Back to School: Why It’s Different for Students with IEPs


A boy anxious about going back to school.Customized back-to-school chalkboards, new crayons, a cute new pencil case, or a backpack. Ahhh, it all smells like a fresh new school year! The anticipation of new teachers, classrooms, or even a new school can be exciting. But for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), returning to school can mean challenges beginning over the summer and continuing throughout the school year.

Sometimes, it can mean the summer is a welcome respite beyond just the excitement of summer break. It is a necessary break from rigor, structure, and learning benchmarks that are a strain for many students.

I remember bringing my youngest to his first day of elementary school. I ran into a friend who commented she was surprised I was so calm, not crying, seeing my last child enter kindergarten. I responded that inside, I was terrified but trying to be strong for him.

I wasn’t mourning the thought of my child growing older; instead, I was hoping he would make it through the day without having too many meltdowns or being supported when he did. Supported by staff, we had not even met yet.

For children on the autism spectrum, sensory overload is common. Someone coming into his space or talking too loudly can set my son off. He is also a rule follower, seeing things very literally. So, even common adolescent cheating during a playground game is something he struggles with witnessing. And no, it’s not wrong. It’s different, no more so than brown vs. blue eyes.

With therapies, support, and a lot of love from our family, he has matured to be able to handle school differently. But the anxieties remain the same, so back school is not joyous for us. Sure, we rejoice in other ways, such as our otherwise healthy child growing, learning, and achieving! But the ringing of that school bell is a trigger for my younger son.

Interestingly, my son has always loved to learn and is sharp, labeled as bright even by his teachers. So why the anxiety to attend school? It’s complex. When rigidity against school is not just because a child wants to have their own version of fun, it can be mistaken for noncompliance or disobedience. Or even worse, downplayed.

Think about it: our 8-hour school day, September to June, is antiquated. Why are we doing the same thing we did 50 or even 75 years ago?

So many parents of children not on the spectrum have opened up to me about their child’s anxiety simply because I have opened up to them. If the anxiety of returning to school continues throughout the school year, why are we continuing the same annual schedule?

Sure, strides in learning approaches have changed, but the overall structure has not. It certainly appears to be the core of anxiety many kids experience. While I know this would take an extreme overhaul of our education system (and one I joke I would happily fund if I hit the lotto!) I do remain optimistic.

As a mom to both neuro-typical and non-neurotypical children, I do see the highs and lows that both my children experience. While my older son has anxiousness around completing assignments, my younger son’s anxiety is more all-encompassing when it comes to school.

I ask those parents of kids who mostly consider back to school a joyous occasion to please consider and be sensitive to the fact that not every child has the same experience. Maybe they and their parents need a bit more support. Check-in on them throughout the year.

Wishing your kiddos the best form of school year for them, whatever that might look like!


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