How to Help the Special Needs Child Transition Back to School

Kids peaking out bus windowsI am looking at the calendar and realizing that in less than 2 weeks, my oldest child will be entering middle school and my youngest will be starting first grade. Transitions galore and anxiety for mommy! This article may be helpful for all parents who have children with a wide range of strengths and challenges. I am actually writing it for myself, as I anticipate middle school for my oldest, and as I think about what I need to do to prepare my youngest, who does have some sensory integration challenges, for starting grade school.

I did some research and talked with some moms ( who have been in the “special needs world” longer than I have) and read up a bit…and here is what I found to be some fabulous wisdom as relates to preparing for school….

Have an excited and energized attitude for your child.
Your child will pick up on your vibe and feel more relaxed about the transition ahead if you are relaxed! (I know, easier said than done!)

Allow ample time.
We all know that beginning the school year means : TRANSITION… hard enough for a “typical” child, but when you are parenting a special needs child, ample time is the order of the day to prepare for a new routine.

  • Some moms recommend a “transition book” in which photographs/drawings demonstrate the progression of the day (from waking up through breakfast to school day to coming home)…this visual helps the child to lessen anxiety and encode in their brain what the school routine will look like.
  • Studies indicate that creating “social stories” (by either drawing or photographs/magazine cut-outs) demonstrate hypothetical scenarios children with special needs may need to prepare for (i.e., joining in during recess, having lunch with a classmate, learning to take turns/not interrupt/etc.) See any of Carol Gray’s work at for more ideas.

Practice your routine a few weeks before school starts.

  • Begin by dialing back bedtime by 10-15 minutes each night until you arrive at the preferred bedtime for your child. Ideally, start this process a few weeks before school starts so that waking up in the morning is not a set-up for a meltdown.
  • Wake up at the same time every day for the 2 weeks preceeding school and run through the routine you will go through with your child each morning, including having a nutritious breakfast, getting dressed, etc. Have visual photos or drawings of the order of routine so that your child can follow along, especially if they have difficulty sequencing events or focusing/concentrating. Reward child on sticker chart for following through with tasks.

Begin early gathering supplies.

  • If your budget allows, have child assist with purchasing new clothes and school supplies. He/she will feel empowered to be a part of the process of being “grown-up” and anticipating the excitement of the learning experience.
  • Have IEP paperwork copies available for teachers and for you, as the parent, to refer to. (Use as a fluid document to make adjustments and keep track of your child’s progress)
  • Create a one-page guide as an introduction to your child for school staff. Include allergies, suggestions for rewards for good behavior, strengths, potential triggers for set-offs, calming activities, and names of people in child’s support team.

Other miscellaneous suggestions:

  • Create space for homework and organization at home. All children thrive when they know that “everything has a place.” Special needs children require an organized space to thrive. See for organizing suggestions (i.e. color-coded folders, writing implement holders, etc.)
  • Do a visual trial-run of the school your child will attend. Visit the school and show him/her the classroom(s). If possible, meet the teacher beforehand. Having the visual experience of seeing the school will help reduce anxiety in your child.
  • Volunteer to assist your child’s teacher and build a relationship with him/her and support staff to help your child to feel successful in school.
  • Be sure to line up doctor/dental appointments before school starts and record in your organizer.

Some websites that might be helpful in this transition to school….

I hope this article is helpful for you and your children. May you have a wonderful school year of growth, positive challenge, and blooming self-confidence.

Related articles:
What Does It Mean to Be a Special Needs Parent?
How Schools Could Prevent Depression
How to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Alanna

    August 10th, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    I don’t have special needs kids myself, but I know that even for my own kids it is important to always seem excited about the beginning of the new school year (even when I’m not) because I have to think that this excitement is contagious! I try to play up the fun things like meeting new friends and teachers and recess, all of the things that I know that they will love instead of always moaning and groaning about those things that could instead be viewed as a negative. I am sure that for a family with a special needs child it can be even more important to place emphasis on the positive because so many of them have such a difficult time adjusting to changes.

