  • requesting a meeting with the classroom teacher in mid to late September to check-in on how your child is transitioning
  • picking up your child from school once a week so the teacher sees you and is able to have casual conversation
  • writing a thank you email to the classroom teacher – saying how your child is doing, mentioning anything they are enjoying (start with positive) as well as struggles
  • volunteering in the school for field trips or in-class helper (if allowed with COVID restrictions)
  • talking to your child to see how they’re doing and truly listening to what they’re saying and not saying
  • checking in with therapists, tutors and other people who work with your child to get their impressions

If you have concerns, don’t wait to address them. It’s much easier to make adjustments early on versus waiting until a problem escalates.

While I’d love to put my child on the bus in September and not have to worry, our experience has taught me the importance of advocating early.

By taking the time to frontload the transition, while developing positive and respectful relationships, I’m helping not only my child, but others who struggle with a new school year. And with all the changes in the world around us, our kids all need a little bit of extra support.

Getty image by Marina Bogachyova.

Originally published: August 15, 2021
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