By Nanette Saturn, Special Needs Advocate
The new school year is here. This is a difficult time for all parents, but for parents of children with special needs, this task can be especially daunting.
The mere thought of the paperwork and preparing your child for a new teacher, classroom, school, and/or peer group can cause anxiety. Suddenly, you realize you may not have reviewed your child’s IEP for the new school year, or worse, panic sets in as you realize you never received it. Here are 8 tips to help ease the transition back to school, not only for your child but for yourself as well.
1. Organize Your Child’s Paperwork
For some, organizing paperwork is easy and enjoyable; but for others, it can be difficult and overwhelming. After many years of doing this, my best advice is to give yourself a break -- do not feel you need to set up a highly organized, time-consuming binder with every document you receive. I keep a simple yellow file folder which includes my son’s IEP and any other documents I receive throughout the school year. I have a separate folder for each school year. Make certain tasks as simple as possible and relieve the pressure wherever you can, and this can be one of them.
2. Review Your Child’s IEP
If you did not receive the IEP for the upcoming school year, email your district’s special education department and request a copy. Review the IEP, and yes, read it in its entirety! If your IEP includes a comments page, make sure the comments are an accurate reflection of the IEP team’s discussion during your Annual Review meeting. Check the accuracy of all sections of the IEP.
If there is any discrepancy between the discussion at the Annual Review Meeting and the IEP, make a list and email your district’s special education department. Verify that any parental concerns you may have expressed are clearly reflected in the IEP. If they are not, reiterate those concerns in a letter or email to your special education director and ask that they are documented in the IEP. Remember, obtain a copy of this updated IEP and add it to your child’s binder/folder.
3. Provide Any New Information to the District
You may have obtained a new evaluation over the summer, or maybe your child developed some new behaviors or struggles not known at the time of your Annual Review Meeting. You should send any new reports and information to the special education department, and you can request a Program Review Meeting to review the evaluation and updated information, so your child’s IEP can be updated accordingly. This program review should be scheduled early in the school year – this is important because new information may create changes to the content of the IEP, especially updates to goals.
4. Request to Visit a New School or Classroom
If your child struggles with transitions, you can ask the special education department if there is a time prior to the start of the school year to bring your child in to navigate the new building or visit the classroom. This can be extremely helpful in easing your child’s anxiety and helping ease them into a new setting.
5. Schedule Team Meetings and Program Reviews if this was Recommended Last Year
At some Annual Review meetings, the IEP team agrees to hold an IEP Program Review Meeting at a later time, usually around the end of October. If this was agreed upon at the Annual Review Meeting, it should be noted on the IEP. During the first few weeks of school, call the special education office to schedule a date and time, if the District has not. You do not want to wait until mid-October to schedule a Program Review Meeting for the end of October, since it may be difficult to get a meeting date scheduled that quickly.
If you do not have a program review planned, you should schedule a team meeting. This is an informal meeting you have with the teacher and, sometimes, related services providers. These team meetings are helpful in reviewing your child’s transition into school and obtaining an update of their progress. Email your child’s teacher to request a team meeting with a suggested time frame for the end of October. If you have specific concerns that are not reflected on the IEP, request the team meeting for an earlier date.
6. Monitor Progress
During the first week of school, you can send your child’s teacher a brief email outlining his/her strengths and weaknesses. You should ask the teacher what classroom assessments are used throughout the year to measure academic progress, as well as when these assessments are performed. Follow up with the teacher during the school year requesting copies of your child’s scores and keep track of the progress with the teacher. If your child has a behavior intervention plan, request the data gathered. If after seeing the results of any data you become concerned, reach out to the teacher for a team meeting to discuss your concerns. Do not assume the school will reach out.
7. Give Your Child and the School Some Time to Adjust
It will take some time, maybe a few weeks or even a month or so, for your child to adjust to a new environment and for the teacher and related service providers to get to know your child. Let the staff know you are available to address any questions and/or concerns and keep the lines of communication open. Collaboration is important and will benefit your child.
8. Request Changes to the IEP as Necessary
The IEP is a fluid document. You have the opportunity to make changes to your child’s IEP or re-assess programs or services throughout the school year. Children change and can make vast improvements or begin to struggle in new areas. Convene the IEP team for a Program Review Meeting if you believe parts of the IEP may no longer be appropriate.
Although preparation for school, and the first few weeks of school, can seem overwhelming, if you take these steps it can ease your stress, which, in turn, can ease the stress on your child. Although it may be easier to rely on the school to provide you with updates, positive or negative, I have always found it best to be proactive and reach out periodically for check-ins with the teachers and staff. Collaboration with your team at the beginning of the school year can result in a smooth transition and positive school year for your child. Good luck, and we hope you and your child have a great school year!