Navigating a New School Year with Your Special-Needs Child

With the start of a new school year, most parents share the same concerns: greater expectations, new friends, expanding social opportunities.

However, if you have a child with special needs, navigating the social and emotional landmines become more complex.

According to the Institute of Educational Sciences, more than 90 percent of 6- to 21-year-olds with disabilities are served in mainstream schools. Some have significant needs, and others, more often than not, fit well enough into a school’s academic programming but are challenged socially or developmentally.

While every child is different, it’s important to anticipate the landmines as much as possible and do what you can to temper expectations.

Get your child involved

Kids make friends through sports and activities, and thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved—either through inclusion or special recreation programs.

The Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA) partners closely with local park districts to provide inclusional support. Even if your child doesn’t have a formal diagnosis but might need support in a recreation program with his peers, NSSRA will provide the staff and training to ensure your child’s success. NSSRA also offers more than 700 traditional and cooperative special recreation programs and events, serving more than 1,500 individuals with all types of disabilities.

“Our goal is to give kids of any ability a place to belong and participate,” says Meggan Key, NSSRA manager of inclusion.

Dealing with your own feelings

Comparing your child to others is always a slippery slope, particularly when he or she has special needs. “I had to stop expecting my son to have the same experiences or hit the same developmental milestones as his older brothers and peers,” explained a mother of a child with profound autism. “Instead, we’ve learned to celebrate the world that is Luke, and it’s just as amazing.”

Frustrated by society’s obsession with accomplishment and perfection (and parents themselves of special needs kids), sisters Gina Gallagher and Patricia Konjoian co-authored “Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid! A Survival Guide for Ordinary Parents of Special Kids.” More than just adding levity to a painful, challenging reality, the sisters offer their own strategies to embracing the achievements of less-than-perfect children. They remind us that every child has “a gift to bear” and should be celebrated.

They also emphasize the importance of educating others about disabilities, and the importance of talking openly it. Lake Forest mom Jennifer Riley created a book for her daughter’s kindergarten class (modeled after a similar children’s book, “My Friend Isabelle”) that told Jane’s “story” on the right, with notes for parents on the left. The book proved to be invaluable for peers and parents alike, not only creating a community that is more aware and tolerant of differences, but more accepting of her daughter for who she is.

Find a few good friends

Studies on inclusion show that children from integrated classrooms are more comfortable and aware of human differences, and they are more likely to have greater social empathy. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get your child, or you, to feel included.

“Early on, when parents are scheduling playdates, you quickly learn who is comfortable and open to encouraging friendships with your child,” admits one mom. “Sadly, though, sometimes you and your child just have to develop a thick skin. Remember that it took you years to accept your child’s disability—give others a break.”

Her best advice? Develop friendships with people who understand all too well that at some time or other, everyone is faced with hardship and unique challenges.


Photo by Rebecca Lee