As a new school year has started I am reminded of all the years I taught and how I spent every summer reflecting on the year behind and anticipating and planning for the year to come.
Invariably, my goal was to start the year with as little chaos as possible. The chaos is inevitable, but the degree of that chaos is not. The lasting effects of chaos on our students cannot be underestimated especially for our students with anxiety, special needs, depression, sensory issues. Once those negative inputs happen, they will not be easily forgotten because our fragile kiddos make associations and internalize that stuff. When our kids are in states of stress, their energies are spent on survival. Those negative inputs are tucked away in that part of the brain that is easily accessed when they feel threatened again.
Here are some things to consider as you either start your school year or try to calm the chaos that is already taking over.
Communicate BEFORE the students get to school.
- With the student- send a note via snail mail. Mention a memory from last year or introduce yourself. Keep it short.
- With parents- letter of introduction or welcome back. Send before the first day of school but nottoo early, you want it to be fresh and not forgotten by first day.
- With the teachers- share IEP/504 goals and accommodations in a user-friendly format. Bulleted lists are best. Then follow up 2 weeks into the school year and ask if they are finding the accommodations helpful or cumbersome and offer to help.
- With building administration- let them know you are there to advocate for your students, help staff understand special needs, mental health conditions that affect more than just your kiddos.
Develop templates for data collection.
- For each student related to IEP goals
- For each student as a way to document social interactions, work completion, assignment challenges, moods, quotes, important conversations. Why? Because all of that allows us to consider the child as a whole being, not just a bunch of IEP goals. Your paraprofessionals should be well versed and in the habit of documenting.
- For communication logs to be sent home daily. Short and sweet, but individualized. Why? Because we are always collecting data, we want parents to get a glimpse of their kiddo in his school day, and we want to encourage parents to share what goes on at home. Some of these logs were very short, half a page with general info. Some were a whole page with a few prompts for parent responses. (Was Joey able to fall asleep easily/what time did he go to bed? Did Sally take her evening/morning meds? What did Eric decide to do with his free time after school?) These responses were used as documentation and/or conversation starters with the student when they arrived at school.
- How did it go? slips. Some of my students carried these with them to every class. Some were directly connected to IEP goals, others for information gathering. These were NOT point sheets. These were NOT for teachers to register complaints. These were used to chat about the day with my students. We reflected about how the student was feeling, sensing, understanding in each class. I did not want to know all they did wrong or right (teacher perception), I wanted to compare what teacher reported to how my students were feeling, because it is in those feelings that cause behaviors (maladaptive or appropriate). And what a great view for teachers!
On those first days and weeks, it is absolutely imperative that we listen to our students words and actions. It is inexcusable to discount anything they express. It is our job to meet their every need in the moment. Even if we think their worries are irrational or unfounded.
You see, it is in those expressions and our responses that a good year begins. We must make our students feel heard and cared for, safe and understood. Instilling in our students a sense of well-being will see us through all sorts of challenges as the year unfolds.
That’s the stuff of which a successful school year is made.