For most parents and kids, getting ready for school means buying a new backpack, stocking up on pencils and school supplies, dressing in cool new clothes and working out transportation.   Preparing the child emotionally can be overlooked. It’s human nature. No one likes change, and buying a new set of crayons is a lot less stressful than thinking about new school year worries. Still, there are some specific things you can do to make the transition easier for both you and your child.



If you hear a lot of bragging or denial about the return to school, it’s a pretty sure sign that anxiety lies behind the words. Ask a couple of questions “around the edges:” “Who are you looking forward to seeing?” NOT, “Are you worried about school starting?” The latter is almost sure to shut the child down.



Children’s biggest concern about transitions is whether they can stay connected with you. Reassuring children that you will still have time together and that you know they are safe is the most important way you can help them get ready for school. You know you are always there for them; they may need reassurance at this time — even children who have done this “a million times.”

Many children benefit from a “transitional object” that reminds them of mother. An easy one is to paste a photo of you and the child in the lid of the child’s lunch box or backpack in a place where they can keep the prying eyes of others away. You can also offer something small of yours that you pick out together.   An electronic device is not a transitional object!

Older children also benefit from transitional objects. In my novel ALMOST PERFECT, fourteen year-old Benny, who has ADHD and mild autism, imagines that he and his mother share their own special star.   He looks for it at night as a way to stay connected with her. Of course, the book’s most important “transitional objects” are the dogs that Benny comes to love. The entire story is really about how he uses the dogs to mature and develop into all he can be.



  • Practice how the child will get to school. Drive the route. Talk him/her through it. Who will drive? Who will pick up?
  • Tell the child how the school can contact you. Be specific.
  • Visit the school. If possible, meet the teacher. Where is his/her desk? Where is the office? Where is the playground? Former classmates?
  • Visit former teachers and say “hi.” It helps children understand that important adults don’t disappear out of their lives.



Kids often fight routine, but once it is established firmly in their minds, it actually makes them feel safer. A couple of weeks before school starts is the time to get back into the groove. Children feel more secure when there is a consistent plan. Set times for going to bed and getting up, getting dressed, meal times will make life easier when school actually starts with a host of additional adjustments to be made.



Going to a new class is a challenge. ALMOST PERFECT illustrates this in a scene when a new girl enters Benny’s special class. It shows the point of view of the new girl, who clings to her mother. She is helped when the teachers lets her mother stay a short while until the girl settles down without forcing a “child-ectomy.” (We are NOT recommending that parents stay in the class for extended periods of time.) The scene also shows the point of view of the children in the class who have been there for a while. Their ambivalent feelings are expressed by Benny (“Not another new student!”) at the same time readers know he would like a new friend.   Finally, the teacher’s role in preparing the children is shown. She has told the children ahead of time, before the new girl arrives, and advises them to remember how they felt on their first day.

By keeping in my your child’s emotional needs, you both can get off to a better start on the first day or school and for the rest of the year.


Dr. Felecia Powell-Williams, Clinical Director of the New School in the Heights (www.newschoolheights.org) generously co-authored this post.

Want to See a Sad Child Smile?

Want to see a sad child smile, a hyperactive child sit calmly and an inattentive child riveted with singular focus? Come visit The New School in the Heights when Faithful Paws’ pet “therapists” are on campus. Once a week throughout our Summer Program, ten eager pet volunteers (and their owners) were welcomed by our students and teachers.  Encouraged by the fictitious McCreery and Breaker and how they helped Benny in ALMOST PERFECT, we were eager to try an organized approach.

photo4Animal assisted therapy is a scientifically proven form of therapy that is recognized as therapeutic and recreational. While many similar organizations throughout the country offer volunteer services to children and adults, we were fortunate to partner with FAITHFUL PAWS PET THERAPY PROGRAM, sponsored by Bellaire United Methodist Church. Founded in 1977, they currently have about 300 certified human-pet teams and visit about 85 facilities. All are volunteers who must pass the Canine Good Citizen test for dogs or Temperament testing for cats, rabbits and other small animals. Pets must be current on all vaccinations and have a report completed by their vet.

But are the visits truly “therapeutic,” or are they just brief periods of respite for kids who love animals anyway? Let’s see.

photo2“Gwen” is a petite, dark haired girl with big glasses over eyes frequently filled with tears. At first, she wanted to visit with “Puffy”, the small, white fluff ball eager to show off her tricks to the children, but the minute Gwen was introduced to Puffy, the girl headed for the door. With gentle encouragement, her teacher urged her to stay. She danced back and forth from one foot to the other, signaling her ambivalence with her whole body. After about ten minutes, she needed to leave for real. That was Week #1. By Week #2, it was a whole different story. Bringing her new friend who had just enrolled in the school by the hand, she skipped into the room eager to show off her acquaintance with Puffy. Her previous timidity had been tucked away. Although it returned again when Gwen was invited to try something new she hadn’t tried before, Puffy had helped her make one tiny step forward in mastering new situations.

photoOn the surface, Trevor is the complete opposite of Gwen. He approaches new situations with a lot of boasting. In this case, he knew everything there was to know about all kinds of dogs, especially ones like “Rex,” a Shepherd mix. When it actually came time to meet Rex, Trevor signaled to the teacher and his counselor how fearful he actually was by putting his face too close to Rex’s mouth and asking to see where he pooped. When Trevor’s teacher suggested he visit with “Puffy” instead, his anxiety vanished along with his difficult behavior. Later, he and his counselor were able to talk about using his words when he becomes frightened.

