Are you dreading the first day back to school, or are you excited for the growth you expect to see in your child's educational progress this year? August is the perfect month to implement these simple but effective strategies for getting organized and ready for the first day of school.
1. Dump all your IEPs, evaluation reports, and other paperwork on the kitchen table and place everything in chronological order.
Yes, I mean "dump." Take the shoe box of miscellaneous notices, bar graphs of data they handed you at the last IEP meeting, and even your handwritten scrawls from your phone calls with the teachers. Do NOT sort them into little piles by type, or attempt to discern what can be discarded at this point. Don't start tacking up important looking notices to the fridge. Just dump, and then place each document in chronological order by date.
Once you have put each school record in order from earliest to most recent (or the reverse, if you prefer), you can go through the pile and decide what to keep, what to flag as important, and what you may possibly be missing (wasn't there a speech-language evaluation last spring that should be here next to the annual review IEP?). You might want to use a three-hole punch and large binder to keep everything together. If you decide later to reorganize the records by category rather than by date, you can do so. But starting out this way can be really helpful to remind you what happened last year and point out what needs to happen next. For example, you may realize for the first time that your child mastered certain goals back in February that still appear in his current IEP for September. Now you can bring that information to the next IEP team meeting and ask if those goals should be omitted or replaced with new ones!
Bonus tip: Print out any emails you sent or received from your child's teachers, administrators, and any service providers, both inside and out of school. Place them in the file by date alongside the other records you received from school. It's not absolutely necessary, especially if you have a lot of emails that are mostly concerned with scheduling and other mundane tasks. But sometimes important discussions take place by email, and it can help to place those conversations in context with the rest of your child's records.
2. Buy a large notebook or agenda to use as a home-school communication log.
If you are sensing a theme here over the use of hard copy, pen and paper implements, you're not wrong. Some parents are very comfortable in the electronic world of smartphones and email inboxes to get organized and access data. But there is just something about physically organizing your thoughts in ink, and in one notebook that you can hold in your hands and flip open, that really helps keep track of the small details that sometimes slip to the wayside in the virtual world.
Your child's IEP may or may not include "home-school communication" in some form. It's almost always appropriate to include some system of checking in between parents and educators to keep notes on a child's daily progress at school. If you want to limit the communications to only certain classes or programs (ongoing communication in reading, for example, because it's the focus of the IEP), or to certain aspects of your child's educational needs (a daily behavior sheet that records moods, conversations, outbursts, etc.), that is fine. And again, email works for this as well. It can just be very freeing to know that there is a special place to record daily notes, musings, and even the ugly realities of what's going on each school day. You won't get this from an IEP progress report on goals and objectives, or a regular report card. You might get it in an email -- so write it down in the calendar or log to create a paper trail to reference later of any ongoing issues or occurrences.
3. Read the IEP and make notes for the first meeting of the year.
This tip is tricky because everyone has a different reading style when it comes to the IEP. You might be comfortable simply highlighting the important aspects of the IEP for reference later. Or you may find it helpful to write out a separate list of questions about the IEP to bring to your child's teachers, because the IEP document itself can be difficult to read and understand at a glance. The only strategy that doesn't work here is glancing at the cover page and then tossing the IEP in a box along with your other copies of records from school (see item #1).
Don't feel bad if you received your child's new IEP back in May and you're only just now trying to get through it. Just take a look now, before the first day of the school year. I do like the longer method of writing out (or typing out, if you prefer) a list, page by page or section by section, of the most important aspects of the IEP. Even if you can "get it" when you read through the goals and objectives, you may find it helps to re-write the IEP in a way that makes sense to you and that you can reference more easily at a glance. For any aspect you do not understand, either flag or highlight the problematic section, or write a note in the margin in your own notebook about the question you need to ask. Try to be specific: "How is this counseling goal about identifying feelings related to my child's need to improve his social skills in unstructured activities?" is much better than "What is this goal about?"
Bonus tip: If you have the time and energy, cross-check the major IEP components with your child's most recent evaluation reports, assessment data, and progress notes. Are there any areas of need indicated in the evaluations that are not addressed in the IEP?
4. Make a list of important contacts at school and put their phone numbers and email addresses in one place.
It's so simple but so important. Don't just rely on auto-fill when composing an email. It's best to have a one-sheet contact list so you remember exactly what role everyone plays, and who needs to be copied on which emails. Have you ever wanted to send an email but couldn't find the name and address of an important contact -- so you just put off sending the email, and then forget to do it altogether? That's why I like this system of having a separate list in a place by itself. Feel free to store it on your computer or on your literal, physical desktop -- just make the list!
5. Create a daily schedule/chart to help you and your child visualize his new school day routine.
This is another one that may seem obvious to experienced parents trying to manage their families' hectic lives, both in school and out. But my purpose here is twofold: (1) plan both before school and after school activities (i.e., morning and evening home routines) in a visual manner or other method that works well for your own busy brain, (2) for the school-day portion of the chart, break out the instructional hours and services listed in the IEP and represent them visually, by time of day, etc.
Instead of glancing at the IEP service grid and noting that your child has 1.5 hours per week of pull-out language arts instruction, find a way to represent this visually or in list form on the daily and weekly schedule. For example, this line of information in the IEP may represent three half hour sessions a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the resource room (room #201) with the special education teacher and a paraprofessional. Get as specific as possible, or as specific as needed for you and your child to keep track of his day and feel comfortable. If you find yourself calling the school regularly to check in, you will want to know where your child is when you're calling, which teachers are available to speak with you, etc.
I know these strategies are quite detailed compared to many of the feel-good back to school blog posts, but they reflect the reality of the work parents need to do upfront to stay on top of their children's busy schedules. If all goes well and the extra level of planning proves unnecessary, then great! But if issues do crop up, it is so helpful to have done the preparation to understand what's going on during the school day, and take action needed to solve any mid-year problems.
Bonus tip: Don't beat yourself up if you don't feel completely ready for the first day of school. Parents shoulder so much guilt and worry over life events like starting a new academic year. You may find that your child is happy and excited to go back to school even if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed. Take each day one at a time, if the prospect of long-term planning seems daunting at the moment. Moreover, everyone has a different organizational style that works for them. If a different system or strategy feels better than the ones I've outlined above, go with that instead!
Are you and your child nervous or excited to go back to school this fall? Maybe it's a little of both? Share your thoughts with other parents via the comments below!