Summer vacation is almost over, and we’re once again at the beginning of a new school year.
Your child may start school for the first time, move up a grade, or perhaps you’ve just moved, and your child will attend a new school. The first school experience, or going back to school, is rarely smooth sailing for any child, and especially for children on the autism spectrum.
While caring for my grandson, diagnosed with autism at a young age, I saw him through his first school experiences, starting with preschool at age 3, and because we moved almost every year the first 6 years of his young life, it meant new schools as he started Kindergarten and 1st grade. At the onset of each school year I learned something new about how to help prepare him for these changes.
Of course, every child and every situation is unique and different, and even with preparing your child the best you can, there most likely will still be some bumps in the road, but hopefully some of these tips can make the transition to school a little easier for you and your child:
Contact the school/staff ahead of time
It can be very helpful to contact your child’s school to request a visit. You can explain that because your child has autism, you would like to meet regarding his placement, arrange to see his classroom, and meet with his teacher, if possible.
Most of the schools I contacted over the years reacted positively to my request, and because of it, the transition back to school, or to a new school, went much more smoothly.
It also helps lay the groundwork for good communication with the school staff. From the start, the staff will know you are going to be an involved parent, with a desire for open, two-way discussion about your child’s needs and progress.
If your child is going to a new school, once all the paperwork is processed and placement decided on, request a walk-through before school starts, so your child will have an idea of the layout and where his classroom and desk will be. You can also ask permission to take pictures to include in a social story about your child’s new school and classroom to read together later.
Write a Story
I wrote and printed out a story for my grandson prior to starting Kindergarten at a new school in a new location. It included pictures of his new school and classroom, and photos of his new teacher and aide. Reviewing a story like this with your child often during the days leading up to the first day of school can help the transition go smoother once the big day arrives.
Preparing at home
During the time leading up to the first day of school, spend time talking about school daily. Review the “My New School” story often, and talk about school rules and the behavior that will be expected of your child.
You may enjoy the book I wrote for my grandson, School Rules Are…?. “Repetition is the law of memory” for any of us; and especially for autistic children, the more they see and hear something, the better they will remember. There are some easy-to-make visual supports in the back of the book to help with this.
You can share the key ring cards and task strips with your child’s teacher also. The teacher can tape a task strip to your child’s desk, and point at a picture to praise your child for good behavior, or if necessary, remind your child of a rule along with a brief verbal instruction.
This may vary in different schools and locations, but many schools invite parents and children to an orientation event before the start of school. Some schools have the parents and students come in to meet with the teacher and aide personally, staggering the visits at 10-minute intervals, while other schools may invite groups of parents and students to meet at the same time.
Sometimes, orientation day can be quite a chaotic and loud event, and the confusion and presence of so many people in one room could be the perfect setting for a potential meltdown. If you feel orientation is going to be too much for your child, call ahead of time and ask if there is a way for you to meet privately ahead of the group orientation. Most schools will be happy to comply.
Meeting the teacher(s) and aide(s)
If for some reason your child was not able to meet his new teacher before the start of school, request a phone conference. Some schools may allow for you to invite your child’s teacher to visit you at home, or you may be able to arrange another time for you and your child to meet the teacher at school or another location.
When you meet with the teacher, pass on any information about your child that you feel will be helpful, including copies of any visual supports your child may use. While visiting with one of my grandson’s new teachers, she had a chance to observe him during her visit, which gave her an idea of his communication abilities at the time, and I was able to answer any questions she had.
I also prepared an “ALL ABOUT…” page, and a “Positive Student Profile” to pass on to the teacher, both of which included pertinent medical and behavior information, special interests, and at least one recent photo of my grandson.
Updating these two forms for your child’s teacher at the start of each new school year never fails to impress and generate gratitude. What the teacher and aide otherwise would have to find out by trial and error will already be covered, and help start off their interaction with your child on a positive note.
If you would like blank copies of these forms, feel free to leave a comment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or private message me at www.facebook.com/AutismIs.
Schedules and changes
Starting school often means a big change in your child’s daily schedule. In order to prepare your child for what his day is going to be like both before and during school, including transitions from one activity to another, ask your child’s teacher to give you his daily and weekly schedule ahead of time. Once you have the information, create a picture schedule or list for your child, and review it with him each morning before leaving for school.
When in preschool, my grandson took his written daily schedule to school with him, and the teacher always placed it in the same spot, so he could cross off the different activities before transitioning to the next one. It worked like a charm—most of the time!
His teacher tried to stay on top of letting me know about any schedule changes ahead of time, but of course, sometimes there are unexpected changes—but that’s a story for another time.
I hope these few tips are helpful and provide you with some ideas on how to better prepare your child for the first day of school.