Editor’s note- This article was written by Leica Anzaldo, MPA, BSW, Training Manager for the Autism Society of North Carolina. Leica can be reached at email@example.com.
For those of us with children on a traditional school schedule, the first day of school is just around the corner. While we may be ready (or not), it is imperative that we help prepare our children. Students with ASD often struggle with changes in their routines as well as physical changes in the environment. School can bombard even the most well-equipped child with many challenges. Here are some suggestions to help make going back to school more successful.
By now, you should have information on the school your child will attend as well as who their teacher will be. First, try to reach out to the teacher and request a meeting either in person, on the phone, or via Skype so you can share as much about your child as possible. Discuss with the teacher what your goals for your child are for the year, especially non-academic goals like initiating with a peer or sharing. In addition, stress what strategies work and don’t work at home and in the community in areas such as communication, transitions, introducing something new, working with others, and sharing. Another strategy may be to develop a book about your child that includes communication systems, picture cues, work systems, strategies, lists of things that are aversive, lists of preferred items and activities, and pictures that give the teacher a full perspective rather than just what they see on the child’s evaluation, tests, and school history. A photo section of the book can also serve as a source of comfort for the child during school as he/she can look through photos of familiar people, places, and things during break or leisure time.
Secondly, preparing the child for their new environment is critical. Most children with ASD benefit from knowing the plan ahead of time and having an opportunity to experience the new environment in small doses before any level of demand is introduced. If possible, set up times with the school before the school year begins to take your child to the various environments within the school where they will spend their time and pair these environments with favorite activities. Pack a backpack with your child’s favorite things: sensory items, favorite games, toys, books, etc. Take the backpack with you to the school, start in one room, and just allow the child to engage with favorite items in the various environments so that they perceive the environment as positive. Discuss with the teacher the possibility of initially sending a preferred item with your child to school to help them adjust and have a positive experience.
If it isn’t possible for you to spend time at the school, there are many videos on YouTube that you can use to prime the child for the school environment. You can also take photos of the school and its classrooms to show your child. Ask the child to point to or label the photos and reinforce immediately with something positive. Again, this may support a positive experience once the child begins the school year.
In addition, I would recommend developing a social story with pictures and words (if appropriate) to take the child through the steps of the school day. The social story should be written from the perspective of the child and frame things in a positive way. The story should show them who they will see, where they will go, and outline the expectations of the day. And naturally, the story should let the child know that the school day will end and that they will return home each day.
At home, begin playing with school supplies like rulers, erasers, crayons, and construction paper. Practice skills that may be touched on during the beginning of the school year. Label these items with your child so that on day one when the teacher says “take out your composition book,” your child knows exactly what is being requested. In addition, if your child will be wearing a uniform, this should be addressed before school begins. Slowly introduce the uniform. Have the child wear it for a few minutes each day and provide lots of praise and reinforcement. The same holds true if your child will be eating a packed lunch for the first time. During lunchtime at home, practice by packing your child’s lunch in the lunchbox they will use for school and taking the child step by step through carrying, opening and eating a packed lunch. The more prepared your child is, the better. Another great activity for some children is to design a calendar and let your child cross out the days before the “big day”, all the while encouraging your child with praise and excitement. This activity will help your child look forward to the start of school.
The first day of school is hard for every child no matter how much we prepare. Celebrate even the smallest achievements. If you approach school with a positive attitude and stay enthusiastic, your child will be more likely to be on board as well. Remember you’re not alone, and reach out to other parents or those who may be able to provide you with support and guidance. Good luck with the transition back to school!