Poodle Club of America

April 22-25, 2014 was The Poodle Club of America’s Annual Specialty Show at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland. It had been decades since I last attended PCA at the beautiful Ludwig’s Corner venue in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know how this show could match it, but the ability to defeat the threat of heat and rain to dogs and handlers made for a more relaxed and enjoyable event. Remarkably, the flowers and floral arrangements—a hallmark of PCA—were even lovelier. Many were flown in from Hawaii due to a member’s generosity. It was a bittersweet and touching moment when I noticed the banners overhead acknowledging four great and generous legends of American poodle history: Rebecca Mason, Dr. Sam Peacock, Annie Clark, and Dr. Jackie Hungerland.

But enough about the trimmings. On my goodness, the dogs! Can you imagine almost 900 poodles of every size, shape and personality gathered in one spot? And do you envy the judges needing to sort through them all to find the one “almost perfect”poodle?

In ALMOST PERFECT, I wrote scenes where the puppy Breaker overcomes incredible odds to win because the spirit and energy he exudes demands for him to be chosen. Although I knew what I was describing could actually happen, there was always a tinge of suspicion in my mind that I was taking literary liberties and exaggerating the truth a bit. Not true! What we saw in this year’s show was exactly as I described it. The words I had written circled through my mind as I watched, as though it was a movie clip. Of the ninety or Standard Poodles that came forward and circled the ring, Ch. Dawin Hearts on Fire (“Flame”) grasped everyone’s attention from the first step. She was breathtaking in looks, as were many others, but the gleam in her eye and the electricity (I wish I had a better word) she exuded was something that could be felt even high up in the stands.

Another twitch of worry I had in writing my novel was the great success the puppy Breaker had at such a young age. I knew the facts were on my side that a young dog can rise to great heights in the dog show world, but I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Well, that bucket list item was checked off at PCA this year. Not once, but twice! Again, the sparkle and pizzazz (again I struggle for words) of a twice-small, brown Toy poodle puppy circling the ring like he owned it — which he did—was an unforgettable sight. The judge sounded almost apologetic in commenting on his unusual choice of such a young dog, but we all knew we were watching something very special we were unlikely to see again. Until we did, a few minutes later when a second very young, very tiny black Toy became Best Puppy in Show.

A remarkable event with the heart-stopping drama and beautiful backdrop that no one does better than PCA.

Special, Special Ed Conference Thoughts

Last week was the annual conference of the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) in Philadelphia. CEC is arguably the premier organization in support of quality educational interventions for children with any special need. Back in the day (which some of us still remember!), children with what we called “handicapping conditions” were often shunted away and schools definitely did not provide special help to address their particular needs. That the tide has turned is a triumph of grassroots, parental demands.

Not only parents, but special teachers need our gratitude and applause. I remember years ago when I was a reading consultant at a consortium of special education services in Connecticut (ACES). One of those dedicated teachers came and pleaded with me to come to her class and give her advice about how to better teach her students how to read. I have never felt more humble than when I stepped into her classroom full of children in tube-like breathing machines that covered their entire body except for their little faces looking up at the reflecting mirror overhead. A lesser teacher would not have persisted in wanting help for those children’s reading.

Those memories came flooding back when I remembered another request from another special teacher. By then, I was on the faculty at Tufts University, and she wanted me to ask the professors in the Biomedical Engineering Department if they could make something that would enable a quadriplegic boy to write? When I explained the need to one of the marvelous faculty members, all he asked was, “Does the boy have one moving muscle?” (He did. He could blink). The engineers created something he could use–years before computers made what they did back then seem less of a miracle today.

Perhaps that was one of the most outstanding experiences of last week’s conference: to see the incredible advances made in applying technology to meeting the needs of special education students. No doubt the pace will continue to accelerate and bring hope to even more children.

Today the children I work with at The New School in the Heights (www.newschoolheights.org) and write about in ALMOST PERFECT (dianedanielsmanning.com) primarily have special social-emotional needs; the help they need is more psychological than technological. But the basic drive to improve the lives of all our children continues to motivate those of us in special education, whatever our “special-ty.”

Almost Perfect Westminster Agility

No matter what type of dog I’ve owned, from “All-American” to bona fide pedigree, I’ve taken every one to Obedience 101 and prayed my clever canine would carry us through and spare us the public humiliation of failing the final exam. Secretly, I’ve always suspected the instructor took pity on me (or maybe the dog) and gave us an easy command to demonstrate in front of our classmates, most of whom seemed to float with ease through even the most difficult trials. My dog and I never advanced to the higher classes, even on paper, and I stuck to conformation in my novel Almost Perfect.

With that as background, last night (February 8, 2014) I watched in slack-jawed amazement at the wondrous display of focus, athleticism, and canine enthusiasm at the Westminster Kennel Club’s Agility Competition. For the first time in 138 years, 225 dogs, 63 purebreds, and an assortment of “All-American” dogs competed in an agility course that included jumping, dashing, and zigzagging through 18 obstacles in less than half a minute.

The dogs made it look easy until a number of them faulted at #9 where they were fooled by an unexpected turn in an unfamiliar Continental course. Then the teamwork between dog and handler really became apparent when the handlers who came later in the trials figured out a better way of signaling their dogs, and the number of faults at that particular spot declined dramatically.

The variety of the entrants’ sizes and shapes was as impressive as their performances. Dogs competed against fellows their own size starting with the pint-sized, eight inch Toys all the way up to the 24 inchers won by the last to show in that group of ten—an All-American named Roo!

And speaking of sizes and shapes, it was inspiring that many of the handlers were past the first spring blush of youth and apparently were in as good shape as their dogs. The energy and affection between handler and dog at the end of each run, regardless of the outcome, was a touching reminder of what remains after the crowd’s roar fades and the lights go out in the great stadium—the indelible bond between humans and their dogs.