Beating the Back to School Blues for Kids with Special Needs


There isn’t a kid in the world who hasn’t occasionally wanted to skip school. But children who struggle with learning can grow to dread school so much, that every day becomes a battle to get them there.

Brandy Stephenson* has had days that her 10-year-old son Keith* simply refused to get on the bus. Though he is compassionate, loving, funny and creative, he has severe mood disorders, oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD. And “if he doesn’t want to do something, there’s no way in the world I can make him,” says Brandy, who adopted Keith as an infant. He’ll crawl under tables, climb up trees, even bolt out of the house and run off. Rather than get into a screaming match, or even worse, a physical altercation, “I’ve learned I must lay the groundwork so that he’ll want to go to school,” the Southwest mom says. That means first working closely with the school district to find the right program for Keith. “I’m not afraid to switch teachers, or even schools, if I feel his needs are not being met.” He’s currently in a smaller special-education class that he likes, with a staff that understands him and his outbursts. But being 2 years behind in social and academic skills still makes things “extremely challenging,” Brandy says. “I have to be a cheerleader for him every single day. It’s all about accentuating the positive, rather than dwelling on the negative.”

*Identities changed at their request.

Next, Brandy shares her 6 motivational tips with AbilityPath users in hopes of helping others beat the school blues:

Brandy’s 6 ‘Beat the School Blues’ Tips

reward-incentive 1.) Create incentive systems. Every Friday, Brandy plans an after-school activity for Keith to look forward to throughout the week. It could be anything from a walk in the woods together to a visit to the dollar store to a trip to the aquarium or indoor amusement park. She constantly changes up the ideas to keep them fresh and enticing; and Keith knows that the better behaved he is in school, the more exciting the surprise will be. That way, “if he’s having a tough week, I can remind him: ‘Hey Keith, I’m thinking of maybe taking you on the train and going downtown Friday for chocolate cake. So if you can just hang in for the rest of the week and get good reports, we’ll do something extra special on Friday.’ I know it sounds like bribery, but it really works for us, because it gives him something to strive for.” Brandy uses rewards to make homework more tolerable, too. For each math problem or spelling word he attempts, he gets a Skittle or a penny to put toward a dollar store prize.

pride2.) Show pride. When Keith has a good week, Brandy makes sure she brags about it. “As we pay the cashier to go into the aquarium, I might say, ‘Keith, let’s tell her why you’re here. Cause he got 100% on his spelling test and helped other kids in class.’ Or we’ll call grandma and tell her how hard he worked in math class this week.” And every morning when he leaves for the school bus, Brandy says, “I’m proud of you!” He gets a big hug and welcome when he returns. “I want him to feel good about going to school,” she says.

friends3.) Facilitate friendships. Because Keith can be impulsive—making weird noises in class or charging into children on the playground—sometimes other kids shy away from him. “He will not want to go to school if he feels that no one likes him,” says his mom. So a few times a year, she sends in something for Keith to share with the whole class—like a special snack or cheap trinkets from the party store (erasers, pencils, tiny puzzles, etc.). “It helps his classmates see him in a more positive light,” she says. Brandy also volunteers during school art periods, using that time to foster friendships. “I look for common interests. Then I can say, ‘Keith, did you know that Michael has a dog too?’” When she sees Keith bonding with someone, she’ll schedule a playdate, since he does much better in one-to-one situations.

parent-teacher4.) Build relationships with teachers and support staff. Brandy acknowledges that Keith can be a real handful and very exhausting. “So I treat his teachers, aids, even bus drivers like gold.” She sends thank you notes that say, “You mean so much to us,” and delivers small gifts (like chocolates the day after he’s had a melt-down). She keeps in constant touch with Keith’s teachers, through daily progress reports, arranging conferences whenever necessary. “I let them know how well Keith responds to positive reinforcement. If they look really happy to see him every morning, it will motivate him to be here and behave well.”

resilence5.) Teach resiliency. A key part of keeping Keith happy at school is helping him learn to “shake off” bad days, adds Brandy. “I try to model that for him, by sharing my own experiences. I might say something like, ‘You know, someone said something to me today that hurt my feelings, and it is really bugging me. But I’m just going to have to shake it off. What do you think I should do to feel better?’ He’ll usually come up with practical solutions, like, ‘Why don’t you tell your friend how you felt?’ or “Maybe you should play a game to cheer up?’” And when he has a bad day, mom talks it through with him. “You know, Keith, I know today was difficult for you. And maybe you were treated unfairly in school, but let’s just let it go. Sometimes there are good days, and sometimes there are bad days. Let’s toss those negative feelings in the trash, forget about it and focus on things that make us happy.”

mental-health-day6.) Allow mental health days. Brandy admits that sometimes a day off from school is the best medicine of all. “I can often sense that trouble is brewing, so I try to give him a mental health day (1 or 2 times a year) before we get to the point that he refuses to go to school.” However, “I don’t ever let him think that he is in control of the decision. I’ll say something authoritative, like, ‘Your teachers and I decided to give you the day off today. And you know what? I’m going to take you to that new movie that’s opening.’ I feel that if I give him something positive to do, I can turn the negative around.”

Learn more about ADHD, behavior and attention in children:

Understanding Your Child’s Behavior
What is AD/HD and the Impact of Other Diagnosis
Understanding Attention Spans of Young Children
Operational Defiant Disorder