Every caregiver either dreads or celebrates (most likely, a little bit of both) the idea of their children going back to school after a long summer break. But it never hurts to prepare in advance when you have to couple that first dreadful morning, waking up extra early to enthusiastically sing, "Rise and shine. Time for school!" followed by the typical, "Oh man. Is summer over already?" lament, piled high atop the added stress of having children with special needs.
As a mother of two children with special needs - entirely different special needs, at that - there are several things that my family does to make each stepping stone of our children's lives as smooth a transition as possible.
And since I brought up getting out of bed earlier ... much to my chagrin, it pays to start waking your kids up at the same time every morning at least a week or two before school starts. Yes, the allure of an extra hour or two of glorious 'non-rushing-around-immediately-upon-waking' sleep is almost irresistible to both children and parents alike. But you must resist, for the punishment will be much greater that fateful first day of school if you fail to condition yourselves ahead of time for that inaugural early-morning alarm.
Photo submitted by JULIE UFEMA
Jett, left, and Dane Ufema stand ready for their first day of school.
Accepting help from friends, family, teachers, administration, and other parents is the first step to starting off the new school year on the best foot possible.
Resist the urge to say, "No, that's OK, I got this" every time. It's noble, but in the end, most likely not worth the unrealistic perfect-parenting pressure.
Familiarizing yourself with other children and parents at the bus stop is a sure way to keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening in your children's lives before and after school. Don't kid yourselves. In the moments that exist outside the safe haven of the schools walls, our little ones find themselves precariously perched on the school bus battlefield. What happens on the school bus stays on the school bus? Not on my watch.
Befriend the other parents. Start up a conversation about your child and what their needs might be. You can learn just as much about your child's every day by chatting with the kids and parents closest to them as you can from consistently attending parent-teacher conferences.
If your work schedule prohibits you from waiting at the bus stop with your child for the first few days, now would be a great time to take a friend or family member up on that not-so-forgotten five-year-old offer to help out.
Keeping the lines of communication open with teachers, therapists, principals, teacher's aides (name em' if you got em'!) over the summer is paramount. My son's teachers often volunteer to have my boys come in and meet them ahead of time to familiarize themselves with their new environment before the cavalcade of new students descends upon the classroom. Many children with special needs - whether on the autism spectrum, dealing with neurological disorders or developmental delays - can be instantly affected by extreme stimulus and sound. I mean really, who isn't? Twenty kids full of energy and summer time enthusiasm, converging simultaneously upon a new classroom, would be enough to rock anyone's boat.
Shop with your children for school. This is also just a great way to spend some time with them before they disappear during the day once again. Whether it's a simple lunch box or new favorite backpack, special needs children often focus (very hard) on a particular object and take great comfort in knowing that one little piece of home will consistently follow them back and forth to school. Letting them choose said object allows them to have some control over an environment that can so often feel like it's spinning completely out of control. I still sleep with my blanket - but that's another story ...
The most important thing you can do to prepare your special needs children, regular 'ol children, spouses, needy friends - really anyone approaching a new phase in life - is to talk to them about how they are feeling.
Putting your head in the sand (figuratively and literally) won't do anyone any favors. Talking about anxiety, concerns, apprehension and excitement can go a long way to making those first few days of something new more of an adventure than a nightmare.
Save those for the night before the first day of school. Because no matter how ready I thought I was, I always dreamt I got off the bus in my pajamas.
Julie Ufema is a photographer at BitterSweet Studios and independent film director and producer. She lives in Derry Township with her husband, Jason, and their sons, Jett and Dane. Visit www.julieufema.com for more information.