Returning to school is both stressful and exciting for children and adults alike. Transitioning means changes and changes are hard for everyone – especially for families of autism! Our brains and our bodies do not always like changes because this means we have to adjust to something that is different. Anxiety does not like the unknown and there are many aspects of beginning a new school year that are unknown.
Stress and anxiety are contagious. Keep in mind that it is important to identify your own anxieties and fears about your child’s school year and share these with your spouse, partner, or friend. Using self-care to manage your own emotions will help your child transition successfully. In order to maintain a healthy boundary between you and your child, avoid discussing your fears with or around him/her. No need to make your child more anxious and also worry about how you’re feeling!
The following tips can help you and your family paint a picture of what the start of the new school year may look like to prepare for a successful transition back to school
- Get into the Routine – Begin going to bed and waking at the same time for a week or more prior to the start of school. If you haven’t started this yet, no worries! Your child will adjust; just begin the earlier bedtime routine as soon as possible. Practice the morning routine as well. Just like adults, kids love lists they can check off; it makes us feel accomplished! Use a small whiteboard or laminated reusable routine chart with tasks such as: brush teeth, wash face, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack backpack. Remember that school is not only about academics but increasing your child’s independence and confidence in his/her abilities!
- Seek Information and Pre-Teach to your Child – Discuss with your child what the new school year is going to be like. For example:
- If it is a different school, what is different and what may be similar to the old school?
- Who will drop off and pick up?
- What may be some of the higher expectations in a higher grade?
- When is lunch? Recess?
- If possible, look up the teacher’s blog, webpage, picture – anything to help your child familiarize him/herself to feel more comfortable and acquainted with returning to school.
- Special note: Remember to maintain those boundaries! Avoid having conversations with other parents about whether a teacher is “bad.” A “bad” teacher for one child may be a great teacher for another!
- Use a Calendar – Make or print a calendar so you and your child can see what’s coming up and when. Add in any activities he/she is involved in so there is a really good picture of what’s happening in the days or weeks ahead. With all of the changes and things that cannot be controlled, this can help organize part of the upheaval that can come with starting school.
- Have a Real Talk – Sometimes we think we know what is best for our child, but what may be best is to ask them! Often children provide great insight about what they may need to help transition and what they are thinking and feeling. Some good starter questions/prompts are:
- What are you thinking about school starting again?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What are you not looking forward to?
- Tell me two things about ____ grade. Your child may offer valuable information about thoughts and fears, for example, if “All the 4th grade teachers are mean!” This can help gain information about what he/she has heard about going into this higher grade so these can be discussed and support and proper information can be provided.
- Have a Homework Plan – Battling over homework is the #1 issue I hear from parents in my therapy office. Developing an incentive plan such as “five days of completed homework = an ice cream outing” can help get the ball rolling in the right direction. Discussing with your child a plan for organizing assignments, sharing with you, and getting caught up on missing or late work can help avoid past problems from recurring. Identifying a planner he/she is excited about or using an app such as iHomework or MyHomework may help as well.
- Write a Letter – I suggest to the parents I work with to write a letter to the child’s school, especially if the child has an IEP or 504 Plan. As the parent, you are the expert of your child and it is difficult to capture him/her in educational paperwork. A one-page letter describing your child’s strengths and challenges as well as supports you and other teachers have used can help the staff understand, prepare for, and best support your child. If there is specific language (a gentle reminder versus a harsh one) or other strategies to use (such as a timer to transition to new activities or a tap on the desk to help your child focus), share that in the letter, too. This can even be added onto an IEP or 504 plan as a part of the official documents.
- Point out the Successes – Remind your child that there are lots of unknowns that he/she may feel nervous about but give examples of when you have seen your child succeed in new situations. Last school year? This summer at the start of camp or another activity? Building on successes reminds our children that they have it in them to do it because they have done it before!
Although the transition to school can be a stressful time, do your best to prepare with as much knowledge about what it will be like for the whole family. Anxiety likes a plan, so providing as much information in a visual plan can smooth a potentially bumpy road. Good luck!
by Laura M. Koerner, LCPC
Counseling Manager Northbrook Office AHSS