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Back to School: Tips for Parents/Carers

Some youngsters, particularly those with autism may feel anxious about the impending changes of going back to school. Here are seven tips to help make the transition process as smooth as possible.

The summer holidays are almost over and a new school year is looming for children across the UK. Returning to school can present an exciting feat of new beginnings and life affirming moments as children progress onto the next stage of their education.  On the other hand, some youngsters, particularly those with autism may feel anxious about the impending changes of going back to school. It is natural for any child to feel apprehensive about the transition after the holidays because this tends to bring up a great deal of uncertainty. 

So what can be done to help put their minds at rest?  Here are seven tips to help make the transition process as smooth as possible. Feel free to use one, two or a few of the suggestions and adjust them to suit your child’s needs.

1.    Reflect on the school holidays

To kick start the transition process, talk to your child about activities they took part in over the holidays. Ask them what they enjoyed doing, what could have been better and why. This can by reviewing a holiday diary they may have made, having a general discussion or drawing pictures of their best moments. Involve any siblings where possible because it can be a wonderful social and listening skills activity.

By doing this, your child has the opportunity to mentally process the length of time which has passed over the holidays, helps with self-reflection and prepares them for the next step.

2.    Talk to your child about their feelings

A new school, new classroom, new teacher and possibly new classmates, can present a whole new set of unfamiliar territory all at once.  Understandably, in the run up to school starting, your child may experience a mixture of emotions.  Reassuringly talk to your child about their feelings, as it can help them think about the forthcoming changes. 

For children on the ASD spectrum, talking about our feelings can be quite tricky, because many are continually supported to develop emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to express their true feelings. To help your child, you can draw, colour or make a collage to represent different emotions.  Then communicate whilst using the drawing/collage that it’s okay to have feelings about the changes. Reiterate that because they are growing up, they are changing so their experiences at school will start to feel and be different.

As a follow up, you could think of using suitable calming strategies for times of anxiety or confusion. These strategies can include deep breathing exercises; sensory toys; mindfulness; quietly counting to 10; or movement breaks.

3.    Organise holiday homework

If there were any holiday assignments set by the school or college, review and discuss the completed work with your child at least two weeks before they return to school.  By leaving holiday homework to the very last minute, it can trigger panic and anxiety for the child and parent. So it’s important to be organised as early as possible to ease any concerns.

Set a plan and work with your child during the holidays on the school project or give them plenty of gentle reminders/rewards to independently complete their learning. Most importantly, calmingly reassure your child that if they need any help or clarification, your support and encouragement is there. 

4.    Arrange Playdates

Another back to school transition activity can be to organise playdates with classmates or school peers throughout the holidays. Often children do not see familiar faces from school over the holidays and can feel overwhelmed by class dynamics and different personalities when they return to school.

By keeping in contact with 1 or 2 parents and arranging a couple of playdates or short telephone/facetime/Skype conversations, it can enhance their social skills, help ease the child into the new term and prepare them for the shared community element of school.

5.    Prepare a Social Story

A social story is a set of short descriptions of a particular event or activity, informing the reader what to expect in that situation and why.  By preparing a social story, you can visually inform your child about the new school year. If you can, talk to the school before the holidays about how they communicated the transition to your child’s class, so you can use similar language in the social story. 

Work together with your child to find photos or draw pictures of their new school, new teacher, classroom and wider school community.  Show a calendar month within the social story highlighting the school start date and brief timings of the school day. Next, place these items into a book or onto a PowerPoint. Write short simple descriptions about each visual e.g. “This is Miss Livingston, your new Class Teacher.” 

Give your child an open space to be creative and ask you lots of questions about the social story. Alternatively, if your child is able to do so, go onto the school’s website with them, read through key information and end with an open discussion.  If any of these activities trigger emotions, have the feelings chat as detailed in point 2 above, and use appropriate calming strategies.

6.    Shopping for school items

Shopping with your child for a new school uniform, footwear, sports kit and any accessories can also be a good transition activity.  Keep reminding your child that because they are growing up, things are changing, including their uniform and personal items, and that it’s okay to have feelings about this.  Get them to try on the new uniform and discuss their thoughts.   Ask your child to pick out any accessories for themselves so they can take ownership. Preparing uniforms and school items can help your child start to process emotions and get into the mind-set of going back to school.

7.    Reintroduce routines

Gradually start to bring back home routines a week or so before school starts. This is particularly bedtimes for school nights, morning wake up routines and walking/driving to school.  In addition, creating home checklists or visual timetables of morning and afternoon activities can encourage organisation skills and boost self-esteem, particularly if there are built in rewards/incentives for the child upon completion. 

Overall, transitioning back to school is not a plain sailing processes for any child.  Many children need lots of reassurance, guidance and a calming approach.  I hope that by using some of the suggestions above, it supports the transition of your child into the new school year, helps strengthen their character and builds resilience for what lies ahead.

Nicky Harvey is an experienced SEN specialist teacher who is passionate about creative learning and inclusive teaching practices to help children reach their potential. In her spare time Nicola enjoys dancing, creative writing and mindfulness. Her blog can be found at: www.journalofmissh.com or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/thejournalofmissh.

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