Going back to school can be an exciting time for some children and a difficult time for others. For those who look forward to a new school year the excitement often wears off after a few weeks, we call this the honeymoon period. And sometimes the anxiety and challenges that some students experience get more and more difficult. The best scenario is to find a happy medium and stay there.
If despite all your preparation your child's transition to the new school year did not get off to a good start, don't despair because it's never too late to turn things around. No one likes major transitions to occur, and going back to school can be a big one, but sometimes all it takes is a few minor tweaks to get on an even keel and maintain it.
I know you want things to go smoothly and when they don't it's all too easy to place blame on yourself. But wait! Before jumping to conclusions that you did something wrong or that your child on the autism spectrum will never transition into a peaceful back to school routine let’s problem solve.
The first step towards problem solving any dilemma is to do a thorough assessment. Depending on the qualities that make your child unique, her back to school experience will differ from every other child.
If you and your child are having a rocky beginning here’s a checklist with seven items to consider. It will help you identify some adjustments that need to be made for a more positive outcome.
1 - Have you held a family meeting about school? In addition to talking about school to your child individually, it's great to hold a family meeting. The benefits of family meetings are many:
- It gives you the opportunity to discuss and plan for the week ahead.
- It’s a simple and quick way to improve communication about school and other issues.
- It gives every family member a chance to share thoughts and feelings and have their voice heard if they so desire.
- It sends the message that you are all in this together and that you care about each individual's experience.
- It also ensures that everyone is on the same page.
- It promotes bonding within the family.
- Planning ahead reduces anxiety for everyone, especially your child with ASD.
If you have never held a family meeting before, this is good time to start. These gatherings can be formal or informal and require as little as fifteen minutes per week. Create a routine to the meetings and consider ending every meeting with a fun activity. Family meetings establish a ritual that will be remembered for years to come, so make them joyous.
2 - Did you and your child have a private meeting with the teacher? If your child is still exceptionally anxious about the new school year and the changes that are involved, making a ten to fifteen minute appointment to talk to her teacher before or after school will help. 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 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.
3 - Are you using a back to school calendar? If not, consider creating a special back-to school calendar. Depending on your child's interest in arts and crafts, this can be a fun project 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. Look for a big wall calendar or create one that has a sheet of paper for every day of the week.
Referring to the calendar on a daily basis will provide predictability about what to expect each day and relieve any 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.
4 - Are you encouraging social interactions for your child? This is an important component in creating a positive school experience. Many children on the autism spectrum don’t fully understand how to make and keep a friend. There are some who seem to really enjoy being on their own. But 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 while being sensitive to their needs and challenges. It’s also important to rehearse back to school conversation starters with them to use with classmates, teachers and other adults.
This post, How to Minimize Social Anxiety for Your Child, provides more strategies and tips. 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.
5 - Are you paying 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 behaviors that might be occurring. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of sleep and its impact on brain development, mood and attention span which many studies support.
Making sure your child receives the required amount of sleep will also improve his behavior at home. Developing a calm atmosphere throughout the house as soon as possible after dinner will encourage a state of relaxation in everyone. Reducing noise, minimizing screen time, and encouraging quiet activities in the evening before bed will help your child transition into a sleepy state. For more ideas to help your child get a good night’s sleep, click on this article, Good Sleep for Kids with Autism.
6 - Have you and your child met with the school bus driver? If your child is taking the bus and you sense it may be causing her some anxiety, ask to meet with the bus driver. A school bus is a very sensory stimulating environment. Bus fumes, noise, temperatures, stops and starts, a socially intimidating atmosphere can have a negative effect on your child.
It’s always helpful to provide the driver with helpful information about your child. You may even want to consider creating a tip sheet for the driver, especially if you suspect the bus ride is causing high-anxiety or sensory overload for your child. Include important information about your child and how best to communicate with him. You can mention simple strategies that work, tactics to avoid, seating preference or activities that will maintain his interest.
7 - Have you addressed screen machine use? If you have allowed TV viewing, video games, computer use and other screen machine 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.
Before you think about making changes to your child’s back to school schedule, take the time to review this checklist. Be open and honest in assessing your current routine then choose a few things to work on as you tweak your original approach. Make changes gradually and keep track of what works and what doesn't. Before you know it, your child will have made a comfortable transition to a new school routine.
And, 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!
For more strategies to make school a more positive experience for your child with autism click here to learn more about the book AUTISM PARENTING: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience – Over 300 tips for parents to enhance their child’s school success.