A superhero lunchbox or a fresh box of crayons help a lot of kids feel excited about starting school again. However, getting used to the school routine after a summer break can be challenging, especially for kids with behavioral, emotional or neurological issues. As an educator working with children with autism, I developed these strategies to help children ease in to the routine with minimal stress. Feel free to adapt for your situation — and please share your ideas and experiences in the comments.
1. Take several trips to school in the weeks before the first official day. Most schools will be open during regular hours for at least two weeks before the first day of school. Teachers typically use this time to set up the classroom and do other preparation activities, while administrative staff works on making sure all the incoming students are properly enrolled. Call ahead to make sure you visit during a good time, preferably a time when your child’s teacher will be there. Spend a few minutes walking around the building with your child, pointing out places which will be important to him or her, like the library, the cafeteria, the gym, the classroom and the playground. Allow your child to look at everything, and if you find teachers working take the time to introduce them to your child.
2. Make a picture book about school. Take a camera with you on your first visit to your child’s school. Take pictures of the classroom and any other area where your child will be spending time. (don’t forget places like the nurse’s office, the drinking fountain and the hallway!) When you get home, print out all the pictures and label them with your child. Spend a few minutes every day looking at the picture book and talking about all the fun things your child will do in school.
3. Ask your child’s teacher for a copy of the daily schedule as soon as it’s ready. This is not always easy – the first days of school usually involve a lot of problem solving about schedules – the times your child may go to lunch or special area classes, or the times he or she sees therapists or special teachers may not be finalized until right before school starts. Most teachers are more than willing to share the daily schedule as soon as they know for sure what it will be. When you have it, talk about it with your child in detail. Pair it with the picture book and point out where each of the schedule items will take place. (For example: “The schedule says you eat lunch at 12:15 in the cafeteria. This is a picture of the cafeteria. Remember when we visited, and we looked at the tables, the food counter and the cash register? This is where you will eat lunch every day at school.”)
4. Slowly get your child into the routine of doing schoolwork. I usually recommend parents take some time every day throughout the entire summer to work with their children on the skills we use at school. Even if you haven’t done this, you can still help your child adjust. Start by spending five minutes sitting together doing a fairly quiet activity your child enjoys, like building with blocks, coloring or reading aloud together. The next day, shoot for ten minutes of uninterupted “focus” time. Keep adding a little bit of time each day until your child can focus for the length of a typical work time during the school day.
5. Start building a great relationship with your child’s team. Get to know teachers, therapists, assistants and your child’s classmates by name. Establish good lines of communication by getting email addresses, phone numbers and other contact information for all the people who will be working with your child and find the best way to have regular conversations with them. As a teacher, I always welcomed input, ideas and advice from parents – after all, no one knows your child better than you do. I know a lot about teaching, but parents are the real experts when it comes to finding the best way to inspire and educate their children. Don’t be afraid to speak up and share this expertise – it’s the most valuable piece of any planning we do.
6. Create time in your child’s schedule both before and after school where he or she can relax and prepare for or unwind from a day at school. Turn off the TV or any music, turn down the lights and have some relaxing activities your child enjoys available. Work to preserve this time for your child every day – it provides him or her with a guaranteed expanse of time where he or she knows what to expect, so it’s likely to be a low stress time. As hard as we try to keep a regular and predictable routine at school, it’s not always possible. School can be a pretty unpredictable place, especially to kids who are sensitive to change. Providing a comfort zone to bookend the school day will help your child better deal with some of the unexpected things that can happen during the school day.
7. Have a great attitude about school and it will be contagious. Parents have an amazing ability to affect the attitude of their kids – showing your kids a postive, optimistic view of school will help them shake some of the anxiety and apprehension that can make transistions so difficult for them.
8. Include your child as much as you can in back to school planning. Take him or her with you when you shop for school supplies, and let your child make his own choices at the store when you can. Making choices builds independence and confidence, and having materials he or she picked may be very comforting to your child during the school day.
Returning to school can be a great experience for your child with a little patience, some creativity and good planning. If you have ideas or tips that have been successful for you, I would love to hear them in the comments.