West Lafayette, Indiana - August is here and Dawn Baxter already has been preparing her children for the transition from summer freedom to a school-year learning attitude.
The West Lafayette mom of four with three teenage autistic children in school is facing new challenges at school this year with two of the children having a new teacher, a new classroom and maybe some new classmates.
“The change is going to be difficult to deal with,” she said. “I’ve been listening to them dream of how same it will be, but I’m trying to encourage them to keep an open mind to something new. It’s hard because I don’t even know what to expect.”
Parents working to prepare a child with learning disabilities for the start of a new school year have several options to make the transition easier.
Baxter says she usually starts a week before school with reading time as well as quizzes with spelling and other subjects.
“Often I get eye rolls,” she said. “That’s gotten worse over the years, but I’ve found that refreshing has to take place to get those summer ‘cobwebs’ or ‘sand’ out of the works.”
Mandy Rispoli, associate professor of special education in Purdue’s College of Education, said taking action now can make sure children with autism, learning disabilities or developmental issues start the year on the right foot.
“The transition back to school can be difficult for all of us, but may be particularly difficult for children with learning disabilities,” said Rispoli, co-director of the Purdue Autism Research Center. “Changes in routine and the increased workload placed on students with disabilities as they return to school can be challenging for students and families.”
During summer break, children with disabilities may lose some skills they learned the previous academic year. This can make the start of the new school year more challenging as they work to recoup last year’s knowledge and skills while also trying to learn new content.
One of the most important aspects is preparing the child for changes in their daily pattern before school, including the sleep schedule, and after school. Predictability is the key
“Increasing predictability and structure of before and after school routines can help to reduce problem behavior, and to improve organization and task completion,” Rispoli said. “These skills are critical for success in school and beyond.”
Rehearsing the expected morning pattern with the child will develop their independence in moving through the activities. A checklist, either with words or pictures, provides reminders and parents should make sure to acknowledge the child once the list is complete.
Rispoli said checklists for before and after school can be made of pictures – for children who don’t yet read – text or even digital apps. Parent acknowledgement of completed checklists can take the form of praise, access to preferred activities like screen time or, for older children, a completed checklist can earn them points that can be later exchanged for special privileges or activities.
As the school year begins, children may get less sleep at night as they are awakened earlier for school. Lack of sleep can impact the child’s alertness, mood, and ability to listen to and follow directions.
The practice of rehearsing patterns and structure can help the child with their after-school routine. A pattern such as emptying their backpack, organizing school papers and completing homework will bolster responsibility.
“Adding structure to the afternoon can help your child learn organization skills and stay on top of assignments,” Rispoli said, adding the use of color-coded bins or folders can help. Papers for parents to read and sign may go in one folder, homework that needs to be completed may go in a different folder and completed homework may go in a third folder.
Parents should take advantage of meet-the-teacher nights and school open houses to acquaint the child with their new surroundings. Reviewing the child’s education plan and determining how to stay in communication with the teacher are important factors to make the year a smooth one.
“To ease your child’s anxiety, bring them with you so they can see where their classroom is, can meet their teacher and can begin to prepare for that first day back,” Rispoli said.