Back-to-School Knots

I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.  Winston Churchill

Yeay! It’s back-to-school time!

Back to a schedule. Back to knowing where your kids are for most of the day.  Back to a modicum of predictability (till someone throws up).  We see all the happy mommies and daddies ushering their kids onto the playground, finding their new teacher, helping haul in the school supplies.  It’s all happy.

But not really.

going back to school can be scary
Anxious Child=Anxious Parent

There are parents trying to smile, but their stomachs are in knots.  They know from experience (last year or for multiple years) that all is not happy.  They want it to be happy.  They want to be there smiling and excited like the other parents.  They are putting on a brave face for their kids. Best foot forward, hope for the best, this year will be different . . . please.

But these are the parents of the children who have learning challenges or who are just plain challenging.  So these parents stand on the playground or at the front of the school or in the hallway and say a silent prayer –

Oh, please don’t let the teacher make her read aloud in class.  She will be mortified.

Oh, please don’t let them ground him from recess on the first day.  He will be inconsolable.

Oh, please don’t post their writing samples on the walls for show because her handwriting is illegible.

Oh, please don’t tell her she needs to speak up because she will likely meltdown into tears.

Oh, please don’t let kids pick on him, bully him, target him AGAIN.

Oh, please please don’t let him hear, “but you should know that by now.”

Those parents with their stomachs clenched are silent in the crowd. Smiles painted on, mostly for their children.  “No, don’t worry.  It will be better this year.”   It’s hard to spot them unless they are already consoling a child to nervous to go in or chasing after another one who has run off in the wrong direction.

Spirits should not be flagging on the first day of school, but they are.

Hopefully, they have already done their work in the background.  Some mommas who have had drama know to get in there early – talk with teachers, talk with the counselor, advocate for their child, try, try, try to create a safe haven for their child this year. Some mommas tried, but were told that was not necessary because their child will have likely matured over the summer. And some mommas don’t know to get in there early.  They just hope.  They hope that the new teacher will know how to get the reading skills to grade level.  They hope that their child has matured.  They hope the practice over the summer helped.  They hope things will be better this year.

There are so many difficulties or disabilities that can make learning challenging.  There are reading disabilities, math disabilities, writing disabilities, speech and language disabilities, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorders.  And those are just some of the official diagnoses.  There are a myriad of reasons for having any one of these problems.  And then some kids defy diagnosis or at least a single diagnosis.

And every August, teachers gamely greet 20-30 (or more) new students, at least one of which will have a learning disability or other challenge.  If not forewarned or otherwise prepared, he or she will have to wing it.  Some teachers are endlessly adaptable, able to intuitively sense what each child needs and put those supports in place.  (And in some part of the country, the requirements for teaching are that the teacher have special training in learning disabilities.)  But most teachers are not that adaptable.  I can say this because MOST of US are not that adaptable.  I love evaluating children, but cannot imagine I would be great at managing and teaching 25 of them at a time, at least five of which are not fitting the mold for my curriculum.  Teachers are working hard, but most are not given all the tools and training they need to manage every child who walks through their door.

And that is why there are some parents approaching that first day of school with their stomach in knots.

A comprehensive list of strategies and suggestions is beyond the scope of one blog entry or even a whole book (though we tried with this), but I thought I would list a few suggestions and my favorite strategies for different challenges.

For starters, parents do need to get in there early.  Go visit teachers before the school year starts.  E-mail or calls are fine for getting started.  Face-to-face is best (if only to put a face on you and your child).  Talk without your child there at first.  No child wants to sit there for a review of their “problems” (though eventually, we want to build self-advocacy for high school).  Approach the meeting not just from the standpoint of making your child’s life easier, but of making the teacher’s life easier.  You are there to HELP!

Build a relationship of team work.  You know your child best.  The teacher knows her classroom best.  Work together to make a plan.  A teacher may not appreciate hearing, “This is what you need to do for my child,” but will likely be more open to, “These have been the problems in the past.  This is what has been most helpful for reducing those problems.  Is that possible in your classroom situation?”

