My son would panic and run from loud noises. He had only been out of diapers consistently for six months. His language, although it was coming, was still years behind his peers. The child would not sit still for more than 30 seconds! If he had been my first son going into kindergarten I would have been in a complete meltdown panic attack two summers ago trying to prepare for kindergarten. Thankfully I had been through kindergarten once already with my oldest so I knew a few tricks to prepare a special needs child for kindergarten and I had the help of some amazing educators.
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Some of these ideas are things I did, others are tips I have learned since my kids attended kindergarten and would have made things go so much smoother if I had known. Whether your child has an anxiety disorder, asthma, severe allergies, sensory processing disorder, autism, trauma history or some other special needs, preparing for kindergarten can be an overwhelming time. Here are my top 10 tips for preparing your child for kindergarten if they have special needs.
Tip #1 Ask For Help Early
This first tip is so important and I truly believe you can never start seeking help too early. If you are noticing behaviours that are impacting your child’s ability to function or causing you concern, talk to your doctor or pediatrician. Don’t wait on this. There may be things they can address that will help smooth the transition into kindergarten. As an example, those toileting issues? Turns out it was chronic constipation and took months to address. Another reason to start talking to professionals early is that they may want to do assessments before your child starts school. Assessment help them identify necessary supports so the teachers and staff know how to help your child.
Tip #2 Identify Triggers & Concerns
Make a list of things that will trigger your child or cause concerns. It could be allergies or noises or lights or smells or certain foods. Whatever may lead to problematic behaviours in your child should be recorded and provided to the school. One of my son’s PTSD triggers is buzzing sounds. This caused intense fight and flight responses and the school needed to be prepared as a bee buzzing near my son could cause him to run away during recess.
Tip #3 Compile Relevant Reports and Articles
Depending on your child’s special needs this may be new territory for the school. Don’t flood them with papers, but put together a package that includes letters from any medical professionals working with your child that explain the child’s specific conditions. Include information on any medications the school should be aware of, such as epi-pens or inhalers. It can also be helpful to include a couple of high quality research papers or articles. Staff may find these helpful in understanding the condition and develop effective strategies to help the child. It’s important not to flood the school, but give them enough that they can prepare themselves and the environment as much as possible to support your child.
Tip #4 Build A Support Kit For Your Child
Depending on your child, and their unique needs, this kit will vary. Some children may need some fidget toys, others may need a change of clothing (shirt/underwear). Another thing to consider for the kit is visual schedules that can help your child through certain situations or emotions. With my oldest son he developed severe asthma while in kindergarten, we created a visual tool that reminded him how to recognize the feelings of an asthma attack and how to use his inhaler. Ensure the school is aware of the kit so the teachers can direct the child to it as needed and that none of the items will cause an issue in the classroom. The teacher isn’t going to thank you for sending a squeeze toy that squeaks!
Tip #5 Toileting
My boys had no shame about walking around the house with their pants around their ankles looking for help with snaps and zippers. It didn’t bother us, but that kind of exhibitionism isn’t going to work at school! Ensure your child is able to toilet themselves in their school clothes. For both of my boys this meant they spent their kindergarten year in elastic pants. We left the zips and buttons for when their fine motor skills became stronger.
Tip #6 Clothing
That brings us to an important issue, school clothes. Your child will be doing a lot of running and playing, not to mention messy art projects and lots of sitting at school. School clothes need to be comfortable, durable and easy for your child to use. Practice wearing the new school clothes. It is one thing to have your child look smart on their first day, but if they aren’t comfortable there are going to be issues. The last thing you want is clothing causing your child to have a negative experience on their first day of school. Make sure you address things like pesky tags, and ensure that your child can change between their indoor and outdoor shoes easily. If your child struggles with tying their laces, you can see what finally worked for my son here.
Tip #7 Lunch Time
Lunch time can be a challenge for kindergartners. It’s noisy and busy. Meal times are also the one time when they are used to having a lot of one on one help from you or other caregivers. School is going to be a different story and lunch time is going to require quite a bit of independence. Before school starts pick out a lunch kit they love and have some practice “school lunches”. Make sure your child will eat the food you are packing and that they can open the lunchbox and containers or packages. My boys used to hate sandwiches and would not eat all day long if I packed a sandwich. It made for some tough days until I figured out what kind of lunch (bento style!) my boys would eat at school. I also liked to include a little sweet and always tucked a love note from me into their lunch kits.
Tip #8 Mastering Circle Time
One of the big things in kindergarten is circle time. Reading time on your lap is something your child is probably very comfortable with, but sitting with other fidgeting children while trying to listen is tough. Especially if they have a hard time focusing or are easily distracted. Practice this at home by reading while your child sits on the floor playing with some toys. Make it a family activity if you can. You can also visit the local library where they often host reading times and practice your circle time skills there.
Here are some of our favourite books about starting school:
Tip #9 Inside Out, Get Ready For The Emotions
Whether your little one has big emotions or tends to be more reserved and calm, starting school is likely to trigger all sorts of new feelings. And I’m not just talking about from your child, it’s going to be a big time for you too! Emotions will be running hot and there are always going to be tears on the first day of kindergarten. It may not be from your child, but seeing other kids crying could affect your child. Prepare some strategies ahead of time to keep your own reactions in check and to help your child deal with all the big emotions of their first day.
Tip #10 Build Your Village
Your child’s success in school may take a team approach. Connect with your pediatrician, child psychologists, therapists, OT, teachers, school counselor, other parents and even the school receptionist (yes, trust me, they know everything). Build your village so your child has a big support net that will help launch them into a successful school life.
Bonus tip to prepare for kindergarten success!
If you are able, speak to the teacher about volunteer opportunities. Often teachers need help. Some of this work can be done from home or, if you are able, you can volunteer in the classroom. Being involved gives you the chance to get to know the teachers, staff and feel for the whole school. It will also give you the chance to meet other parents of children that will hopefully become future playmates for your child.
I haven’t discussed any specific programs (like IEPs), as each region has their own terminology and programs, and I know my readers are coming from all areas of our world. If you follow these tips the school and professionals will guide you to the appropriate resources and programs in your area. The most important step is to start asking for help and reaching out! It can feel overwhelming as you prepare for kindergarten, but hopefully these tips help you find success so your special needs child thrives in school.