3,2,1...school! - FamilyEducation

3,2,1...school!

July 17,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I know most families are just starting their family vacations this month, but for us, July is back-to-school month. L.'s school is not a year-round school, but they have a quirky calendar. He gets out earlier for summer vacation, but heads back at the end of July instead of the middle of August. This schedule works well for us, actually. While I always feel that tug of regret that summer is over and that we'll be back to the challenging ups and downs of school again, it's nice to get the going-back part over with before Scott and I have to return to work ourselves. The way things are, we end up with a good two weeks to help L. adjust to the back-to-school routine before we go back to work.

Two days ago, Scott and I sat down and made up a list of all the things we need to do to prepare L. (and us) for the return to school. This was fueled, as all list making around here often is, by rising panic. Not only does L. go back to school on the 28th of July, but we're headed to the beach for the week on Saturday for a family reunion. Most of what we need to get done, therefore, must be done THIS week.

Help!

Our list ended up overwhelmingly long. We had to whittle it down mercilessly. Most of the things on the list apply just as well to typical kids, but for L., who has Asperger's and lots of anxiety to boot, many of the things we need to do are critical if we are to survive the back-to-school process. If you have a child with special learning or behavioral needs, and you're inclined to make your own list of back-to-school strategies like we do (we're anal this way), then I recommend spending a good amount of time surfing the Internet and reflecting on strategies that have or haven't worked in the past. For us, this website has always proven really useful, particularly the section on education and student orientation. We actually don't do much of what they suggest we do--like establishing a school routine ahead of time, or prepping for homework routines while still home for the summer--these would be too painful to embark upon now. But we are working on schedules for the new school year, and talking with L. about what third grade will be like.

Here are some of the basics I think will help make the going-to-school process less painful:

Take your child to school and let him wander around his classroom a bit, just to re-acquaint him with the environment. This is good to do with any child beginning a new school experience. Before L. started kindergarten, we took him to the school playground on the weekends and let him play there. A school filled with unfamiliar faces can be overwhelming on the first day. If a child has had the chance to explore the hallways on his own time and terms, then he will be better able to process the chaos of the first-day experience.

Also, if your child is beginning school for the first time, find out if your child's school also offers a "kindergarten camp." L.'s school did, and it was invaluable. A couple of weeks before school began, he went to kindergarten camp in the mornings for one week, and learned all about kindergarten rules and routines.

 Write a letter about your child and distribute it to teachers and staff. Writing a letter of introduction about your child is a great thing to do for any child! As a teacher myself, I love it when my own students turn in their letters of introduction. Learning more about them helps me understand how to teach them better, and helps build our working relationship for the semester. For a child with more specialized learning needs, it's critical. In your letter, let the teacher know about your child's strengths and challenges; what makes them feel at ease, and what stresses them out; which "discipline" techniques work the best, and which don't work well.

Don't forget to also distribute your letter of introduction to other school staff! We overlooked this last year and had some sticky situations with the P.E. coach. Remember that your child will have to interact with lots of different teachers at school--including coaches and cafeteria staff. Make sure everyone knows your child well--this will help pave the way to success and less stress at school.

Make handy, colorful charts and book tags for your child's backpack and lunch box. The first two years of L.'s school experience, we made a tag with pictures of all the things he had to include in his backpack each day: lunch box, library book for library day, homework folder, etc. We laminated the tag and hung it from his back pack strap. He didn't always look at the tag, but when he did it certainly helped him remember what he needed to pack.

Learn to be masters of schedule making and picture charts. Remember not to schedule out huge blocks of time for your child, but keep the schedules short and specific: one for after school, one for homework time, one for morning preparation, etc. Many, many kids have a hard time conceptualizing huge blocks of time, so keep the time frame of the schedules short. I keep a template for the schedules on our computer, and I download clip art to make them more interesting. Scott has achieved great success with his stick-figure drawings, though, and another parent I know uses colorful post-its and a calendar sheet. If the schedule changes, she just removes the post-it and tacks another one up in its place.

Like most things in life, the more groundwork you do ahead of time, the easier things go. There will still be twists and turns and unexpected challenges, no matter how hard you prepare (as one mom/friend in our parenting support group commented recently about her child's return to school, "You can do all the planning in the world and still be hit by the tractor-trailer of reality"). But schooling will be a part of your child's life for many years to come--the more work you invest along the way, the better the payoff for all of you.

(Somebody remind me of all this when I hit the 11th hour panic attack next weekend....)