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School success begins at home for kids with special needs

Establishing a back-to-school routine is important for any child. But having a detailed daily plan in place, and creating an optimal environment for carrying it out at home, are especially crucial for students with special needs.  

Because many of these children have sensory differences – for example, they may be easily upset by unexpected events or alterations in schedule, or they may have issues with certain textures, sounds or colors – special needs students are at their best when day-to-day activities are as predictable as possible. That’s why organization, both of their time and of their physical spaces, can contribute greatly to a successful school year, according to teachers with the St. Louis County Special School District.

Weeks before school even begins, parents can help younger children prepare to make the transition back to class by creating and then practicing with them a visual schedule or “social story,” which is a series of pictures or drawings that takes them step-by-step through the process of getting ready for school each day as well as the routine they will follow when they get back home, explained Taylor Webb, a Special School District teacher at Parkway’s Ross Elementary. “From eating breakfast, getting dressed and brushing their teeth before they get on the bus to hanging their backpack on a certain peg, getting a snack, or playing on their iPad for a certain amount of time when they get home, routine and predictability are so important,” Webb said. 

Whenever possible, though, kids should be involved in making choices about their own schedules, Webb added. “Even non-verbal kids can point to a picture to let their preferences be known. It’s their day, [so] you want them to be a part of it.” 

At the elementary level, some parents might prefer that their child have little to no homework, depending on the amount of supportive therapy he or she needs outside the school day, Webb said. Those who do have assignments to complete should have a designated time and place to do so, with no distractions and supplies organized in a way that works for them – for example, a child may prefer colored pencils over markers, or like all of his or her notebooks to be one color or theme. Webb said setting up a reward system for getting homework done that’s consistent between home and school, such as earning stars, stickers or tickets, also is effective.

As special needs children make the transition from the elementary level through middle and high school, strategies for supporting them at home are similar – but they also may depend largely on whether a student is on track to earn credits for graduation. In that case, homework and study routines become far more important, said Special Education Teacher Liz Rock, who is on staff at Parkway South Senior High. And because school days for older children often involve several classroom changes and more intensive activity, stress levels often are higher as well – so there’s a greater need to decompress when they arrive back at home.

“Kids tend to hold it together at school all day, but then may come unglued or explode when they come home,” Rock said. “It’s important to allow kids some downtime to play video games, use iPads and phones, let off some steam physically or relax however they like, but it’s also important to make sure they get back on track, because if they don’t there will be even more anxiety the next day.” 

Depending on the severity of an older child’s disability, he or she may need a visual schedule to go through the steps of the day once they arrive home, Rock said. 

For kids of all ages with special needs, “powering down” in the evening is an extremely important process that’s critical to their well-being, both teachers emphasized. This may involve removing electronic devices from the room well before bedtime, reading, or preparing clothes and supplies for the next morning. Calming techniques that help bring down children’s overall energy levels and enable them to get a good night’s sleep are individual to each child, but may include deep pressure stimulation, massages over the arms and legs, the use of weighted blankets, slow rocking, or swinging.

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