The days are getting shorter, summer activities are winding down, and school sports, band camps, and other activities are gearing up. It’s time to start thinking about going back to school.
And really, it’s time to get past thinking and to start planning. For families with children who have difficulty in school or have learning disabilities, that is far more complicated than stocking up on notebooks and new shoes.
“It’s a grind for our kids,” says Lawrence Kloth, co-founder of Reading Success Plus. “They’ve had two and a half months of freedom, and now it’s gone.”
And, adds Anne Kloth, the other co-founder of RSP and Lawrence’s mother, “They are not too crazy about doing so.”
That’s an understatement. Children with learning difficulties aren’t just dealing with the loss of sleeping in and fun in the sun. They’re returning to struggle, frustration and, in the worst cases, humiliation and despair. A new pair of shoes won’t make up for that.
“People have to have mental and emotional help for these kids ready to go,” Lawrence says. “Those first few weeks can be tough. Most of them get over it soon, but there are going to some difficult days.”
Readying that emotional support is one of the items on our back-to-school checklist for parents of children with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning disabilities. Taking these steps won’t guarantee a happy back-to-school season, but it certainly will help. Look at the list and check off each task.
◻ IEPs, 504 plans and accommodations
If your child’s IEP or 504 meeting hasn’t been held yet, get it scheduled right away to make sure they get their accommodations as soon as possible. Every day without that assistance is another day your child falls farther behind.
“Schools have limited time and resources,“ Lawrence says. “If it’s a large public school, they could have hundreds of these to do at the beginning of the year. So, if you get on top of it early and meet with them early, you’re going to be ahead of the game.”
Now, if you’re one of the fortunate families who had their IEP or 504 meeting last spring and the accommodations have been approved, congratulations! Your load is lighter. Holding these meetings in the spring is ideal because accommodations can be ready the day your child walks into class the next fall.
However, having accommodations approved, be it spring or fall, is not the same as having them available to your child. If your child is entitled to extra help, whether because of an IEP, 504, or other evaluation, now is the time to make sure that assistance will be available from day one. Check in now with the principal, special education department, teacher, or whoever is responsible for your child’s needs. Get everyone on the same page. Any delay means more lost ground for your child.
◻ Meet the teachers
Meet your child’s teachers as early as you can – even before school is in session. Start building that relationship as soon as possible. Anne remembers when she and Lawrence visited his teachers. When he was in school. Lawrence has dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning difficulties, so both are familiar with these conversations.
“We went in there a couple of days ahead of time when the teachers were already in,” she says. “They usually can take a few minutes to talk to you. It’s less hectic, less busy. You talk about your struggles, that you know you have accommodations.
“When the parents, teachers, and child are under less stress, they have a better chance to get acquainted. The teacher will know the student’s issues and the parent’s concerns before any problems arise. I think you can make friends that way.”
Students in high school or college should hold these conversations themselves. “It’s really important that they take ownership, starting when they’re high school juniors or seniors,” Lawrence says. “Then if they go to college or trade school or whatever, they will know how to talk to their professors or teachers, tell them they have a disability, and make sure they get their accommodations.
“In college, I’d try to get that out of the way in the first or second week. And I’d get to know the support staff early, too. It’s going to make your life a lot easier instead of waiting until middle semester and going to them saying, ‘Oh no, I’m struggling.’ Then you have to dig yourself out of a hole.”
◻ Establish a schedule
Getting through school requires a higher level of organization for families with students who are learning disabled. “Most kids need a routine,” Lawrence says, “but it’s especially important for our kids. “If they don’t have that routine, they can’t function at their best.”
A well-established routine establishes expectations, reducing power struggles. It also eases stress and uncertainty for the child and family. And when successfully followed, it builds confidence and self-reliance.
Start by making sure the student knows the daily schedule. What time do they get up? What tasks have to be completed before they walk out the door? When does the bus pick them up? When will it drop them off? Do they have sports practice or music lessons after school? And be as explicit as possible. Many people with dyslexia who are highly intelligent struggle with telling time – their brains simply are not wired to handle that linear concept. They aren’t stupid – they just need different organizational tools.
◻ Have a homework plan
A key part of any routine is doing homework. Homework time should be as consistent as possible. For elementary-aged kids, it may be shortly after school, following a snack and perhaps some time to decompress, whether that’s playing or napping. For older students, who are more likely to be involved in after-school activities, it more likely will be after dinner. The key is that the child knows what time is dedicated to homework, as well as the accompanying rules – whether music or phone use allowed, for example. This helps the child learn time-management skills, which are innately difficult for people with their disabilities. And of course, the parents’ job is to enforce the schedule and rules.
Because most of the students at Reading Success Plus struggle in school, they need more time to get their work done, whether in class or at home. “If it takes two to three times longer for a typical dyslexic student to go through homework,” Lawrence says, “a 30-minute assignment can take an hour and a half. And most high schoolers have more than one assignment.” So, our students regularly are up until early morning finishing work that their peers finish at a more reasonable hour.
This is another reason why accommodation is so important. These students may be entitled to different, shorter homework assignments that cover the same concepts. In a math class, for example, instead of 20 division problems, a student with disabilities may be given 10 problems that are representative of the material. Such an accommodation can be written into an IEP or 504 plan – another reason to get those plans in place as early as possible.
◻ Set up a support system
In the introduction, we spoke of the special emotional and mental stress students with learning difficulties face upon returning to school. All kids feel some apprehension, but it’s heightened among our students, who have a history of frustration, failure, and often ridicule that their classmates don’t have to bear.
“Build a network to make sure your child has a support system behind them,” Lawrence says. “It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, and having that emotional and mental support from parents, friends, teachers or grandparents is huge.”
Remember what these students are going through.
“They don’t enjoy school,” Lawrence says. “They’re miserable, the first couple of weeks especially. When they get into the swing of things, they get more used to it. But the first couple of weeks are critical for them, and they need a support system around them.
“Anxiety can have a crippling effect on some of our kids. If we can nip that anxiety in the bud early, they’re going to be a much happier kid.”
◻ Create balance
Parents of struggling students usually want academics to be their child’s top priority, and understandably so. But it can’t be the only priority. A child who enjoys art, music, sports, or other activities should be allowed to pursue those interests, which might give them the pleasure and confidence that they don’t get in the classroom. It might even develop into a lifetime passion or career.
“If they’re doing well in these activities, they can finally feel good about something in their life,” Anne says. “Whereas school is not usually that place.”
Reading Success Plus understands that its students have obligations other than tutoring, and our tutors fully support their efforts. (It’s not unusual for tutors to be in the crowd watching a student’s soccer game or dance recital.) We will do our best to shift tutoring schedules to allow students to do other activities while continuing their progress in reading, writing, or math.
Online tutoring is a great tool in those situations. It may be difficult to find time to get a student to the office for tutoring if they’re at practice until 6:30. But families with dedication and commitment might be able to squeeze in an online lesson sometime during the day.
“It’s crucial that you do tutoring twice a week, especially during the school year,” Lawrence says. “So be smart about scheduling and take advantage of online tutoring. You then can maintain balance without losing learning momentum.”
You can do it
So, that’s our checklist. If you take these steps as soon as possible, your child is going to have a better experience upon returning to school. It won’t be perfect – we know that for these kids, the struggle is real and isn’t going away. But being prepared will make it easier for parents to help their children smooth out those rough spots. Being proactive can be the difference between nipping a problem in the bud and dealing with a full-blown crisis.
That’s your assignment, parents. And it’s due soon.
Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy and offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing. You can get more information at readingsuccessplus.com. To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to https://readingsuccessplus.com/#contact.