Nili Geldwert, M.A. CCC-SLP and Julie Pike, M.A., CCC-SLP
It’s that time of year again…back to school! For many children this is an exciting time. They look forward to a new backpack, clothing, and school supplies; however, for many children with social communication challenges this creates a level of anxiety. Before we offer you strategies to help your child through this transition, we think it’s beneficial to understand why starting a new school year is so difficult, even for older kids who have had many years of experience. We have broken up a child’s challenges into two categories, macro and micro challenges. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are many of our clients’ concerns we have witnessed over the years.
Macro: meeting new classmates, teachers and other staff members, adjusting to a new classroom environment and structures, possible new lunch time and table mates, navigating a new hallway or class location, playing with new recess playmates, adjusting to using a locker, possible arrival and dismissal routine changes.
Micro: (these are more socially nuanced compared to the Macro list) getting to know the teachers’ personality, reading facial expressions and body language, getting to know new peers’ likes and dislikes, classroom rules, cliques, figuring out where you belong in a group, how to initiate conversation with peers, advocate for himself/herself, emailing teachers and peers, and office hour expectations.
Below are some suggestions that could support your child’s transition into the new school year. Based on our experience, it is important to provide as much information to your child prior to the first day of school to alleviate the nerves. We suggest priming your child about 2 weeks prior to the first day of school.
Start with looking at the school calendar for the month of the September and mark down the first day of school and any days off. You could then create a daily schedule with your child to include wake up time, morning routine, after school routine and bedtime. For some children that enjoy the concept of time, write down the specific time they have to complete each morning task. This will help them organize and take ownership of their responsibilities. For example, 7:00 wake-up, 7:15 get dressed, 7:25 breakfast, etc. Many websites, such as do2learn.com, have highly usable printable visual schedules - there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Using a timer, such as the Alexa device or a visual timer, will help to reduce the amount of times you need to remind your child to complete a task. We suggest trying out this schedule for a few days prior to school starting, especially if it varies from your current routine. Example of a morning schedule from do2learn.com:
Some schools might have already had you take a tour and meet the teachers. If your child’s school did not offer this opportunity we strongly recommended you advocate for your child to have the chance to visit the school before the first day. If this is not possible (or your child is interested in the school schedule and/ or layout of the school before the visit), we suggest you going on the school’s website to see what information is available. You could also request a map and class schedule sample. Another suggestion for a child that perseverates over specific concerns is to have him or her write down their questions or concerns in a notebook which will be answered at the end of each day. This will provide an outlet to express their thoughts and hopefully reduce the anxiety. For children who will be commuting to and from school via mass transit or walking, it is beneficial to try the route and transportation before the first day. For older kids, troubleshoot alternative routes in case there are transportation disruptions.
Many children have sensitivities to different clothing materials so it’s important to try on new outfits/uniforms. The Target store last year launched a collection of sensory- friendly apparel and an adaptive collection, made for kids with physical disabilities.This could be an option if your child has any of these sensitives. We also recommend previewing new school gear, like a backpack, jacket and sneakers, ahead of the first day of school to ensure that your child will be comfortable.
This time of year is filled with a variety of feelings that will constantly change (for you and your child). Everyone may be excited, nervous, frustrated and frightened, to name a few. It is important to understand your child's feelings and try to problem solve their concerns to alleviate their worries. Having your child involved in this process will also give him or her confidence and autonomy which is very empowering for children and will help them start the school year off on the right foot.