And if you have no idea what to suggest for reducing the problems, be frank with the teacher about that.  Ask for her input and ask her how to access more services at school to help understand these problems and develop a plan for reducing them.  There are a lot of resources a child is legally entitled to in the public school system.  There are also some resources at most private schools.  If not, parents may need to seek an evaluation outside of school (ask your pediatrician for ideas).

Some basic suggestions for general areas of challenge.

For reading disabilities

o   Remediation is best done through a multi-sensory reading program taught individually or in very small groups.  If a child is more than a few months behind in reading, they will need help to catch up, so there must be a plan put in place.  Assess progress every 3 months – if no progress, change the plan to increase support.

o   Accommodations should include books-on-tape, videotapes or other sources of information besides reading because there is nothing magical about reading to learn.  We invented a printing press in the 15th century and it has been a valuable tool for promoting learning, but we have other technology now that is equally good.

o   Do not make a child read aloud in class if this is uncomfortable or embarrassing for them.  Teachers can develop a reading pool of volunteers who want to read aloud and pull from that pool.

For high activity level or hyperactivity

o   Do not ground this child from recess.  This child needs to move.  Keeping him in from recess only buys trouble for both the child and the teacher in the afternoon.  If a consequence is absolutely needed at recess, have him run a few laps or spend part of recess helping with an active chore, such as carrying books back the library (thank them for their efforts because a child who is often in trouble needs to feel helpful and recognized as such just as often).

o   Give this child some opportunities to move in the class.  They might need a sitting desk and a standing desk.  They can then be told they can move between those two options only.

o   Have the school occupational therapist consult on other movement ideas.

For writing problems

o   Teach them keyboarding early as word processing will reduce a lot of errors. This takes time to learn, but should start in 2nd or 3rd grade if there are concerns.

o  For more extensive recommendations, check this more recent post

For attention problems

o   Movement breaks will benefit the whole class.  Exercise increases alertness. See my entry on exercise as a foundation for learning.

o   Written instructions for older children so that they can check their memories, not skip steps, and learn to return their own attention to task if they got distracted.

For atypical sensory processing (sensitive to noise, sensitive to touch)

o   Sit this child in a place where he or she has their back to the wall and maybe one side is a wall as well.  This gives some “safe” sides without noise, movement or distraction.

o   This child may need a break from the big, busy classroom to go to a smaller resource room to work.  Late morning might be a good time.

For anxiety

o   Visit in the week before school, meet teachers, explore classrooms, learn the schedule. A child and parent can help teachers sort materials, clean desks or otherwise be helpful.  The child might feel much more comfortable on that overwhelming first day if they have met the teacher, picked a seat, and know the schedule.

o   Check to see if they have atypical sensory processing and are sensitive to noise and modify as above.

o   Do not surprise a child by calling on them unexpectedly. Check with them in advance and ask what they are comfortable contributing.

For language  or communication problems

o   A very consistent daily routine in the classroom reduces the need for lots of extra instructions.

o   As with children with attention problems, written instructions can provide a way of checking the verbal instructions that may have not been fully understood.

For social weaknesses

o   Some children with social weaknesses do not mind or realize they are socially isolated.  Others would like some friends, but are too awkward to establish friendships.  Either way, friends (or at least peer interactions) are critical for social development.  Ask the school counselor if it is possible to develop a “Lunch bunch” or friends group geared at helping kids develop relationships.

o   Ask, plead, insist that all adults monitor for bullying, particularly on the playground.

There are lots of strategies.  Many of them are common sense, just not common. Teachers fall into the habits that work for most of their kids.  Parents fall into the assumption that their children have to do everything just like every other child.  Be willing to shake things up.  Any change you request will be helpful for at least 2-3 other children.

Children deserve to feel good at school.  Parents deserve to be able to drop their children off with assurance.  Don’t be afraid to fight for that.


Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats


As I mentioned above, learning and behavioral challenges vary far and wide.  This entry is a simple recognition that back-to-school is not exciting for all of us, but there are ways to take action.

Let me know what you would like to hear more about.

Resources:  A good evaluation can enlighten everyone.  Do not be afraid to seek it.  For evaluation resources in your area, try contacting the local chapter of the Learning Disability Association.   Here is the national organization to get you started.  Our book, Child Decoded, is also an excellent resource.