Back to School Looks Different When Your Child is Neurologically Diverse

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The dawn of a new school year brings all the feels: excitement, hope, joy, and stress. Pre-COVID memes of parents doing a happy dance, sweeping children out the door — thrilled that summer vacation is over — will once again flood the Internet. Structure will once again rule, and separation of parents and children will resume. The pandemic upended the old days, with many parents still working from home and some children still attending school remotely. Now, back-to-school has a different meaning for families, especially those with neurologically diverse students.

As the mother of a rising fourth grader with ADHD and a sensory processing disorder, I am filled with both hope and trepidation. I’m hopeful that rest, relaxation and daily academic remediation will bridge gaps in her education. Even with excellent teachers, the pandemic led to learning loss, where neurologically diverse and poor children suffered the most. Three years later, the nation is still dealing with the aftereffects of school closures, illness, depression, anxiety, masks on, and masks off. Women, with and without children, took the brunt of the pandemic — and many are still reeling economically.

Even as I set my daughter up for a successful start to the school year, I worry about a repeat of the last quarter of third grade. While the mornings went smoothly, the afternoons were filled with regressive behavior, emails from teachers, incomplete projects, team meetings with teachers, therapists, and school psychologists, meltdowns and sauciness at school and home. I cannot imagine enduring that again, but understand that treatment progression for neurologically diverse kids is nonlinear. No matter what I do, the roller coaster ride will continue, and so I prepare myself accordingly.

First things first … focus on strengths

Don’t read the final report card. How a child finished the previous school year often drives how parents feel about the upcoming one. Perhaps the final report card was filled with low marks, negative comments or the same notes about behavioral issues, lack of stamina, and/or unmet standards. Sharing it with a child can negatively affect their self-esteem and make parents feel like a failure. Children with differently-wired brains cannot be expected to perform at the same level as other children. A “C” may be a huge accomplishment for a student who spent the year being reassigned desks, because she couldn’t sit still. “Maybe your child’s reading score was low because she didn’t read as many books as her peers, but she mastered the skill of pulling apart characters. That’s a significant accomplishment,” says Dr. Lisa Marsh, parent and college-level educator, who also points out, “Grades vary from school to school, so a ‘C’ at one school may be worth more elsewhere.”

Meet with teachers

Before school starts, or within the first few weeks, meet with your child’s teacher. Let them know who your child is. Give enough information about triggers like hunger or fatigue, and strategies — allowing breaks, for instance — so that their teacher can tailor lessons that work toward the end result. According to Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired, “When a child is neurodivergent, both they and the school benefit when key information about a child’s strengths and potential challenges are communicated in advance. Because ultimately, we want our kids to be seen and supported for who they are, and we want teachers to have the tools to help them do this.”

Agree on what works for your child

Each grade level requires certain skills, and students are typically at different levels at the beginning of the school year, requiring teachers to teach to the middle. Where mastery of three-place addition, regrouping, and borrowing were 3rd grade requirements, 4th and 5th graders may be expected to divide, compute decimals, and decipher word problems. Some children will catch on easily; others need more time, and neurologically diverse learners may need these skills taught in smaller chunks. Their mastery may come later than the others, and that’s okay. Request attainable benchmarks for your child, so they experience success. Small victories equate to higher self-esteem, which may motivate them to keep trying. Asking for what they need is not a form of favoritism; rather, it’s a realistic opportunity for your child to flourish. Parents may also suggest that incomplete class assignments be sent home for completion. I found this to be helpful for my daughter, who found writing within time constraints challenging.

Create a reward system

My daughter loves to draw, and would be so engrossed in her personal project that she did not want to stop for social studies. Soon, her favorite activity became a distraction, resulting in natural consequence of curtailed art time. My normally sweet child reacted negatively, prompting a strategy session with her teachers. We agreed that she could draw for a few minutes at the end of social studies or math, as long as she completed (as best she could) the assignment. This compromise was a win-win, because my daughter was rewarded for staying on task, and her teachers were able to do their job. Be willing to offer or receive suggestions that support your child and the integrity of the entire class. And, be creative. What works for a few weeks may not work later.

Manage expectations

At 9 years old, my daughter is officially a tween. As she gets older and hormones start raging, I know that the start of school will be fraught with social and emotional insecurity. I turned to psychotherapist, school counselor, and author of Middle School Matters, Phyllis Fagell, LCPC for advice. “All tweens feel awkward, even the most socially adept ones. Preemptively let them know that every single middle schooler will get dropped by a friend — not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because this is when kids are figuring out how to make, and be, a good friend,” she said.

Other ways to pre-empt barriers for a successful school year is by forming a partnership with your child’s teacher, nurse and school psychologist. This team approach provides an extra layer of support for the entire family. Also, give teachers time to get to know your child as an individual, especially if the class is large. Assume the teacher wants the best for your child and be prepared to call out bias, if you feel that your child is being punished instead of supported. (Sadly, this is too often the case for Black and brown children at school.) Contact your child’s pediatrician and/or therapist about a reassessment of their diagnosis. Just as children grow physically, their brains undergo changes that require different therapeutic interventions, as well as the start or stop of psychotropic medicine.

This third pandemic school year will require everyone’s participation, including neurologically diverse students. As each day brings a new normal of uncertainty and different COVID-19 variants, children must buy-in to their educational plan. They must feel empowered to advocate for themselves by asking for directions to be repeated, or a chance to stretch. Parents can support these efforts by role playing scenarios before or after school.

Knowing that neurologically diverse children are on their own schedule and that success looks different for each child will help parents ease into the new school year. Don’t forget to breathe; this is a long game.

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