  • Andrea

    August 10th, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    So true, Alana. Thanks for your wisdom :) Andrea

  • Robb

    August 10th, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    A new school year is always a high-voltage time for parents,whether the child has special needs or not.But I know it must be even more so in the former case.Good advice here that every parent can follow and I especially like the idea of pushing back the time to wake up gradually.Almost every year I have my kids wail about the sudden change in the waking up time and the general routine.Will definitely try them out.

  • tim y

    August 10th, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Anything that you do with a special needs child that requires a veering from what they know as their normal can cause more anxiety on their part that they don’t know how to handle. If the parents and the teachers can keep a cool head this will help him to make a better and easier transition to the change.

  • h matherson

    August 10th, 2012 at 6:16 PM

    well,here’s some advice that my mom always told me as a kid- the longer the vacation the more intense the resistance to change in don’t get into being lazy in the vacations,always keep yourself busy and new school year will never be a burden!

  • Josie M

    August 11th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    The biggest plus in my house that I always try to do from year is that I sort of keep us all on a schedule during the summer that mimics in many ways the schedule of the school year. We still get up relatively early, although there is not all the commotion of a regular school morning, and that alone is more relaxing! We still take time out of the day to read and do some work that keeps their skill sets a little more sharp, and my kids still go to bed at a decent hour. It is not the same as the school year, and I recognize that, but it does keep them in the habit of using their brains a little more than what I know many of their friends do, and I have always felt that this makes that transitiion so much easier when August rolls around again. Simple little things like this help you overcome some huge obstacles when it comes getting back into te school groove.

  • nan

    August 11th, 2012 at 7:18 AM

    When my kids were school age I would always try to make it a point to meet the teacher and establish at least some kind of rapport with him or her before classes started.

    That way I could let them know where I thought that my kids’ strengths and weaknesses were and how that affected their classroom experience. I just always felt better about starting the school year off on the right foot and opening those lines of communication with those people who will see your kids in their learning environment everyday.

  • Gage

    August 12th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    When your children see that you have made school and learning a priority in the home then they will want to do the same. That also means that you can’t (in front of them at least!) act as if you dread school starting the way that we did when we were kids. Be excited, be active, and in likelihood they will then emulate your behavior. Stress to them that even if last year was tough, this is a new year and a new beginning and that something positive can come from all that they learned last year.

  • sharkey

    August 13th, 2012 at 4:10 AM

    I have thought about this type of issue a lot since my own children were in school. Since we see so much of this type of anxiety in many children, then why wouldn’t school districts give more consideration to providing year round school options for students and parents?

    This is a model that has been proven that could work if every school in the district agrees to the schedule changes. It is something that could remove that huge gap during the summer when students really get out of the swing of things, and provide parents and students with smaller, mini vacations throughout the rest of the year.

    I know that many parents would be against this change as they think that it would seriously interfere with their existing schedule. But I think that if you look at the heart of the issue and see just how much academically kids would do on this schedule and how much less anxiety they would feel as a result of no huge gaps between each time they are in the classroom, I think that you would see the numerous benefits that this solution could hold.

  • Andrea Schneider

    August 14th, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Hi Sharkey You must be watching Shark Week ;) anyhow, well, your comment addresses an entirely different topic perhaps for a different article Thanks for your feedback

  • saul

    August 13th, 2012 at 7:26 PM

    while it is important for parents to ensure kids have a smooth transition from vacations to school year,sometimes it can just overwhelm wife often gets anxious at the start of a new school year and it is up to me to calm her down and assure her its going to be almost seems like I have yet another child to calm but I am not complaining.happy to be contributing to the family but my point is that parental anxiety also needs to be kept in check.

  • Andrea Schneider

    August 14th, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    Good point, Saul… And that goes for all caregivers in the picture ;)

  • Becki

    August 14th, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    I home school my children so we never have those beginning of the year worries. Best decision my husband and I ever made!

  • Andrea Schneider

    August 14th, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    Hi Becki, Glad that works for your family for many, homeschooling is not an option or a preferred option There are pros/cons of every decision where that is concerned Best of luck to your family, Andrea

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