This article was contributed by Nancy Nestor, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region, an autism mom, and a former teacher.
With all the hot weather we have had this summer, it is hard to believe, but summer is fading. Before you know it, yellow school buses will fill the streets, packed with students excited to start another year. The change in schedule can be hard for families; transitioning is not usually a strength for people on the spectrum.
Recently I created a chapter presentation on preparing for the new school year, and I wanted to highlight here some of the information others have presented, as well as add a few tips that I found while researching. With a few changes to your life at home, you and your child will be ready for school this year. If you are calm, your child will have an easier time with the transition, too.
Start preparing now
Preparation is key, and now is the time to start. Along with getting new clothes, backpacks, and lunchboxes, fill prescriptions and check your stock of special-diet foods, if that is something your family needs. To find a school menu listing allergens, go to the child nutrition department section of your school system’s website. This will help you figure out which days your child can eat at school and which days you must send lunch.
One of the biggest challenges is the shift back to the school year schedule, but getting up early does not have to be traumatic. It just takes some time. For example, you can begin turning back wake-up times and bedtimes by 15 minutes every four days. A small, slow change will make the whole transition to school time easier.
Work on “waiting skills”
Back-to-school shopping offers plenty of time for our children to wait. This is not always easy, but it is good to practice. Waiting is a skill that is very important in life, such as when your child has to wait before school. Many of our kids use electronic devices to fill waiting time. If your child’s diversion tool is not working as well as it used to, then it may be time to find something new. Whatever you choose, it would be good to use it only when you need your child to wait; otherwise, the attractiveness of the device can wear off sooner.
Practice new skills needed for middle or high school
For students entering middle or high school, a locker and its lock may be part of their day. If your child is not proficient at using a lock or is anxious about it, then now is the time to purchase one and work on it until your child becomes competent and comfortable. Nowadays, there are lots of options for combination locks, and some are much easier to use than others. Of course, the use of a lock and key is very easy, too. Most schools don’t care which kind you get.
Make sure your child is comfortable with sensory tools
Along with washing new school clothes to get rid of the stiffness, you should make sure your child has become comfortable with any new devices you bought to help them cope with sensory issues. Some schools are finicky about comfort items sent from home to ease transitions, but rarely do they discourage items such as noise-blocking headphones and chewy devices, especially when students are in a self-contained class.
Use a morning schedule
Children who are used to following a schedule daily have an easier time learning a new schedule for school. If you put away your “Getting Ready for School” schedule for the summer, it is time to get it out. If you never made one, it is time to do that. For a nonverbal child, visual schedules are a great way to communicate expectation, increase independence, and reduce anxiety. For verbal children, societal expectations are much higher, and schedules can also help them in those areas. Most children learn through play, and play helps decrease anxiety, so make your use of the schedule fun and reinforce proper use with social praise or other rewards. Some parents give a prize to the first one to complete a schedule or to those who beat the timer.
When making a schedule, try using pictures of your child doing the activity. This helps your child understand that the schedule is for him or her, and increases compliance. If you are unable to take pictures of your child, then take pictures of items he or she will need in your house to do the activities on the schedule. For teens who are high-functioning, a checklist with a calendar might work just as well. Use whatever method your child will likely use independently and with accuracy.
Use a social story about going to school
Social stories are a simple way to let your child know what to expect in the future, and they are a great way to help them prepare for going back to school. Often social stories can be used to explain the rules or order of events. They are written in first person so that your child knows it is about him or her. Use a positive tone to reduce anxiety.
Create a profile of your child for teachers
Even teachers who have taught your child before will be interested to know about new and emerging skills. For those who are new to your child, including regular education teachers; music, art, and other special teachers; speech therapists; and OTs, this information can be invaluable. Having been the teacher on the receiving end of new students, I can say that unfortunately, IEPs from the sending school are not always available to the new teacher on the first day of school. Having a student profile is very helpful.
Because teachers have so many students, you should condense the information to one page. Be sure to include your child’s strengths, areas of challenge, motivators, and strategies in case things do turn toward trouble. It is also very helpful to let teachers know the behaviors that indicate your child is getting stressed, so that they can implement a distraction or a calming technique.
- Website: The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center provides a step-by-step guide online.
- Webinar: ASNC will offer an online workshop called “All About Me” on Saturday, Aug. 15. Register here.
If writing is not your thing, you can go to the Do2Learn website, print out the descriptors for the main areas of autism, and then highlight those that define your child. The site also lists strategies that are helpful in those cases, and you can highlight any that have been helpful for your child. If you know of strategies that have been effective at home or school and are not listed, be sure to share these as well.
Other ways to prepare your child
Try reading age-appropriate books about starting school, which should be available at your public library. For some children, listening to a book about someone else starting school is a non-threatening way of bringing up the topic. Another idea is to role-play going to school the first day with your child. Some families use toys to “play the part” of other children in the class or teachers – but don’t use a toy that is already an obsession, or you might create more problems. Just seeing pictures of the school and classmates might be helpful in getting them ready. All of these methods provide a way to resolve any anxiety your child might have about the coming year.
Visit school before the school year starts
A week or so before school starts, arrange a visit. For many of our families, a meeting before school is much more helpful to the student and the teachers than coming to an open house, which is usually overstimulating. This would be a great time to give your child’s personal profile to teachers. Be sure to take pictures, so you can review them with your child several times before the first day of school. Take pictures of the teachers and common places: the lunchroom, playground, gym, and the classrooms where your child will spend time. Try to meet as many of your child’s teachers as is possible. This will help your child develop a mental picture of what to expect, and it will ease anxieties that arise the first day. Also meet the office staff and be sure they know your child. They will be the ones who need to know that your child cannot walk themselves down the hall to a class alone when they are tardy. They will be the ones who greet you on the phone when you call the school, so they need to have an understanding of your child and your life.
Create structure for afterschool, too
Make a schedule for afterschool and create some down time with limited talking and expectations. A day filled with language is tiring for many of our kids, and they need a sensory-free zone to decompress before they begin the expectations of home. For some kids, listening to music is calming.
It is important to get school work out of the way while it is fresh in their memory, so don’t wait too long to start. If working on homework is a problem, break it down into smaller, more manageable parts and reward your child for working independently, perhaps with a short sensory break or a 5-minute break to do some other preferred activity.
Using a schedule helps children realize that the list of work to be done is getting shorter and that they have another break to look forward to after completing more work. For some older students, a checklist might be more appealing. Many students forget to record their homework assignments, so be sure to find out whether their teachers have a website or Wiki site or other means to check on assignments. Lastly, a great way to prepare for the next day is by having your child help pick out their clothes and put all the things they will need for school in a place that will be easy to access in the morning.
Call on us
If you would like more advice, feel free to contact the Autism Resource Specialist for your part of the state. Every year we spend time helping parents solve challenges related to going back to school and schools that don’t seem to be supportive. We will be happy to help you, too.
If you would like more in-depth information on any of these topics, check out the ASNC Bookstore, especially the following categories: Visual Supports, Classroom, and Children’s Books. Through August, you can save 15% on online orders with the code BTSS2015.
The new school year is here, let’s get it done!
Nancy Nestor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-894-9678.
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