Gearing up for a new school year can be challenging for students. After a few months of sleeping in, leisure activities, maybe even extra time with mom or dad, few kids are eager to wake up bright and early and spend the day in a classroom.
But this transition from summer to school can be particularly difficult for students with learning disabilities (LD). “Transitions can be exciting and also stressful,” says Sheldon Horowitz, Ph.D., Director of Professional Services for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
According to Horowitz, parents can help children with LD manage their expectations and feelings about transitions. “You can set up opportunities for sharing, for talking about the positive and negative feelings that go along with any transition,” Horowitz says. Part of this sharing, he says, has to do with parents articulating their own feelings about the transition and their expectations for the new routine.
Establishing and practicing a routine before school begins can be especially beneficial for students with LD. “Routines tend to fall apart during the summer,” Horowitz says. “I’m not suggesting that 3 weeks before the end of summer there’s a lockdown and everyone starts to go to bed early, but families can begin discussing how they will get ready for school.”
Joanne Meier, Ph.D., Research Director for LD Online, says parents can establish routines for homework and anything school related, but it’s also beneficial to establish and review routines in the home. “It’s important to have these routines in place so the children can successfully get themselves ready for school in the morning,” Meier says. “You might even post a three-item checklist by the front door, or post-its in that bathroom that remind them of what needs to be done—brush teeth, wash face, brush hair.” Meier explains that the simplicity or complexity of these notes and reminders will vary from child to child, depending on age and other factors.
Horowitz has seen the checklist method used successfully with 1st and 2nd graders and also with 10th graders. School schedules can become extremely complicated as students get older, and students need to bring different materials, shoes, books, etc., on different days. “You may have to work on a calendar together and post it in the kitchen,” he says. This can be helpful for both the child and the parent!
These last few weeks before school begins are a perfect time to prepare yourself and your child for the new school year. Here are a few more tips from the experts:
Make contact with your child’s teacher(s).
Marcelle White, Associate Director of Online Communications for NCLD, says it’s important to connect with your child’s teacher before school begins. You should let the teacher know about your child’s disability, but you should also share positive anecdotes about your child. “You don’t want the teacher to think of the child as only a LD child,” White says.
Meier agrees. “Parents who have kids with LD have already learned the importance and value of being an advocate for their child,” she says. “But with every new school year and new teacher, parents have a new opportunity to hone their advocacy skills.”
Stay on top of your child’s paperwork.
Make sure the paperwork follows your child to the new school or new teacher. “Part of the initial communication with the teacher is just a reiteration of the child’s experiences and needs,” Meier says. For instance, if your child spent 45 minutes each day with a resource teacher, you should make sure the teacher is aware of this.
Bonnie Terry, an educational therapist based out of California, says that even if the paperwork did follow your child, the teacher might not have had time to read the Individualized Education Program (IEP). You should feel comfortable, Terry says, sharing this information with the teacher during that initial visit. “The home teacher does not necessarily know what kinds of accommodations they should be making for your child in the classroom,” Terry says.
Establish a relationship with the school’s support team.
It’s always a good idea to touch base with everyone on your child’s team. Depending on the age of your child and her specific needs, you may want to reach out to the school guidance counselor, the speech pathologist, or the special education teacher.
Terry says that the responsibility of arranging a meeting with the support team is most often left to the parents. If you want to ensure that everyone on the team is aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses, give the school a call and set up a meeting.
Visit the school with your child.
Meier suggests that your preliminary school visit include extra attention to details. Help your child find her locker, for example, but also write the locker combination somewhere that isn’t very obvious. “This can help so it doesn’t look like your child is taking out a piece of paper,” Meier says. Or, help your child remember the name of her new teacher(s) with a mnemonic device.
Visit the classrooms, review the class schedule together, and go over what your child will need for each class. You can even practice walking the class routine for each day—particularly if the school has block scheduling.
Create an appropriate space for homework.
This is particularly important for the child with LD. “Think through the physical space and what we know to be the routine around homework,” Horowitz says. “A fair number of children with LD have difficulty with organization,” and the space and supplies for homework can make all the difference. It might even be something as simple as giving your child a pencil sharpener or his own colored pencils, Horowitz says.
Terry suggests color coding children’s folders and supplies for each subject. A red folder for math, blue for science, etc. Take your child shopping with you and let him pick out his own supplies. Likewise, involve him in planning the physical space for homework. Maybe he thinks it should be in the kitchen because he’ll need your help. If so, Terry suggests you keep a basket of school supplies handy in the kitchen.
Take time to talk with your child.
“The weeks leading up to school is a great time to have conversations with your child about their strengths,” Meier says. Then you can move the conversation to the areas that are known to be difficult for your child. “How did we manage that last year? What did we do that really helped?” It’s important to frame the conversation in terms of solutions and strategies that seemed to work, Meier says.
Many kids with LD struggle at some point with low self-esteem. Meier suggests that the best antidote for those types of feelings is to alter the situation so the child can feel success. Through open dialogue you can help your child recognize his strengths and the ways in which he has been successful. A series of conversations before school begins can be particularly beneficial.
Help your child by helping yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, help yourself first. Put the oxygen mask on your face before your child’s. Become informed, connected, and empowered. Horowitz suggests you contact the local PTA and find out about the PTA group for children with LD. Or, look to the national associations for support. White suggests the LD Association and the International Dyslexia Association. Both of these associations’ Web sites have listings of state chapters and other state and national resources. White, who serves as project manager for LD.org, says their online Resource Locator will be up and running in early September. This particular resource can lead you to state departments of education, recreation programs for students with special needs, and many other types of programs and services (more than 2000 entries in all).