Back to school is an exciting time filled with the anticipation of starting a new grade, meeting a new teacher and classmates, and reuniting with old friends. These transitions are stressful for parents and students of all ages, however they are typically more difficult for students with disabilities. Back to school (whether a new grade or a new school) means establishing new relationships with teachers, support services, such as shadows and school counsellors, as well as setting up adaptations, IEP’s, and coping with a new class and social setting. Parents can feel overwhelmed by the need to educate everyone on their child’s special needs, teachers often feel unprepared to manage an optimal learning environment for all students with and without disabilities, and students with disabilities can feel unsettled and out of control over many things in their lives. Students may demonstrate this stress emotionally (crying, anxious), behaviorally (acting out, missing school), and somatically (upset stomachs, insomnia).
Students with disabilities can face many obstacles when going to back to school, such as physical inaccessibility, delays in accommodation, negative stereotypes and attitudes, lack of individual plan as well as limited resources both financial and personnel. Physical barriers encountered include a lack of ramps, elevators, and access to classrooms and washrooms as well as accessible housing for students living away from home. It can take time to process and fulfill accommodations for students with disabilities such as processing claims, waiting lists for specialized services, accessing school counselors, and obtaining professional assessments. Unfortunately, students with disabilities still encounter negative stereotypes at school from fellow students as well as educators and personnel. Due to time and funding constraints it can be difficult to provide every student with an Individual Education Plan tailored to his or her specific challenges and strengths. Government ‘coding’ guidelines determine the level of financial and personnel support a child receives at school. There are limitations to these supports and some students with disabilities don’t get the adequate supports they need while in school. These obstacles are the reality for many children, students, parents, and teachers this back to school season.
How you can prepare for Back to School
Prepare in Advance
Help children and students of any age prepare in advance for their return to school. This helps to reduce anxiety, eliminates the ‘unknowns’, and creates a routine that provides a sense of confidence about the expectations for what the new school year will hold.
Attend back to school events with your child to familiarize them with the school or new classroom. When possible show them where their locker is, accessible ramps, elevators, and washrooms, as well as the office where they may receive student services. Older and more autonomous students can attend orientation sessions and familiarize themselves with the office for students with disabilities.
Meet with and build relationships with teachers and school aides before school starts. These are the people who will be working with your child everyday. Develop a rapport and an open line of communication to best facilitate your child’s learning and adjustment to the new school year.
Inform all those working with your child about updates or changes (good and bad) that occurred over the summer. Review last years Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and prepare for a developing one.
Facilitate meeting fellow students before school begins so your child has a buddy or a familiar face for support on the first day. When age–appropriate, encourage your child to go to school with a friend to foster independence and create a buddy system.
School counsellors can be helpful in easing back to school transitions for students with disabilities and their parents. Having time to visit with a school counsellor during the day or between classes can create a break from the stress of returning to school as well as teach new strategies to cope with anxiety and other emotions that may arise.
The Office for Students with Disabilities in most post-secondary schools provides a variety of services ranging from educational plans, counselling services, workshops, and exam support.
Find out about the services available to your child and family in school, in the community, from the government, and from outside professionals as needed in order to provide an optimal support network.
Back to School can be fun for everyone. Students with disabilities face unique challenges and obstacles. With a little preparation however, these obstacles can be reduced and create a smooth return to school for everyone.