How to Build a Successful School Year for your Child
Depending on where you live, your child will spend between 900 and 1000 hours in school this year. Those hours will be spent discovering what they are good at, and what they are not. For some these hours will be interesting, they will learn and grow, they will make friends and feel good about themselves. But for most kids from hard places, school is tough. For those children exposed to stress in utero they are more anxious in school and more easily stressed out when the information is difficult to learn or the teacher is more tense. For those children denied proper nutrition or exposed to drugs or alcohol they may have learning disabilities and struggles tolerating their frustrations. For those children exposed to violence in their young lives they may be more likely to express themselves using verbal or physical aggression.
In Chapter 12 of my book, The Call to Love I share some of our experiences with our kids in school. There have been seasons where we had five kids in four schools due to their ages and needs. School is not only a huge part of your child's life, but it also becomes a big part of your life as a parent. So the summer is a great time to think about your goals for this school year. Whether you are registering your child for kindergarten or high school. Whether you are considering a transfer or gearing up for a fight because last year was rough. Take some time this summer to think through what are some realistic expectations for your child this school year? What are your child's strengths and struggles? What are your school's strengths and struggles? What kind of support can you get from the school and what additional supports do you need to discover and access?
Let's start with your child. Think through their strengths and struggles in the follow areas:
1. Socially: How does your child interact with other peers? Do they do well with older or younger kids or do they play well with children their own age? Do they struggle with aggression towards peers or adults in social settings? If they are younger, are they able to share and play well with other children? If they are older, do they have a good group of friends that regularly hang out at your home? What if any supports do you feel your child could benefit from to help improve their social skills? What if any, support do you feel would set your child up for success in social situations? What are some triggers for your child in social situations that the school could help decrease?
2. Educational: How did your child do last year academically? How is your child doing on standardized testing? Have a conversation with your child about how they feel when being tested. Are they anxious or relaxed, rushed or bored? How do they feel about homework? Are they overwhelmed or annoyed? In general at school, do they feel smart or stupid?
3. Physical: Does your child have any physical disabilities that hinder their ability to learn? 50% of children in foster care have a medical condition requiring support. Is your school nurse familiar with your child? Does your school know how to help with your child's condition? Sometimes a simple fix such as preferential seating in the classroom can help a child relax and learn. Where would they like to sit? If they have experienced frequent hunger in utero or as a baby they make feel triggered when hungry. Does your child learn better when they have frequent healthy snacks?
4. Emotional: Does your child have a diagnosed mental health condition? If not, have they been evaluated for one? 80% of children in foster care have significant mental health needs. These issues (depression, anxiety, etc) will make it very difficult for them to learn and they will require additional supports at school. Does your child need movement breaks to help work out anxiety or energy? Sometimes the worst consequence for a child is taking away recess so partnering with the school to ensure they have opportunities for physical movement throughout the day can help them focus.
So going through these questions you may now have more questions! It may be a good idea this summer to check in with your pediatrician or therapist to get their advice on additional accommodations that could help your child at school. Most schools will require a letter from a professional with the diagnosis so this summer is a great time to obtain that documentation.
I have already mentioned some supports a school can offer. Here are a few more to consider:
Social Work: Does your school have a social worker on staff that could meet with your child regularly to check in about how they are doing? Do they have a social skills group that meets weekly your child could join?
Occupational Therapy: Does your school have an OT in the building that could meet with your child? Often they are able to improve your child's ability to pay attention in class, physical tasks such as holding items like a pencil, musical instrument, or book. They are also often used to coach the child on their classroom behaviour. If they don't have one in your school, you may want to access their services privately.
Speech Therapy: Does your school have a Speech-Language Pathologist that could meet with your child to work on their communication skills? They won't just work on enunciation, but also socialization, learning and literacy skills.
Listen to audio recordings instead of reading text
Learn content from audiobooks, movies, videos and digital media instead of reading print versions
Materials in a larger print size
Having a designated reader or scribe for testing
Provided an outline of lessons when note taking is a challenge
Given a written list of homework instructions
Use a word processor to type notes or give responses in class
Decrease or eliminate being called on in class for a period of time while working on coping skills to manage the stress of being called on.
Work or take a test in a different setting, such as a quiet room with few distractions
Use sensory tools such as gum or fidgets
Take more time to complete a task or a test as well as receiving gentle, verbal prompts to keep them on pace. (For example, if they are anxious they won't rush, if they are distracted they will return to the task). They may also be given the chance to take the test over several days instead of all at once if that is too much.
Take frequent breaks, such as after completing a task
Take a test at a specific time of day
Have help coordinating assignments in a planner
Receive coaching on executive functioning skills such as how to study or organize.
Complete fewer or different homework problems than peers
Write shorter papers
Answer fewer or different test questions
Create alternate projects or assignments
Be excused from particular projects that may be upsetting.
So now you have a list and some questions. Think about your child and how they learn. Spend some time talking with them about where they feel the most successful and most stressed during their school day.
Don't forget their strengths.
When working on the topics mentioned in this blog a parent can be tempted to focus on what's going wrong. When in fact, it is shown to be even more beneficial to find out where your child feels good and give them more opportunities to engage in those moments. Stop right now and watch this 2 minute video. So thinking about what Marcus Buckingham stated in the video... What was their best grade on their report card? Let's not just provide supports to set up your child for success, but let's focus on who your child is! Is there an activity that relates to their strengths? Athlete, Artist, Scientist? Can you find something in school (elective classes, sports, clubs) or out of school, tutoring, teams or classes? It might seem odd, but if your child has a D in Math and an A in Art... instead of getting them a tutor for Math. What if you stopped talking about Math and put them in an art class? Your child might become happier and more capable of loving and trusting relationships with a healthy self esteem. You can work with the school to see if there are any accommodations you can make for Math, but let's just accept they are never going to become an accountant.
Ok, so your homework for this week is to think through your child's strengths and struggles as they relate to the upcoming school year. Consult with professionals to get the ideas and documentation you need. Then contact the school to set up a meeting to discuss your ideas.
If this feels a bit overwhelming, feel free to reach out
& we can discuss your questions in an online, parent coaching video session - firstname.lastname@example.org
Health Care Issues for Children and Adolescents in Foster Care and Kinship Care from the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal 2015.