Parents are beginning to prepare their students as they head back to school by outfitting them with No. 2 pencils, folders, lunchboxes and new outfits. However, as the first day of school approaches, most parents of children with special needs have more than shopping on their minds.
Students with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorders, learning disabilities, anxiety issues or other disorders often need more support than neurotypical students as they say goodbye to summer and say hello to the new school year. Indeed, there is usually a considerable amount of involvement required to successfully prepare these children for this, sometimes uncomfortable, adjustment.
Usually parents have the opportunity to start preparing their student for the upcoming school year by setting goals during spring IEP meetings. At these meetings, parents and their students may also be introduced to the new teacher and other staff members. Yet, a lot can happen between spring and the beginning of school in the fall. Returning to school, even if in the same school building, can be filled with worries about making new friends or what the new teacher will be like. The school building may undergo construction or the expected teacher may end up in another school or district. This is why the spring IEP meeting shouldn’t be considered the final word. Helping a child transition into a new school year requires mental, emotional, cognitive and social preparation as well (Hammer, n.d.).
Setting your child up for success includes identifying specific fears or what sets him or her off. Fears may include academic failure, social anxiety, and bullying. Other factors might set the child off such as unexpected transitions, too much sensory input, school work perceived as being too hard or too easy, desk mates who kick chairs, or not being allowed to fidget. Talk with your child.
It is important to talk with your child about his or her worries and apprehensions regarding the upcoming school year. By acknowledging and validating your child’s fears rather than dismissing them will help diminish them (Hatjakes, 2013). Keep a positive outlook. Let him or her voice his or her opinions. When children feel that they have an active role in their plan they are likely to feel more successful. Doing this can help turn that fear into excitement.
Clear expectations can be a huge relief after the unstructured, open-ended nature of summer. It is beneficial to have everything ready a full week before school starts – clothes, supplies, as well as the bedtime and morning routine. Take a walk around the school grounds, travel the likely bus route, and, if the school has a web site, invite your child to take a look at it with you. It can also be beneficial to meet some of the staff at school. Doing this usually makes for smoother transition from a summer schedule to a school day schedule.
Talk with school professionals.
There are many professionals at the school who can help make the transition back to school go smoothly, including the principal, school social worker, the special education coordinator, or the teachers. These professionals are great resources parents can turn to in order to get their child prepared for the first day of school.
If you are concerned about your child’s level of anxiety, it’s important to consult these professionals. It’s also important to note and discuss what keeps your child content at school. This might include knowing the environment and people your child interacts with daily. Ask these professionals if you and your child can wander the halls of the school before the first day. This will give your child an opportunity to peek in on rooms and possibly meet some of the staff. See if you can take videos or pictures for your child to refer to later.
Consider social narratives.
Social narratives help teach routines, expectations, and behavioral standards by utilizing an image or video to represent an action or a task (Social Stories, n.d.). Take pictures and videos with your digital camera or cell phone, develop them directly into a book at a local drugstore, and then narrate them with your child again and again before school starts. You can have one for your morning routine at home, one about going to school, and one for situations your child may encounter at school, such as eating lunch in the cafeteria or a fire drill. Doing this will help your child anticipate the day-to-day events at school.
AAPC Publishing offers resources that may help prepare students as they head back to school including:
Hammer, C. (n.d.). Helping your child with autism cope with school anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/helping-your-child-with-autism-cope-with-school-anxiety
Hatjakes, A. (2013, August 28). Four ways to help overcome back-to-school anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.autismone.org/content/four-ways-help-overcome-back-school-anxiety
Social Stories. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.pbisworld.com/tier-2/social-stories/