Help! My Kid with a Disability is Going Back to School After a Year and a Half at Home!

By Sarah Kesty, Executive Function Coach

After more than a year of distance learning, students everywhere are preparing for the transition to in-person school. Some may be excited for the social time again, while others may be dreading the demands of being on campus (and already missing Pajama Day every day!)

As a teacher with a physical disability, I understand both perspectives. I'm truly thrilled to be seeing students in person, having more time together, and sharing my world-class, cheesy dad jokes.* But, I also recognize that my stamina has diminished and the demands of being on my foot all day will bring lots of pain. Our kids with disabilities are likely experiencing the same things.

Back to School for kids with disabilities

Practical Steps to Calm the Back-to-school Anxiety of Your Child with Disabilities

So, how do we help them prepare to go "back to school?" Start with where they are. Ask them open-ended questions and try reflective listening (rephrasing what you're hearing, like "I heard you share that you're a mix of excited and scared….") When your child expresses genuine concern or doubt, try to hear it without judgement. Avoid telling them not to feel a certain way, and instead, say that you hear them.

Some questions to get them started can include:

  • What do you wonder about next year?
  • What excites you?
  • What do you hope?
  • What do you dread?
  • How would you like to prepare?

These conversations will empower you to know what to highlight (the hopes and excitements) and what to plan to address before school starts (the worries and dreads). When tackling the potential challenges, try to dig a bit into what specific things are making them feel fearful or anxious: old problems coming back, fear of the unknown, or a new campus? Maybe something else? Talking through these challenges will help potential solutions emerge. For example, if your child is worried about bullies, you can prep some quips and rehearse responses, so your child is ready with a plan. (Next step would be to report the bullying to school, of course.)

If your child is fearful of the unknown, the post-pandemic school world, you can try:

  • Visiting the campus before the school starts (even before any busy orientation days)
  • Taking preview photos to review at home
  • Connecting with other students enrolled at the school (older students can be helpful guides!)
  • Reaching out to the 504 or IEP case manager, or school psychologist, to meet and greet
  • Previewing the route between classes and noting landmarks for navigation
  • Keeping track of their questions to ask the school before the first day

No matter what grade your child is entering, be sure to connect with the case manager and as many teachers as possible. Every teacher appreciates connecting with families, and knowing how to best help your child will be key to success the first day and beyond. If your IEP is robust (and possibly a little hard to read), consider making a "cheat sheet" that lists your child's needs, accommodations, motivations and strategies for success. It sometimes takes case managers weeks to get access to this information and make it available to all teachers. If you're sharing the information in an introductory letter, with a little bit of chocolate attached, you can ensure your child's needs are well-addressed from the first day.

Teacher and student back to school

We're making history right now, and our brave kids are the faces of the post-pandemic schools. Let's take advantage of this restart to advocate for the better support and inclusion of our kids! I'll be right there with you, in spirit and on my middle school campus.

*My current favorite dad joke: People are shocked when they find out I'm not an electrician.


About the Author:

Sarah is an Executive Function Coach, author, host of Executive Function Podcast and award-winning educator. Sarah supports families and students through her role on the advisory board for the Charcot Marie Tooth Association, an organization helping those with her neuromuscular disease, CMT. Sarah's passion is for changing people's perspectives on ability and inclusion. Learn more:

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