7 Ways to Prepare for Preschool with a Child Who Has Special Needs

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After the first days of learning about my daughter’s Down syndrome diagnosis, once I dealt with the initial shock and acceptance of what challenges she’d face, I was comforted by the fact that we had a little window of time with very few worries. Sure, there were doctor appointments and lots of therapy visits during those early years, but for the most part, Nella was just a baby, like any other baby, and our primary job consisted of loving and enjoying her. Those bigger fears — like wondering how she’d fit in with other kids, if she’d thrive in unfamiliar environments, how she’d socialize and manage without our constant presence, how she’d learn to read and write and have her accomplishments measured — well, those were later fears that could wait until she did things like going to school, which to a mom holding an itty bitty newborn, seemed like an eternity away.

My, how these things creep up on us.

Last year, after much thought and discussion as a family, we decided it was best for Nella to start preschool this fall. It turned out that her preschool offered to transition her early into a classroom setting by allowing her to start attending this past school year (later in the school year). Weeks before her first class (not a special needs class), I realized how heavy my school anxiety was for her, as the thought of her starting school often kept me up at night. I was worried that she’d be sad, that she’d struggle to keep up, that she’d be too shy to play with the other kids, that she’d miss us — and one worry led to another until I was a hot mess of unwarranted, unhealthy fears. I’ll jump to the ending and tell you that starting preschool turned out to be an incredibly positive experience and, with a new school year only a few weeks away, I’m sleeping soundly these days, at peace with, and excited about, what this next year holds for our daughter.

How’d we get here? Well, we had to just go through it. But we learned some very helpful tips along the way that can help make sending a child to preschool — special needs or not — a lot smoother an experience.

1. Meet the Staff — and Be Honest About Your Fears
Introduce yourself to the staff who will be teaching your child well before the school start date — and be up front about your concerns. I admit that I tried to pull off the put-together-no-worries-here mom for all of about five minutes when talking with Nella’s teacher before I lost it — and started crying and let everything out. I told her teacher that I’d been scared about school for a long time, that I was worried she’d cry, that I understood her vocabulary but feared no one else would and that I wondered how she’d play with other kids (all fears every parent has, regardless of special needs!) Honestly, all it took was for that teacher to hold my hand, smile, make eye contact and say, “I understand all those fears, and I promise she’s going to do great.” Instantly, I was relieved and hopeful. I just needed her teacher to hear and acknowledge that this was hard and that she understood.

2. Ask About Accommodations
Different preschools have different rules, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if, for at least the first few days, you’re allowed to accompany your child or stay in the classroom for a short time. In our case, this was very helpful for Nella’s adjustment. I was welcome to stay in the classroom, sit with her at her desk and accompany her to recess. Keep in mind, you eventually have to let go (so hard to cut the cord, I know!), so don’t hover too much, but keeping a little bit of distance while still allowing your child to see you, might help establish the fact that this new environment is safe and secure.

3. Make a Take-Home Book and Talk About School at Home
Consistency is key when it comes to our daughter accepting new experiences — and starting school definitely called for reinforcement of this. We asked Nella’s teacher if we could come in and take photos of each of her classmates, as well as other teachers from whom she’d be learning (assistants, music teacher, etc.). She agreed and informed each student’s parents that we were doing this. We used these photos to make a laminated book with names so that at home, we could constantly go over new friends and reinforce the fact that we were excited for her and her new experience. This also helped her learn the names of her classmates quickly, which made her more comfortable.

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4. Prepare Yourself for Learning Gaps and Try Not to Compare
I can easily forget about Nella’s delays in everyday life because they quickly get lost and are overshadowed by all the amazing things she can do, but school environments can make them more obvious. There might be difficult moments when the challenges your child faces seem to be highlighted when other students are accomplishing tasks with which your child struggles. Prepare yourself for these moments, take them in stride and remember that success should never be measured against another’s achievements. We take one day at a time, we have high expectations for our daughter, we work hard helping her reach her goals — and we celebrate every success along the way.

5. Make Your Expectations Clear
There’s a great range of abilities and understanding both within and outside of special needs, so make sure your child’s teacher knows what you expect of your child. Even though our daughter’s attention span may be shorter than some of her peers, we want her to follow directions and sit on the carpet for circle time with her friends. She might not be able to write her letters yet, but if her classmates are working on letters, Nella sits with them and does her best to hold a pencil and follow lines. Discussing these expectations with your child’s teacher creates a clear path of communication between home and school — an important part of student success.

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6. Bring in Other Forces
Have other kids in school? Use your resources! Our older daughter helped a lot during Nella’s first weeks of school, acting as a cheerleader, excitedly asking Nella questions at the end of the day, slipping notes in her lunchbox and even arriving to her own classroom late one day so she could first visit her sister’s school and help her settle in. Because consistency is extra important with our daughter, we continually talk about preschool, her classmates’ names, her teacher, what she’s learning, etc. And we’ve got neighbors and friends in on it, too!

7. Calm Down
Easier said than done, I know, but things went so much more smoothly for our daughter when I curbed my dramatic sentiment and really focused on being excited for her. Kids sense our energy and worries no matter how hard we fake it. Instead of fearing the worst, believe that your child’s school experience will be a happy one. Imagine a happy scene as detailed as you imagined the sad one. Picture smiles and friends and playing and learning — and your child comfortable, at peace. That good energy will help pave the way for a positive experience.

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