I can’t believe that summer is almost over, but with the back-to-school media and retail blitz beginning in earnest, it must be true! So, I’m coming in from the beach briefly to give you my seasonal input on this important subject- I can’t completely let go of the summer sand, surf and blazing sun quite yet….even if it has been too darn hot and humid!

Global warming anyone?

We all know we shouldn’t judge others based solely on outward appearances and physical beauty, right? But fact is, in today’s celebrity obsessed universe, looks do matter more than ever before— especially when trying to lay claim to a coveted place in those unnerving and rigid school social hierarchies, including at the lunchroom table!

Remember some of those awkward moments and the guts it took just to show up, much less eat the food???

Navigating school social systems can be tough reality for kids with special needs at greater risk for teasing and bullying because of their differences. The social challenges facing these students hoping to fit it with their peers can make the annual rite of back-to-school preparation extra important.

So here are five simple back-to-school tips for parents to help get their children with special needs off to a great school year start—allowing them to navigate the often unnerving school hallways with a tad more confidence:

•Get your child a good haircut in a current style.

•Go back-to-school shopping with your child and allow him/her to select a cool backpack, the necessary school supplies, and their clothing.

•Outfit your child in stylish, up-to-date clothes and include a sharp new first-day-of-school outfit. If your budget is of concern, shop discount stores, sale racks, second-hand shops and garage sales in upscale neighborhoods. Make preparing for the school year FUN for both of you!

•Pay close attention to your child’s personal grooming every single day—that includes clean hair, clean body, and clean clothes.

•To help reduce stress and alleviate those first-day jitters, visit your child’s school before the school year begins and allow him/her to meet their teacher, principal and bus driver. Talk about the first day of school in advance.

Also, as most of you know by now,the choices made by parents of children with special needs are often the key to determining that child’s educational— and life success.

Here are five tips to help parents become increasingly empowered and effective child advocates:

•Believe in your child’s value—no matter what!

•Believe in your child’s right to an appropriate education, and to their right to attend their neighborhood school whenever possible.

•Check your child’s school file to make sure that the information included is accurate, up-to-date and appropriate. If it’s not, take further action.

•Foster your child’s growing need for independence; don’t further disabled your child—enable him or her!

•Educate yourself about your child’s needs and their educational rights under the law. It’s tough to advocate effectively without such knowledge.

Now, I’ve got to go get the sand out of my ear….

For these tips and more for families of children with special needs, check out my book Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations (Jossey Bass/Wiley Publishers, copyright 2006), or visit www.JudyWinter.com