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Thoughts on Back to School

When I was young, I disliked summer because it wasn't as routine as the school year. I dislike school much of the time, too, but it was a (somewhat) predictable setting. Best of all, school meant books with facts and more information to learn. Since becoming a more active special education advocate, I've met many children and adults who love memorizing specific facts but don't (or didn't) enjoy their classroom experiences.

How can you make back to school less stressful? What are some suggestions to ease the annual ritual?

I begin each year with a tour of my campus. In college, I always arrived early and walked around the campus. I did this year after year, because I needed to ease myself into the campus routines. I even did this in high school, walking about the empty campus before it was crowded with unruly students. I've meandered about the campus where I am now a professor and will visit several more times before the first day of classes.

It might help other students to explore campus, with a parent or guardian, before classes begin. I'd recommend this for students from elementary school to university graduate students. The familiar is less stressful.

Next, I would contact any teachers or instructors available and willing to discuss the semester or year ahead. I would ask that parents do this for K12 students; some states and schools discourage direct correspondence with students. (It's actually illegal in at least one state to "friend" a student via social networks!) For university students, the best approach is to contact instructors with the assistance of the disability services office.

In the K12 setting, families need to be thinking about revised Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next. I recommend a list of what has been accomplished, which goals were not met / mastered, and which issues are immediate concerns for the student's success. Knowing which goals were not met can help a teacher plan for the coming year — and you should never think of these as "failures." If a teacher doesn't anticipate both strengths and weaknesses, the teacher can't help the student stay on track.

Food can be a struggle with any young student, and I'm picky about food as an adult. Allergies complicate this for some families, as well as any special diets. K12 districts and university dining services can provide sample menus. K12 districts are required to make accommodations for safety and reasonable health concerns. Higher education institutions do not make the same allowances, though most now offer vegetarian menus and other special dietary menus. Most colleges and universities have "food courts" similar to those in shopping malls. If I do eat on campus, I stick to what I know is okay.

It might not be logical, but I insist on the same notebooks, mechanical pencils, and ink pens year after year. I do not like other brands and losing my favorite mechanical pencils causes anxiety. Maybe your student also has preferences for specific school supplies. Brands of crayons and pencils are not the same. Don't be surprised if a student insists on his or her favorites. Instructors should be tolerant of such preferences. Why does it matter if a student wants black ink instead of blue or likes college-ruled bright white notebooks?

I use wall calendars and charts to help plan for school and throughout the school year. I need lots of charts, because I think visually. Having the plans for the year ahead on the wall weeks in advance is a good way to ease into the school year, too. I've been looking at the academic calendar for 2011-12 since June. Yes, that's obsessive, but I hate surprises. Knowing the future plans helps keep me relaxed.

During the school year, I have printed calendars in every binder. I keep a single "master calendar" so I don't mixup dates or schedule two events for the same day. Calendars are essential to my functioning well. I never put the work related to two courses in one binder — I keep every topic separate, and the master calendar is in its own portfolio.

The calendar I keep is printed from iCal on my home computer. Any time I change the calendar, I print the new version and replace the old in my master binder. Yes, that's a lot of work, but I need that planning. When I talk to parents and students, I hear a similar desire for order and routines.

School seldom goes smoothly, so the single best thing a family can do is let the student in their lives know there is a place to find support. Knowing my parents were there for me, no matter how lousy the school day, was one of things that made it possible to succeed.

Families of special needs children know that every single day at school is a step forward, but not an easy step. Preparing for school lasts from one year to the next. During the school year, you have to keep in contact with schools as much as possible.

At the university level, your student will be on his or her own. Privacy laws that recognize adulthood can prevent a parent or guardian from working with instructors — unless the student files a written consent for the parent to be involved in disability services. Preparing for adulthood and self-advocacy has to begin during the K12 years.

To be a self-advocate, students should be involved in IEP meetings and back-to-school planning. Family members and teachers need to listen to the student and help him or her develop a sense of control. It is important for students with special needs to be as active in their own futures as possible.

Back-to-school means another year of changes. It should also be another year preparing for adulthood.


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