Getting off to a good start: helping your child make the transition to a new school year.
Our two sons, now 18 and 15, are both affected by fragile X syndrome. (For more about fragile X syndrome, see Ask The Doctor, page 117.) In spite of their common diagnosis, each boy handles change differently. Our youngest son's excitement over upcoming changes often results in hyperactivity and hand flapping. He is more social than his older brother and looks forward to new situations, but his physical behavior shows that he still feels apprehension. Our older son, who has a severe anxiety disorder, shies away from all new situations, panicking over the idea of new schedules, new teachers and new epectations.
Although the boys are very different in their approach to change, there are some things we have done through the years that have helped make transitions easier for both of them.
Things that have helped
* Picture scrapbook: I came upon this idea in an unusual place. I was reading a brochure from a moving company on ways to make moving to a new home easier for small children. One suggestion was to take pictures of the child's new home, city, schools and neighborhood, and place these pictures in a scrapbook for the child. Wow! I realized a scrapbook of this type might also be helpful for a child with special needs who was moving to a new school.
That spring, during the last few days of school, I headed off to the middle school my son would be attending in the fall, with camera in hand. I darted about the school taking pictures of teachers my son would have, the principal, the lunchroom, classrooms, the library and, yes, even the bathrooms. I'm sure there were a few people who thought I was a little crazy but it proved to be a good idea. Together, my son and I put together a scrapbook of pictures. During the summer we looked at the book and talked about the school.
* Walking though the schedule: Getting an advance copy of your child's schedule can also be helpful. Before school begins, you can try to set up a couple of times when you and your child can walk through the halls, learning the routes to and from classes. This will aLso allow the child to become accustomed to the school at a time that is free of excessive noise and other disruptions. Another idea--even more positive--would be to have an older peer, who will attend the same school, walk through the schedule with your child.
It's helpful to have the need for an early schedule written into your child's IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This year, our local high school announced a plan to hand out final schedules to all sophomores, juniors and seniors--all 1,300 of them--on the first day of school. But because our sons, IEP's specified that they be allowed to walk through their schedules before the start of school, we were able to get their schedules over the summer and avoid a potentially overwhelming situation.
* Getting acquired with teachers: Advocating for our sons, inclusion in as many regular classes as possible has resulted in an increase in the number of teachers who serve them. This is especially true in middle school and high school. In an effort to help the teachers who will be working with our sons, we write notes introducing ourselves and our sons and send them to the teachers before school begins. We include information explaining fragile X syndrome and request a time when we could stop by to have our boys meet them. When we visit, we stay just long enough to say hello, shake hands and allow our boys to put a face with a name. This seems to make the transition on the first day of school a little easier. We've found most teachers to be extremely responsive to this approach and feel it has been a good start toward building a positive working relationship with them.
* Other ideas: Other things can be done to assist a child as he or she moves to a new school or begins a new school year. For example, make sure your child knows how the lunch program works in his or her school. Familiarizing the child with the bus schedule might also be helpful. Perhaps most important is for the parent to convey a positive attitude about school. These things don't take a lot of time, but they can make a big difference.
* Keep in touch: Too often, parents have contact with a child's school only when there are problems. It is also important to let teachers know when things are going well. Occasionally writing a note, thanking a teacher for the things that are working and letting them know you appreciate their efforts, can make a positive difference.
We cannot, nor should we, remove all obstacles in our children's lives. But there are some simple things we can do to make new situations less threatening and help the school year get off to a better start. This can be extremely beneficial for children who are challenged by anxiety in new situations. Some of these things take a little extra time, but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
Jeannie Lancaster lives in Loveland, Colorado with her husband, Dave, and three children, Torri, David and Sean, all of whom have fragile X syndrome. Jeannie is a full-time student, part-time freelance writer and full-time advocate for her children's inclusion in all aspects of life. She has served on the board of directors of the National Fragile X Foundation and currently coordinates a local program called Loveland Oral Readers for Education (LORE) in which volunteers record books for students with reading delays.