Navigating Back to School With Neurodivergent Children

Recently I posted this question on my Instagram story: “What is your biggest concern about back to school?” I anticipated questions like, “How do I get my kid to use a planner so he knows what homework he has?” or, “How can I help my child pack their bag quickly enough in the morning that we can actually make the bus on time?”

I did in fact get these questions. However, they aren’t the ones that really made me pause. The ones that really hit me in my heart were a few from parents raising neurodivergent children: “All of it,” “Everything,” or even, “I have no clue where to start, school is so hard for my child.”

These comments threw me on a journey back in time, to when I learned alongside my neurodivergent students how to meet their individual needs as a special education teacher in the early 2000’s. Then, my journey took me even farther back to when I was that neurodivergent child, with zero school confidence.

Nowadays, it is much easier for me to celebrate my “uniqueness.” Learning what works for my neurotype in school and in life–and what doesn’t–makes all the difference! What I often find is small changes can make a very big impact.

Finding the right types of organizational tools and office supplies for myself as a business owner has made a big difference in my efficiency and stress level. Similarly, making small changes to your child’s school supplies and tools may help them if they have challenges with executive functioning and organization.

Neurodivergent-Friendly School Supplies

Being neurodivergent does not mean being less than. It does, however, mean that our brains process, learn, and experience the world differently. Well thought-out accommodations and modifications can make all the difference for neurodivergent children.

Let’s talk school supply lists. Often, these lists include five different colored folders, or several binders with tabs. These are requested so that your child’s teacher(s) can show them an organizational style to manage all of their school work. Unfortunately, neurodivergent students can struggle with organizing in a neurotypical way.

If your child struggles with executive functioning, I suggest reaching out to your school to see if there is some wiggle room in the way that your child organizes for school. Even replacing a typical two-pocket folder with an accordion file or a manila file folder, like you would see in a filing cabinet, can make an impact on your child’s stress and ability to organize. See my folder review in the video below!

bright orange according file

Children with ADHD often struggle with the short-term and working memory needed to recall homework directions when they come home from school. However, there are several options to keep track of homework assignments, aside from the traditional planner. Now is a great time to explore to-do list apps or create a google doc homework planner template.

Sensory Needs On-The-Go

Beyond the typical school supply list, there are other items that I have found helpful for so many of my clients with ADHD, Autism, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and other neurodivergent children.

Fidgets can serve several purposes. They can stimulate those hands in order to keep those bodies seated for longer periods of instruction. Intuitively many people assume that a child having an object in their hands will be distracting; however, those with ADHD may be able to focus even more with a quiet fidget in their lap (especially if the topic is not an area of interest). Fidgets or sensory items with different textures can also be incredibly soothing and calming for anxious children

Fidgets can be found everywhere these days. I prefer to support local businesses as much as possible. Toyology Toys always has the greatest and latest sensory tools! For school, make sure to buy a fidget that makes no noise and is small enough to throw in a pencil case to move around the school with your child.

A great example are these little plastic pencil grips in the picture below that feel just like “koosh balls” and I got them in a 4-pack at Dollar Tree. While you are there, grab some bags of different sized “pom poms”–they are great to squish or rub with your fingers and won’t disrupt anyone else in the classroom. Some other ideas pictured below include: scented or bumpy erasers, squishy balls, putty, squishies, and mini stuffed animals. I’ve collected them all over the years from Dollar Tree or 5 Below. You can even grab a whole kit of different sensory tools to try on Etsy and support a small business owner or “side hustler”!

Piles of fidgets and sensory items such as pom poms, squishies, notebooks and scented pens

Also, don’t forget to give your child’s teacher a heads up, explaining why fidgets are helpful to your child. Your child’s teacher may have suggestions for ones that don’t disrupt other learners. Or, they may have some rules/boundaries surrounding their use in the classroom.

Keep It Simple

Can we talk lockers for a minute? I can still close my eyes and remember the stress involved in manipulating that combination lock six times a day in a loud, crowded hallway!  For some children and teens this can be a major anxiety trigger. For others whose fine motor skills lagging behind, they may not be able to manipulate it, even with ample practice.

Younger kids may be able to leave the locks off all together. In smaller elementary school environments, they may not be necessary. I would recommend checking with your child’s school to see if this is an option.

If your child must use a lock–especially older students who may need to store phones and wallets–there are some easier options that I explain in my video below.

Take It Easy

Remember, no matter how well you plan, transitions can be tough. This important piece of advice still applies for parents raising neurodivergent children:

“What if you do all of the above and those kids of yours are still ornery and more challenging than usual? I’ll be honest, that very well may happen. It’s very natural, though it’s not very pleasant for us. My best advice in this situation is to take care of yourself. Remember what you can control and what you can’t. Take deep breaths, spend two extra minutes on your yoga mat, order more take out . . . take care of yourself, whatever that means to you, and remember the best part of transitions is that they are transient and eventually end.”

Want more transition and back-to-school advice? Charmaine shares how to prepare your child for IEPs and transitions.


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