Going back to school can be anxiety ridden for any child, but especially so for a special needs child who doesn’t deal well with change. I will walk you through getting an appropriate teacher for your child, to early teacher meet and greets to reduce anxiety, and finally to specific classroom instructional tips to help your teacher understand your child.
Our boys started out in the early intervention Special Ed preschool classes at the age of 3 and then were “mainstreamed” in kindergarten. That is, they were in regular classrooms all day long except for a social skills class and speech therapy. I learned a lot during those early years of school and I thought I would pass on tips to help you start out the school year on the right foot.
Back To School Tips
Getting the right teacher for your child’s needs is essential for having a good school year and I can’t state this enough.
Grey had a very experienced, very no nonsense kindergarten teacher which was perfect for his personality. She didn’t allow him to manipulate her, she addressed issues promptly, and was open minded to any suggestions I had. His first grade teacher on the other hand, was a new graduate who was very young, very sweet, and very soft spoken, but the entire class was always out of control. Oy! It was the exact opposite of what he needed and I do believe the school had me on speed dial that year.
I remember being at one class party where most of the students were standing on their chairs or desks while the teacher repeatedly asked in a sing song voice for the kids to sit down. Yep, they completely ignored her as did all of the parents who were standing around.
That was a very exhausting and frustrating year for us all and I decided that I needed to be more proactive at the beginning of the school year so we could get off to the best start possible.
Setting The Stage For a Successful School Year
From that point on I made sure teacher selection was included as part of the “parent concerns” in the IEP’s. At the end of summer break I always called or emailed the Resource teacher (your’s might be a case manager instead of a resource teacher) to ensure the boys had been placed with an appropriate teacher. I always politely reminded them how important this was and how it could make or break the school year for everyone involved.
Meet The Teacher Early
We have around 350-400 students per grade so our Open House/Meet the Teacher is usually chaotic. I always asked for an early “meet and greet” with the new teachers so that the boys could walk around the school without it being crowded and noisy. I knew the teachers had meetings during these work days prior to school starting; therefore, I made it clear we would only visit for 10 minutes or so and I kept to my word.
Remember, you want to keep good relations with all involved because each school year can feel like an eternity and you will need to work together to help your child negotiate the ups and downs of the school year.
Touring the school and classrooms…
The boys and I would meet the Resource teacher at the front office. We would then walk to the new classrooms, meet the teachers, find the cubby and desk with their name on it, and make small talk with the teacher. Next, we would walk to the Resource teacher’s classroom to check it out and then we would leave. It was always a quick, upbeat, positive experience to help decrease any anxiety about going back to school.
And then meet the teacher again…
We would also go back a couple of days later when the official Open House was being held. This time it was all about putting them in charge and making them feel confident. “I don’t know if I remember how to get to your classroom (desk, cubby, bathroom, lunchroom, etc). Can you show me?”
It was also about reintroducing them to the noise and chaos of a normal school day. Can you imagine 300 first graders, plus their parents and any siblings tagging along, all heading to the first grade hallway? The noise and visual stimulation was almost too much for me to handle.
A Letter To The Teacher
When my oldest was put into mainstream classes, I quickly realized most teachers have never had any formal training with autistic kids, even high functioning Asperger’s. Why should they, you ask? Because 1 in 68 kids are diagnosed with some form of autism. And because many more kids have not been formally diagnosed or they have similar traits with a different diagnosis, such as Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Auditory Processing Disorder.
After negotiating our way through the first couple or years in a mainstream classroom, I came up with a list of things which I thought should be addressed with the boys’ teachers prior to school starting. After all, I felt like if I could hand her a “Grey or Reid Ellington Handbook”, then it would make her life easier, the boys’ days less stressful, and hopefully, create a better learning environment for all of the students involved.
I also approached all of their teachers each year in a polite, open minded way.
“We’re a team. We need open communication at all times. And it’s essential that we work together to find appropriate solutions to any problems that come up. I will listen to your concerns and I hope you will listen to mine.”
Those are the golden words you need to practice even when you’re not happy with how the school is handling things. Honey will get you much farther than vinegar.
Things I had noticed in previous years…
The following is a list of things I had noticed during the first couple of years of Grey being in a regular ed classroom. At the beginning of each school year I would write a short letter to each teacher and touch briefly on these topics with tips on what worked best for each of my boys. I would recommend picking out a few of the your main concerns pertaining to your child and do the same thing.
Most regular ed teachers have no idea how to spot a potential meltdown and diffuse it before it happens or how to handle a child who moves constantly in their seat because that’s how their brain becomes engaged (kinesthetic learners).
The need for a safe “break” area in the classroom…
Most regular ed teachers don’t understand that too much visual stimulation (constant movement of other kids in the classroom, too many overflowing bulletin boards with bright colors, too many distractions) can be just as hard to handle as too much noise stimulation.
Having a designated “safe” or “break” area in the classroom can help prevent meltdowns happening from being overstimulated. If this isn’t possible in your child’s classroom, then the Resource teacher needs have a break area in her classroom.
Your child should have the right to ask for a break when he or she feels like they need one. Make this part of the IEP if it isn’t already.
This also helps your child become more aware of what triggers a meltdown and helps him learn how to cope with it. “This noise is stressing me out and I need to leave for a few minutes before I start throwing things.”
Visual Spatial vs. Auditory Sequential Learners…
Most regular ed teachers don’t understand that many of these kids are visual-spatial learners instead of auditory sequential learners.
Are you unsure of the difference between the two learning types?
Think of it this way. You’ve watched the first 10 minutes of a 30 minute T.V. cooking show when the cable goes out. Now all you see and hear is static on the screen. Fortunately, the cable comes back on and you get to see the last 5 minutes of the show. Unfortunately, you missed everything in between and you don’t know all of the steps in the recipe. How are you suppose to recreate this masterpiece recipe?
This may be an overly simplified explanation, but it’s how a visual spatial learner hears a verbal lecture in the classroom. They hear the first few minutes then lose the middle and then may tune back in towards the end. If they’re lucky that is. Can you imagine how lost these kids must feel and h0w frustrating that has to be?
Visual spatial learners do better with visual cues instead of verbal cues. Use short sentences when giving instructions and repeat as needed.
For example, instead of saying, “Grey please have a seat” the teacher should say, “Grey sit”. I know that sounds short and rude for that matter, but keep in mind that even a few extra words can get lost if the “cable” goes out. And you will be able to build on this short sentence structure as time goes by. Remember this is your starting point not your long term finishing point.
Giftedness + Asperger’s = 2e…
Now let’s throw in some gifted traits on top of the Asperger’s. In the gifted community these kids are usually known as twice exceptional or 2e. Some teachers and administrators can’t quite understand how a 5 year old can read at a 12 year old level and do math at 5th grade level, yet have the social skills of a 3 year old. At this very early age, asynchronous development is extremely hard on the child because it creates an even wider gap between the “normal” kids in class and your child. And of course this may cause even more problems in the classroom.
Our Family Update
Although those early school years were tough, I would like to give you hope that things will in fact get better with time. Both of our boys are thriving in regular classrooms. Now we have issues of them being too social! It’s hard to imagine, right?
For years now, their teachers have told me that visitors to the classroom can’t pick them out from all of the other kids because they are alert to their surroundings (no more staring off into space), focused on conversations, and well behaved. All of the fears and worries I once carried have come and gone at this point. We put a heck of a lot of work into their early years, but it did pay off.
Hang in there friends and best of luck with the new school year!