In Australia our school year starts at the end of January and I hate seeing the back to school ads on television already. It feels like the post Christmas relaxation is over and it is time to gear up for the new school year. The holidays have always been physically demanding but once school starts I feel like a mouse on a wheel. As much as I may like to stay in the holiday bubble there is a certain amount of organisation to the new school year and for children with special needs a bit of extra preparation can go a long way to making it a smoother start to the year. I thought I would share some of the things I learnt throughout BJ’s school years. So, here’s our back to school tips.
Starting out with a teacher in the way you hope to go forward is fairly important and one of the key areas for us with BJ was, and still is, communication. And when I say communication I don’t just mean BJ using a communication system. I want communication from staff as to what has happened in BJ’s day.
BJ’s day program provides a detailed foolscap size communication book which we fill out each morning with information about how he slept, any medication, any special events which happen overnight and anything we are concerned about ie if we feel he may not be well or has an injury. This year I have decided to use the front of this book as another place to ‘advertise’ a few of BJ’s likes and dislikes in an attempt for them to get to know his tastes a bit better. As the communication book is something the staff pick up every single day to read and write in I figure it is prime “advertising space”. Hopefully this will make an impact and BJ will get what he likes when they are ordering on his behalf. See photo for a general idea and keep in mind this can be adapted for other purposes. You could use it to provide information about favourite people in your child’s life or interests.
If your child’s school doesn’t have a communication book system in place, why not make up your own? You can’t force a teacher to use it of course but if they understand how valuable it is to your family they may get on board. BJ’s old school used to use a diary system but some teachers were better than others in using it. If it is new to a school I’d suggest making it more like a form so that it is easy to fill out. Use it to gain the information which is most important to you. I love hearing things about BJ’s day which we can “chat” about. Reading he went to the movies doesn’t tell me much about his day. I need to know what movie, did he laugh and enjoy it. At school I wanted to know if he liked a particular computer program or if he did well at the farm with the furry animals as that was something we were working on. Give staff an idea of what is important.
We’ve since updated our communication system and made our own communication book for respite and BJ’s day program. It’s far more relevant than the one provided by his day program. You can read the step-by-step guide to making it here.
ABOUT ME BOOK
Something which has worked well across all settings for BJ is an “About Me Book” which provides a quick reference for teachers or carers about BJ. This isn’t a place for medical information but somewhere to share photos of important people, BJ’s likes and dislikes and a snap shot of his life.
I wrote an article for Parenting Special Needs magazine last year giving a step-by-step guide as to how to make one yourself. See the link here – Parenting Special Needs Org Sep-Oct 2014
Share information about what your child does on weekends, holidays and in their spare time. If you walk into a ‘regular’ classroom on a Monday morning you often find the teacher swamped by their class of children all competing to share what they have done over the weekend. In the days before BJ had an iPad we would send his news to school on the Dynavox and before that in a laminated news book. It provided a great way for the staff to get to know BJ through his outings and the small bits of information shared each week and his fellow students were curious too. They would circle around BJ to see his news which was a good opportunity for him to socialise and interact with his peers.
Our ultimate goal as parents should be to ensure our children are as independent as possible. Any small gain in independence is a confidence builder and empowers a child to realise they can control their environment.
A lunch container is a lunch container right? Not when you have a child with special needs. I have spent much time over the years researching the humble lunch box. In the beginning it was a matter of a staff member opening the container and BJ helping himself to the bite-size pieces of sandwich. A level of independence but BJ was still dependent on an aide opening it. As BJ’s skills improved I started to look for containers he could open himself and I found the pictured Tupperware container with what I call Mickey Mouse ears for opening. It worked brilliantly until BJ decided to get tidy at lunch times and kept putting his “rubbish” into the bin, just like the other kids An advancement on one hand, but unlike the other kids BJ didn’t have cling wrap around his lunch, so it was his Tupperware containers that were being binned. Staff didn’t notice which meant it turned into a very expensive way of sending lunch. I needed to find an alternative unless I was prepared to become a Tupperware representative and get my products at cost (not something I saw in my future). By this stage BJ’s hand function had improved and I found the clip Sistema containers were now manageable for him and much cheaper, so that is what he uses to this day. To continue a hand function task at school I’ve always put BJ’s cheese into a fishing tackle or beading box. He is passionate about his cheese and it encourages him to use a pincer grip. Every bit of therapy helps and this is a way of making it regular.
Drink containers have also been an issue. BJ can only drink from a pop top and I found it was quite tricky to find drink bottles which were the right width for him to grasp, not too heavy and had the right length drinking spout.. Once again these came and went as BJ used his teeth to open them meaning that the life span was not very long. Another sign of independence and a moment to be celebrated but replacing the lids on the Tupperware drink bottles was costly at $19 each. We’ve tried all kinds of pop top drink bottles but they seem to crack easily and even at $5 a bottle this becomes costly. I now use the supermarket poppers but refill them myself as I prefer BJ to have watered down juice. They are also just the right size for him to hold. I’m not a fan of plastic in general but I haven’t found a suitable alternative.
If you do find a container or drink bottle that works during the back-to-school period, buy extras. Often stock is just brought in at this time and they can be impossible to find during the year. I speak from experience and previous desperation.
If you are aiming for total independence keep an eye out for the zipper-less cooler bags now available.
IEP MEETINGS (Individual Educational Plan)
In the early days of IEP meetings I would unwisely go in with a huge list of things I would like changed. I soon learnt that this brought about a defensive teacher who didn’t listen to much past the first few comments. Over time I learnt an approach which seemed to work better. In the lead up to the IEP I would write a list of the main items, or issues I felt that needed to be worked on or addressed. I spent time on getting this list down to the most crucial things. Pick your battles in other words and don’t make the list unachievable for the teacher. Don’t forget everyone likes compliments. If the teacher is doing well in many areas, mention them at the meeting. Otherwise it seems you are just complaining and not acknowledging any of the good things they are doing. If you have a therapy team, have them do some of the bridging work with the teacher. Often a therapist is less threatening than a parent. A therapist should be seen as a good source of information and support.
Be realistic but also remember you are your child’s best advocate.
Not that much can be changed with a uniform but from BJ’s perspective putting shoes on him has always been a challenge. BJ’s Involuntary movement, curling toes and at times AFO’s made it a job I only wanted to tackle once a day but BJ bottom shuffling in his expensive school pants was a problem. I would put BJ’s shoes on early to avoid stress last minute when the bus driver arrived BUT I wouldn’t want to put his good pants on until the very last minute. That was when I came up with the idea of zippers in his pants. It allowed the pants to go on and off over shoes easily. This would be helpful for toilet training too.
One of our community over on our Facebook page shared the following –
Marie says, ” Great list! As a teacher in the field and a former support worker in respite and post school day programs the things you have listed are just what makes my day easier and therefore makes my students/clients days better as I can support them better.
I will only add – label everything! Name tags and/or photo on bags, names on lunchboxes, drink bottles jumpers, even AFOs. There is nothing worse than at the end of the day finding the all important ‘only drink bottle that he can drink from’ or realising you now have 6 jumpers in the lost and found.”
Thanks Marie, it’s a great reminder.
If you have a back to school tip please pop it in comments below.
If you would like to read how parents at BJ’s school started a program to get the children in the support unit with high needs playing at lunchtime then you can read more here.
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