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Easing the Back-to-School Transition for Children With Social and Emotional Challenges
by Iris Valanti, Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh

Many times, children are excited to head back to school after the summer break; they may be excited to see friends they've missed, start in a new school, or tackle new interesting classes or extracurricular activities. However, children with social and/or emotional challenges like autism, anxiety or ADHD may have more difficulties coping with the changes of schedule, expectations and routine.

April Artz of Squirrel Hill Psychological Services, a division of Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh, is a clinical therapist and director of Quest Camp, a summer program for kids with social and emotional challenges and the Quest AfterSchool program, which helps children set and achieve goals related during the school year. From her very experienced perspective, she offers parents some suggestions for a happy, healthy transition back to school.

Emphasize the positive. Encourage optimism, and cultivate a sense of calm and confidence. Discuss the worries openly, but don't feed them.

If you didn't wean your child off their "sleep-in schedule" before school started, you may have to do some extra work to get back to weekday routines. Moving bedtimes in small increments over a couple weeks, making an earlier bedtime more fun with favorite stories and enforcing schedules consistently makes this transition smoother.

Starting in a new school this year? Nobody wants to get lost on the first day in a new school. Visit the school in advance, and go over all the relevant routes: classroom, locker, cafeteria and bathroom. Take the cell phone along and take pictures your child can refer to, if necessary. If school has already started, and there is still a problem, ask if you can stay after school for a brief time. Use the quiet afternoon to go over routes and resolve roadblocks.

If your child has difficulties with organization, it is essential to create an organizational system to help them stay on track, especially as they grow older and face more challenging work at school. Some families color-code folders for each subject; others use a large binder with individual folders inside. The point is to work out a system that makes sense and works for your child. Go through the folders together frequently to make sure they stay organized.

If your child is eligible for special education services, schedule an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting early in the school year. School districts' tendency to "wait and see" how a child is doing can work against kids with executive functioning deficits (difficulty with time management, organization and/or planning) or alternative ways of learning. They can easily get disorganized and fall behind. A proactive IEP meeting allows for teachers to be informed of the student's strengths and deficits, and it is a good time to assess and incorporate goals.

How are students expected to keep track of their assignments? Do they have to write everything down, or is there an online system that can be accessed daily? Keeping track of assignments and when they are due is a crucial skill that each and every student needs to master. Your child's IEP might benefit from having somebody at school help him collect and bring home all the relevant books and papers each day.

Many of these children lack skills in discerning nuance or understanding different behaviors and expectations from different teachers. Learn as much as you can about the people your child spends the day with, and help her find solutions to any problems. Contacting a specific teacher may be worthwhile, but stay focused on working out positive solutions.

Artz's final reminder is most important: all kids want to be successful at school. Those children who have a history of struggling in school, whatever the reason, too often get labeled, and it's important to recognize their abilities and desires to succeed.

"Parents of kids with complex needs probably already know all about the extra effort it takes to develop, practice and reinforce effective strategies that will give their children the tools to succeed," she said. "But they just need to remember that the extra time and effort is well worth it. Positive experiences at school lead to more academic achievement, improved personal development and hopefully, a lifelong love of learning!"

For more information on Jewish Family & Children's Servic of Pitsburgh, visit http://ww.jfcspgh.org or call (412) 422-7200.

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