Back-To-School Anxiety Is Exacerbated When You Have A Child With Special Needs

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Kentaroo Tryman/Getty

“It’ll be fine,” my friend assured me after I told her I was a nervous wreck about the new school year. Every year, waiting to find out who my child with special needs will have as an assigned teacher, bus driver, and speech therapist are is torture. “After all,” she continued, “Kids have to learn to adapt. That’s real life.”

I silently chastised myself for confessing one of my back-to-school fears to a mom of a typically developing child. She just didn’t get it, and I shouldn’t have expected empathy.

Ever since my child with special needs started school at age three, I’ve worried. Trusting strangers with your child is hard for any parent, but for the parent of a child with special needs, the hyper-vigilance is epic.

I’m not a helicopter mom, overbearing, or overprotective, but I am anxious. Will the professionals assigned to my child truly see and care? Will they adhere to the carefully crafted IEP? Will my kid be stereotyped as a threatening black child who needs to take their place in the preschool-to-prison pipeline?

The day assignments go live is circled in my planner with the words “log on at 8:00 a.m.” written in bold marker. In just a few days, I will find out information that will ease my mind just a bit. Then comes the biggest hurdle—the back-to-school adjustment.

When my child was almost four, I had my first parent-teacher conference with the preschool teacher. As we sat face-to-face in mini-desks, I listened attentively as she showed me my child’s work. We discussed various challenges, including sensory meltdowns, a common struggle in kids with sensory processing disorder.

The teacher leaned in and lowered her voice, asking, “I probably shouldn’t ask you this, but was your child born drug addicted?” I was so stunned that I couldn’t reply. How dare a school professional ask me such an offensive question?

The incident sent my worries into overdrive. Was my child the target of whispered conversations among the teacher and classroom aides? I was left shaken. After talking to a trusted and supportive friend, I called the principal to inform her of what happened, requesting my child be moved to another classroom.

After another year of preschool with an incredibly knowledgeable and personable teacher, we switched schools for kindergarten. I was cautiously hopeful. And it turns out, I was right to be. My child had an amazing school year with a teacher who confessed she adored my kid who made incredible strides, meeting IEP goals left and right. My child told me, straight up, that they loved school, and my heart soared.

Yet, here I am again. We’re in the last sweltering days of summer vacation, and my thoughts are racing.

Will this year’s teacher truly get my child? The quirks, the needs, the personality? Will the speech therapist relish in my child’s empathy—a quality rarely seen in young children? Will the bus driver take an extra second to offer a high five or a “have a great day?” Or will my child be scolded for behaviors that cannot be helped?

Are my standards too high? School professionals are overworked and underpaid. They have so many children to manage and educate. Dare I hope that my child will be appreciated and encouraged? How will my child get along with their new peers, and how will these children treat my child?

There’s no off-switch for the anxiety a mom has for her child with special needs. It’s not an option.

I can’t count on my child, with speech delays and executive functioning issues — common in kids with ADHD — to relay important details of the school day to me. This is particularly concerning when something bad happens. So instead, I’m heavily reliant on almost-strangers to protect my child, teach my child, and kindly remind my child to stay on track.

Being a parent of a child with special needs at the beginning of a school year is like riding a roller coaster during the moment the cars are slowly grinding uphill. I hold my breath knowing that at any moment, the drop is inevitable. The ride could be fun, exciting, and joyful, but it could also be terrifying, unpredictable, and overwhelming.

The adjustment period can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. For some of us, just when we think our child is down with the daily school routine, Thanksgiving break ruins it all. Whether your kid gets just a few days off or the entire week, there isn’t enough pumpkin pie and chardonnay in the world to make things better.

I’ve had a few friends who are parents of typically developing kids dismiss my summertime turned back-to-school anxiety by saying that all parents struggle this time of year and our kids will figure it out. And I get it. I really do. I taught college composition for nine years. I saw my fair share of entitled students who didn’t know what the word responsibility meant, firmly believing that every bad grade was someone or something else’s fault.

I’m certainly not down with raising coddled, entitled children who have no expectations or challenging moments. I am that parent who will sometimes tell my kids, “Suck it up, buttercup!” when I get fed up with their whining. But when a child has special needs, my job is to make sure my child has the same opportunities as their peers to succeed. This means the right accommodations are in place and accessed.

Here’s the deal. Special needs isn’t an excuse, but it is an explanation. A diagnosis doesn’t mean the child is destined to fail or require constant assistance. But a diagnosis is a springboard, a starting line. And once the child’s needs have been identified, parents work tirelessly to ensure that those needs are met.

Meanwhile, we hope and pray that the new adults in our child’s lives are equally as committed. So this time of the year, we cross our fingers and wait to see what happens next.

This article was originally published on