In the past few weeks, we joined the ranks of parents with children in school. Our first-born headed off to kindergarten and no tears were shed on either side. The enormity of this milestone does not escape me, but we are a school-loving household so although it is a sign of my baby growing another step closer to being a man, it is a happy one.
Meanwhile in clinic, I have been catching up children on their immunizations so that they can also head to school. Some have told me about how excited they are to rejoin friends, return to sports, and prepare for college. Others have complained about things that plague many public Philadelphia schools, such as lack of a school nurse, limited sports teams, and sparse school supplies. Parents have worried about getting services for their children who need help with reading, speech, or writing. We have brainstormed solutions to many of these problems in our short time together, knowing that to truly tackle these issues we would need many more hours, people, and dollars. However, there is so much that we as parents and pediatricians can do to help children succeed in school.
One week in, here are my tips for the day-to-day success of getting your child ready for school:
- Talk positively about school! I am always telling my son how many years of school his father and I chose to attend because we loved it. When I know what his agenda includes that day, I act as excited about it as possible. “Oh you have sports today, that sounds so fun!”
- While maintaining a positive vibe, I acknowledge the struggles. Starting at a new school is hard! Making new friends, learning a new schedule, setting and meeting new expectations are all stressful challenges for me, nevertheless a five-year-old.
- Get enough sleep! Our new schedule starts almost an hour before our prior routine, which means that bedtime needed to move earlier as well. We are still adjusting our routines, but we all need to be well rested so have prioritized this.
- Do as much preparation the night before as possible. I try to pack up some of the lunches for the morning and pick out clothes. Although there should theoretically be time for these things in the morning, you never know what curve balls you will be facing and being prepared is important!
- Communicate with the teacher. We are lucky to have a kindergarten teacher who has solicited feedback from us and wants to know more about our son’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Even if she hadn’t initiated this conversation though, I knew it would be important to have these discussions before the mid-semester parent-teacher conferences.
Inevitably there will be students who are struggling though and we should all know how to offer help. Children who are struggling in school should receive comprehensive psycho-education testing to determine if a learning disability may be a factor and whether or not the child may benefit from supportive educational services. All services outside of the standard school curriculum are considered “special education services,” but there is a wide range of intensity in those services.
An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for any child 3-22 receiving special education services. An IEP should address a child’s specific learning issues and include goals to support and meet their educational needs. This is a legally binding document and the public school must provide everything in the IEP for the student. If you think your student needs an IEP, you should request an evaluation, which includes a school psychologist or other professional giving your child various tests and performing classroom observations as part of a multidisciplinary team evaluation. Then, the school and parents should review the evaluation and determine what if any services or supports the student needs. The IEP goes into effect after a parent gives consent and any reduction in services later on requires prior written notice before changes are made. Private schools are not required to follow an IEP, but private school students can be evaluated for an IEP through their local public school. An IEP should be reassessed on a regular basis.
If your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP, but needs accommodations to meet their educational needs, they may need a 504 plan. A “504” for short is part of the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Any public K-12 student with a disability may qualify for a 504 plan and the list of disabilities is broad, including things like ADHD or learning disabilities. A 504 is less standardized than an IEP and does not include educational goals.
So as we head back-to-school or start out on our children’s educational journeys together, let us prepare for a great academic year. I know there will be bumps along the way, but I feel optimistic and prepared. After all the smiling first day of school photos I saw in my news feed, I hope that those smiles continue throughout the school year!
[Portions of this post were previously published in the Sept 2016 QVNA Magazine.]