Parenting a child with a chronic condition or a disability is, needless to say, difficult. Between the emotional roller coaster of diagnosis and acceptance, and the day-to-day routine of medications and treatments, it becomes unimaginable to send your child off to school and to put someone else in charge of her care.

Sending your special needs child off to school, especially for the first time, is a test of trust. First, you need to trust the teacher and the school system. Secondly, you need to trust your child. Finally, you need to trust yourself and your ability to teach your child how to care for herself. This time of transition can be made easier for everyone involved with a few simple ideas.

Preparing the Teacher

When it comes to your child's teacher and the school system, more often than not, you are dealing with people who truly and genuinely want to help your child. However, they can't do that without your help. The better you do at preparing them, the more easily you will be able to trust them.

  • Meet with the school staff at the beginning of each school year. Talk to them about an individual education plan (IEP) for your child or a 504 plan. With an IEP, the school is required by law to accommodate your child to the specifications stated in the signed document. A 504 plan is less structured, but can offer guidance on educating and caring for your child and allow you to ensure your child receives the best education possible. Continue to meet with the staff on a regular basis to make certain all of your child's needs are being met.
  • Put together a packet of helpful information for your child's teacher. This can include any medications your child is on, the schedule for taking medications, any diet restrictions, any physical limitations, emergency contact numbers, and basic information on your child's condition. Take the time to educate your child's teacher about your child and your child's health concerns. Talk with the teacher about the information in the packet and make sure he feels comfortable with all of it. It will give you peace of mind to know that your child is in capable hands.
  • If your child has a service dog for her condition, including a seizure alert dog or autism dog, make sure you and your child's school district are on the same page. For many children, the dog is a life-saving tool and it is essential that the dog be allowed to attend school with your child.

Preparing Your Child

Children with disabilities and chronic conditions deal with grown-up issues from an early age. Depending on your child's age and degree of disability, teach her how to care for herself. The sooner your child learns to take her own medications and understands the reasoning behind her treatments, the more independent and capable she will be when she heads off to school.

  • When your child is learning to count, allow her to count out her own medications and take them by herself. At first, you will need to supervise, but eventually your child will be a pro at popping her pills. When she starts school, she will be able to tell the teacher and staff which medications she needs and when.
  • Teach her to speak up for herself. Learning to self-advocate is important. Your child faces a lifetime of challenges when it comes to standing up for herself in school, at doctors' appointments and in the real world. Answer her questions with openness and honesty and let her speak for herself with doctors and anyone who is curious about her condition. She will feel more comfortable with herself and her uniqueness and will amaze you with how well she is able to take care of her own needs.
  • Talk to her about what school will be like. Read books, talk to her older siblings or cousins or to older children with the same conditions so she can ask them questions about their experiences.
  • Let her visit the school and meet her teacher before school starts. Getting a tour of the school, the bathrooms, and the classroom will help her to feel more comfortable and will give her teacher an opportunity to get to know her and her needs before the room is filled with other kids.
  • If she is comfortable with it, let her prepare a presentation for her classmates to teach them about her condition and let them ask any questions they may have. This will help the other children to accept any of her noticeable differences.

Preparing Yourself

The hardest part of the transition may very well be preparing yourself. You have spent years caring for your child with vigilance and it will be extremely difficult and emotional to hand some of the power over to others and let go.

  • Start small. Oftentimes, parents of children with special needs don't allow others to care for their child and don't take any time for themselves. This is pretty normal and understandable, but it could mean trouble when the time comes to let go. Start early by allowing a few people you know and trust to take care of your child while you run errands or go to a movie. Send your child to a preschool program one or two days a week. Let your child play at your friend or relative's house for an afternoon while you get coffee with a friend or your spouse. Take baby steps and practice sending your child into the world.
  • If a choice of teachers is available, take advantage of the opportunity. Meet with the teachers and decide which one's credentials and personality will work best for your child.

In the end, you and your child will not only be OK, but will thrive from this new step in life. If you teach your child and others all of the important information instead of trying to control every situation on your own, you will be able to enjoy this new freedom and trust in the capabilities and compassion of others.