Returning to school each fall is a time of both excitement and nervousness for parents and students. For parents who have a child with special needs, this time of year can bring increased anxiety and stress. We worry about all the same things most parents worry about, like how will my child do in school? Will they have friends? Who will they eat lunch with or play with at recess. We also have other worries. Will by child be able to communicate his or her needs? Will my child be made fun of because they look or sound different from other children? Will my child be able to independently use the restroom? Will my child get sick or have an allergic reaction at school?
When our son, Joey, who has Down syndrome, first started school I would make an “All About Me” book for each of his teachers, therapists and even bus drivers. This was a spiral bound notebook that explained his medical, social and emotional needs and provided a little bit of context and background about Joey. Since his younger years, I have shortened this “book” down to “Joey’s Resume”. Initially Joey’s Resume was brightly colored with photographs and was very age-appropriate for elementary school messaging.
Make a resume for your child
This year is different because Joey is preparing to start middle school and as parents of children with disabilities will tell you, we tend to experience more anxiety and worry during the “transition” years. Whether it is from pre-school to elementary, elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, or post-high school transitions, each jump into the next realm of life can cause extra stress.
Due to Joey turning 12 and moving up from the elementary area of his school to the middle school hall, I decided to give his elementary school resume an update to make it look more mature and to better reflect where he is now as a student. One of our key goals throughout Joey’s life has been to help him be as age appropriate as possible, which can be difficult when your child has a developmental or cognitive delay. As a sixth grader, we encourage him to watch age appropriate shows and participate in age appropriate activities. Is this always possible? No. But it’s something we encourage and try to nurture. Our hope is that Joey’s updated middle school resume will help his educators see him in a more mature light and treat him as a typical sixth grade student.
All of Joey’s teachers, aides and therapists have a copy of his IEP each year, but if you have ever read an IEP you know how difficult they can be to read and how long they are. We designed Joey’s resume to be a quick one-page information sheet that provides some helpful tips and highlights Joey’s strengths. When you have a child with a learning or physical disability, it is easy for people to focus on what your child is unable to do. We wanted to shift that focus and help educate people on what Joey is able to do and what we expect him to do at school, and most importantly, how the school team can help him be successful in every way possible.
I include our phone number and address on each resume and then I put in five categories that include: key strengths, what works, health, passions, and areas of improvement. The entire resume is very positive and we hope it gives a quick snapshot of him as an entire person so the focus isn’t just on him having Down syndrome and learning disabilities. Once his resume is ready to go, I make about 30 copies of it and give it to every teacher (including gym, art, music, library, etc.), aide, bus driver, principal, therapist, cafeteria employees and custodians. Our hope is that his resume will take away any fears or unknowns that anyone during the school day might have if they are not familiar working with a child with a disability.
Schedule an IEP meeting at the beginning of the school year
Another key item to a successful school year is calling a meeting at the beginning of the year with the key teachers and intervention specialists. By introducing yourself to your child’s team, you can provide them with helpful insight as to your child’s strengths and weaknesses in an approachable and collaborative way. Joey’s fifth grade teacher did an outstanding job of implementing a buddy system, where Joey was paired with a different student in the class each week who would help make sure Joey got to the next class on time, packed up his backpack, and was able to carry his lunch tray. This one-on-one experience each week helped Joey get to know each of his classmates and it also helped his classmates participate in helping Joey succeed, which is truly a win-win for everyone.
Continued correspondence and keeping the lines of communication open also help build a strong relationship between you and the school. Periodic follow ups with the special education liaison are also important to keep updated on your child’s progress.
Prepare your child for the new year
The last piece that we will be working on with Joey is preparing him for a new year and new challenges. School work will be more difficult and it is okay if he needs to take breaks or ask for help understanding concepts. Behavior expectations will also be different in middle school. Older students should be able to follow the classroom and school rules. With switching classes more often in middle school, Joey will need to learn multiple sets of rules and expectations.
Middle school also brings new social pressures and challenges. Joey does not have a phone or social media, but some of his friends do, and we have to empower him with how to respond when he’s asked why he doesn’t have a phone. For example, he could say, he’s too busy after school to be on social media or he can also always say his parents won’t let him have social media until he is older.
Whatever your family rules are, discuss them with your child and help prepare them for dealing with the challenges of middle school in a positive way.
Every parent wants their child to have a successful and happy school experience. With a little creativity, planning, advocacy, and awareness we can help prepare the school community for how we can work together to help your child have a successful and happy school year.