child in wheelchair at school
Parenting

A Back to School Checklist for Children with Special Needs

When my daughter, Elizabeth, was young, I used to feel anxious and lose sleep over the transition from summer to the new school year, even as much as she was looking forward to it. Elizabeth was blind and in a wheelchair. She didn’t speak and used a lot of medical equipment to eat and breath and well, just live.

But for me and so many other parents, the end of summer signaled the time when we hit the reset button on our child’s educational plan. New teachers and other school personnel come into our child’s life. There are perhaps changes in classrooms or services. Definitely, this is the time when routine’s change.

As a parent and a professional who advises families every day about these issues, I wanted to give you some tips that really help start off the year with your best foot forward!

  1. Review your child’s IEP and IHP

It is critically important that you understand what services the school and the school district are contracted to provide to your child. Does it provide for therapies? Is your child entitled to a one-to-one or a nurse caregiver? Who will be delivering these services?

If you don’t have an Individualized Health Plan, but feel that you should, then you need to devise one and call a meeting to discuss it.

IEP

  1. Update your TEAM with any new information about your child collected over the summer

Many families use the summertime to get new evaluations and testing done, see specialists, have elective procedures, and try new equipment or activities. Share any new evaluations or test results with your TEAM. Share summer program or camp notes too. Let them know what your child has accomplished or if there has been any loss of skills. This can happen over the summer when routines change.

It is difficult for parents to feel open about sharing information with their school or school district. They don’t always feel that they are heard and sometimes the relationship is adversarial. It is in your child’s best interest to always have this information in their record. Even if your TEAM ignores the information provided, at least you have come to the table with open communication. If you ever need to have a formal proceeding to advocate for your child, this will make a positive statement for your case.

School personnel often feel uncomfortable when they think they don’t have all the information. Schedule small and less formal meetings with key staff such as the teacher and the nurse, to put everybody at ease.

  1. Tour the school and the grounds

If you are changing placement, or just changing classrooms, tour the school or the grounds to get familiar with the setting. Look for any hidden obstacles for your child and discuss mobility issues, proximity to the nurse, and any classroom spacing issues that need to be considered. Also, do you have medicine coming in with your child every day or special food or allergy considerations.

What are the emergency procedures for the school and for your child in case of emergency or crisis? When my daughter was in a new school, I would always speak with the emergency response team in the area to be sure they had all of the pertinent information about her.

  1. Communicate and communicate some more

What will your ongoing communication system look like with your team at school? Many parents favor a notebook that goes back and forth from school to home. Some set up interim telephone calls. Make a list of phone numbers to call if one is not provided to you including teachers, nurses, and therapists. Make sure you know the proper procedure for classroom visits and check-ins. Many schools say they have an open-door policy, yet there are many concerns about school safety that need to be balanced as well.

  1. When All Else Fails…

Ask for a meeting to discuss your concerns. It can be a formal TEAM meeting, which you have the right to ask for at any time, or it can be an informal meeting with the teacher, the administrator, or the nurse.

Formal meetings can be very emotionally charged! Bring a spouse or a friend with you to take notes and be a support. As a last resort, you can hire an advocate or an attorney to speak for you and your child.

Every new school year is full of the promise of growth and skills acquisition! Stay positive and reach for the stars!

Annette Hines, Esq. is the author of Butterflies and Second Chances: A Mom’s Memoir of Love and Loss. She is a powerhouse advocate for the special needs community. Not only has she founded the Special Needs Law Group of Massachusetts, PC, specializing in special needs estate panning, where special needs families compromise 80 percent of the firm’s clients, Hines brings personal experience with special needs to her practice, as the mother of two daughters, one of whom passed away from Mitochondrial disease in November 2013. This deep understanding of special needs fuels her passion for quality special needs planning and drives her dedication to the practice. For more information, please visit, https://specialneedscompanies.com/ and connect with her on Facebook, @SpecialNeedsLawGroup.

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