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A Better School-time Experience for your Child

What is your child’s school-time experience like so far this year?

Is he feeling good about school? Is she happy with her new teacher? Is he feeling comfortable and safe socially? Is she doing her homework willingly?

If not, and your child is struggling to make a positive transition to the new school year, it’s not too late to turn things around. Sometimes all it takes is a little detective work and extra support to create a more positive school-time experience.

​​ Transitions are very difficult for most children on the autism spectrum and going back to school may be the most challenging one there is. You need to believe that your child can transition her school-time experience into a positive and peaceful back to school routine. Never settle for “good enough”; circumstances can always get better, and better, and … etc.

I know you want things to go smoothly for your child and when they don’t it’s all too easy to place blame on yourself, or the school. Before jumping to such a conclusion let’s review other possibilities with a short assessment. This is a great way to detect anything that might be negatively affecting your child’s school-time experience.

Let’s begin by looking carefully at each item presented below. As you do, examine each through the eyes of your child and the way he or she experiences the world. Doing so will help you identify some adjustments that need to be made in order to create a smoother school-time transition.

– Consider family meetings about school. In addition to talking about school to your child individually, it’s great to hold a family meeting. This way everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts and feelings as well as discuss and plan for the week ahead. Meeting as a group sends the message that you are all in this together and that you care about each individual’s experience. It gives every family member a chance to have their voice heard if they want. It also ensures that everyone is on the same page. If you have never held a family meeting before, this is good time to start. They are a simple and quick way to improve communication. Such meetings will also promote bonding within your family and reduce anxiety for everyone. These gatherings can be formal or informal and require as little as fifteen minutes per week. It will also establish a ritual that will be remembered for years to come.

– Have a private meeting with the teacher. If your child is exceptionally anxious about the new school-time routine and the changes that are involved, making a fifteen to twenty minute appointment to talk to his new teacher before or after school. The opportunity to have a private audience with the teacher to go over schedules and expectations as well as the chance to ask questions without other students around can give any child a gigantic jumpstart and sense of relief. Most schools do have an open house scheduled in the fall but this is not the best time and place to get the teacher’s full attention as there will be many other parents around. This is usually a time for getting a good overview of what your child’s school day is like but if you have specific questions regarding your child and how she is doing – make an appointment to meet with the teacher now.

– Pay attention to your child’s sleep patterns and bedtime routine. If you weren’t able to address changes in daily routines, such as bedtime well enough in advance, this could be the cause of any stress related school-time behaviors that might be occurring. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sleep and its impact on academics, brain development, mood and attention span which many studies support.

In addition to helping your child be more successful at school, making sure she receives the required amount of sleep will also improve her behavior at home. Developing a calm atmosphere throughout the house as soon as possible after dinner will encourage a state of relaxation in everyone. Minimizing noise and encouraging quiet activities in the evening before bed will help your child transition into a sleepy state.

– Use a school calendar. Consider creating a special school-time calendar. Depending on your child’s interest in arts and crafts, this can be a fun process that the two of you can do together. You may want to use words or pictures to indicate what will happen on each day of the week, if you need more room and can’t find a calendar big enough, such as a wall calendar, make a book that has a page or two for every day of the week.

Reading the book or looking at the calendar on a daily basis will provide predictability about what to expect at school that day and relieve anxiety about the unknown. Staying in touch with your child’s teacher will help you confirm the things that will stay the same. All of this will help your child transition better from day to day.

– Address screen machine use. If you have allowed TV viewing, video games and computer use privileges to increase over the summer and haven’t had a chance to cut back yet, do so now. Technology is important and useful but must be balanced with other activities that create an atmosphere where the brain is encouraged and allowed to think for itself. Quiet time for reading, homework and social interaction is vitally important for helping your child be successful in school. Once you adjust TV, video and computer use rules it is important to communicate them clearly and stick to them.

– Encourage social interactions. A child on the autism spectrum often struggles with making and keeping friends. This is an important component in creating a positive school-time experience. If possible, invite old or new classmates that may have moved into the school system and invite them over so your child can get to know them better and practice her social graces. It can help your child immensely if you rehearse conversation starters and group social skills with them to use with classmates, teachers and other adults.

Children on the autism spectrum are often more vulnerable to being picked on. They are more resistant to acquiring and honing essential social skills. Some children with autism enjoy being on their own and need to be drawn out to be social. Many long to be socially accepted yet do not have the social skills necessary to develop friendships. As teachers, parents and professionals we need to teach children to acquire the social skills necessary for making friends but we also need to be sensitive to their needs and challenges.

The back to school transition is a challenge for most kids and it takes time to find a rhythm that works. There is usually a newness that is exciting about the beginning of a school year but often it does not sustain. Once it wears off and the reality of the situation sets in, new challenges may develop. Going back to see where these glitches might be occurring is a helpful process.

On the other hand, if your child is genuinely doing well in school don’t forget to pay attention to why it is working so you can help ensure it stays that way – and then take time to be grateful and celebrate!

—— To continue a more thorough assessment and access strategies that will make your child’s school-time hours the best they can be, click here to learn more about my book, AUTISM PARENTING: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience – Over 300 tips for parents to enhance their child’s school success. Kindle version available at $2.99.

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