By Lia Tremblay, Guest Writer
Back-to-school time is hectic for any family, but for a parent of children with special needs it can be especially daunting. Here are some tips to help ensure smooth sailing throughout the school year.
You may already have a big binder or file box to keep track of school paperwork such as IEPs, evaluations and progress reports. If you don’t have one yet, now’s the time to start—you will be glad to have a system underway before things really pile up.
As they say, it takes a village—and for children with special needs, the village is often bigger than most. In addition to teachers, you may have occupational therapists, student aides, speech pathologists and psychologists on your list of people to stay in touch with. This is a great time to reach out and wish them a great year, encouraging them to contact you whenever questions or concerns arise.
And don’t leave your child out of the loop! The I’m Determined (http://www.imdetermined.org/) program has great ideas for including students of all abilities in their own educational plans. Even preschoolers can come to school with a list of favorites, likes and dislikes that help teachers get to know the great kid they’ll be working with.
Even if your child has a great school team and a solid plan for the year, you may hit some bumps in the road. Do you know what to do if a change in course is necessary? Or if the staff begins pushing for a change you’re not comfortable with? Browse the articles at Wrightslaw (http://www.wrightslaw.com/) for help in solving disputes that arise—or avoiding them altogether.
Build Your Network
Things get a lot easier when you can look around and see you’re not alone. You may find practical help (not to mention emotional comfort) in joining a group that relates to your child’s diagnosis. Here are just a few of the groups that can give you the comfort of having a whole team behind you:
The Arc of Virginia (http://www.thearcofva.org/) advocates for the rights of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It has dozens of local chapters, including Hanover (www.hanoverarc.org) and South of the James (https://sites.google.com/site/thearcsoj/home), which host helpful workshops for families.
The Autism Society of Central Virginia (http://www.asacv.org) is a leading source of information for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum. They host regular conferences to provide practical information on everything from IEPs to family dynamics, plus fun events like Lego clubs for kids.
The Down Syndrome Society of Central Virginia (http://www.dsagr.com/) works to improve the quality of life for people with Down syndrome and their families, by offering up-to-date information and advocacy on the medical, educational, legal and societal issues surrounding the condition. Regular meetings, resource fairs and family events are also offered.
Mark Your Calendar
Be sure to update your family calendar with all the need-to-know dates, like school holidays and when to expect report cards. Here are some additional days to keep in mind:
Mid-April: Connections Resource Fair
This event is held at the Children’s Museum of Richmond and includes exhibits on everything from service dogs to music therapy to summer camps. Admission is free, and you’ll walk out with a big bag of helpful information. “Like” them on Facebook so you don’t miss the updates when their plans for 2014 are underway!
Throughout the Year: Special Hours for Special Needs
Children’s Museum of Richmond, Monkey Joe’s and Jumpology are just a few of the spots around town that host events especially for kids with special needs. These are a great way for kids who are overwhelmed by noise and people to try these places at a time when they’re a little less crowded. (They’re also a nice time for parents in the same boat to bond and network.)
Go For Extra Credit
You’re already learning to be an advocate for your own child, which is great. But if the challenges you’ve experienced have made you think, “There’s got to be a better way to do this,” then you might be interested in advocating on a higher level.
The Virginia Board for People with Disabilities hosts a program called Partners in Policymaking that teaches participants how to create meaningful change in their schools, at all levels of government and in the community as a whole. The program runs from September through May and is free of charge to the people chosen to participate. Applications for the class of 2015 will be available in January.
A similar program, Youth Leadership Forum, is held each summer for high school students with special needs.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
It’s easy to get so swept up in all the evaluations, therapy appointments and IEP meetings that you have no room left for joy and spontaneity. Make sure you are balancing your obligations with a good dose of goofing off here and there, and aim for at least one good belly laugh per day. Celebrate the great kid you have, and be ready to cheer for the accomplishments to come!