While parents everywhere look forward to the first day of school, those with neurodivergent and high-needs children hold this day with a particular affection that other parents may not understand. We’ve hustled through summer, finding camps or activities that suit them, and bartered with relatives to help get through the year’s longest days. When the calendar turns over, and we see the first day of school appear, we are excited at the prospect of taking a little bit of a break from the summer gauntlet.
Coping with the Anxiety of the First School Day
The excitement of the first day also brings anxiety as our children head off into the classroom. We wonder if their teachers and peers have compassion and patience. Will they understand if a child with sensory issues says music class hurts his ears; he’s not being difficult; he’s being honest—music class hurts his ears! Will they believe he isn’t mischievous so much as not being understood—due to his thinking being either overly rigid or too abstractly creative? Will they understand that kids like ours aren’t refusing to sit still because of poor self-control, but have a body driven by the need to be in constant motion? Ok, so maybe we worry about pretty much everything.
While we prepare and do all we can to help ease any anxiety for our children headed back into the classroom, we still tiptoe through the first few weeks of school. We know that first phone call from the school will eventually come, shattering our fragile, false sense of security. Maybe we made it without any communication from the school for over two weeks. We know, inevitably, our phones will ring and end the short-lived grace period bestowed by the new school year.
Receiving the Dreaded Call from the School Office
This time It was the second day of a new school year when I felt my phone give off its ominous vibration, accompanied by an unknown number. As is my custom, I quickly turned to Google for a reverse number search. Before I could even finish my query, the same number appeared on my office line, and this was all the information I needed (it’s never good when they immediately call back on your second contact number). My body immediately went into PTSD mode (or what some have called CTSD). With a racing heart, sweaty palms, and churning stomach, I cautiously answered as any other parent would—pretending to be someone else. Initially my physiological response kept me from making out what the person on the phone was saying. My head was spinning. Was it a fight? Property destruction? How much superglue was involved?
My focus returned once I heard the words “minor head injury.” I realized this wasn’t a typical SOS call. Guiltily, I welcomed the news of the minor head injury, “Oh, is that all?” I snapped back to my safe space. He was fine, and my crisis had been a false alarm (this time).
When you have neurodivergent children, you may find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Back-to-school time is a roller coaster, both exciting and scary, and it pays to be ready for calls home. . If you can save yourself the elevated stress during the fall, it’ll be better for your health and the wellbeing of your kids.
How to Prepare for Inevitable Calls from Your School
We see it coming: the string of calls and emails that we have experienced many times over this time of year. But we can prepare ourselves and proactively lean into communication from our school. Try these five steps to help you adjust accordingly:
- Expect the call or email – Setting and managing your own expectations can reduce the anticipation anxiety and increase your overall receptivity. Remind yourself that things happen, and you aren’t alone. The calls will come and you couldn’t have prevented them—so release yourself from any associated guilt or other negative feelings.
- Assume good intentions – In order to actively listen to the school’s input and process what occurred, try to remain present in the conversation by assuming that they are well-intended and have your child’s best interests at heart. It’s easy to go on the defensive, but that will only escalate the situation. Starting out by assuming the best will result in a more productive call.
- Activate your own self-regulation tools – It is just as important that you have a toolkit to help you feel centered and grounded throughout the call and the follow up with your child. Try taking a few minutes to sit in silence, chew some gum or breath in some fresh air—whatever will help alleviate some of your stress so that you can approach the situation with peace and positivity.
- Ask how you can support their efforts at home – Even though you, as the caregiver, most likely know how to approach the situation with your child, make sure you ask questions that allow your child’s team room to express their expertise so that you can build rapport and maintain a team approach.
- Practice the follow-up conversation you will have with your child – This way, you can play out their reaction in your mind and feel equipped to counteract whatever comes your way.
As an aside, when it does come time to check in with your child, try not to punish them twice. Support the consequences the school may have planned, but also try to be a safe spot for your child. Let them know you don’t condone misbehavior, and help hold them accountable, but let them know you love them and they have a soft place to land at the end of a hard day. This will help keep communication open between caregivers and children, which is especially important if they are struggling in school.
The past two years may have created the perfect conditions for a potentially record-breaking number of these dreaded phone calls home. Many children are going back into a physical school setting after two years, and social and emotional skills may have eroded due to the lack of physical contact with peers and educators. It’s reasonable to expect phone calls will rise for families of both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. Try to trust that those familiar with these calls can provide the compassion and support to facilitate productive conversations, but prepare yourself accordingly so that you can make the most of any situation.
About the Author
Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.