Our back-to-school routine is in full swing as we prepare Macie for sixth grade and Abram for eighth grade. We’ve had a fantastic summer of visiting friends and exploring new places but, like most parents I know, I’m ready for the kids to be back in school! Here are some of the ways we’ve been preparing for a successful start to the school year.
Create a Social Story
Though Abram needs these less often these days, we use social stories to tackle a lot of challenging issues. With visuals and descriptions, we help Abram set expectations to navigate new situations. The first day of school is certainly one of those challenging situations. Using realistic photos, or photos of our actual environment whenever possible, we create a visual story to help Abram prepare for what will happen during the school day. It might start with Abram will wake up at 6 a.m. to change into school clothes and go downstairs to eat breakfast. Then Abram and mom will walk to the corner and wait for the bus with other kids. Then with a picture of his school, we describe where he will get off the bus and walk to his classroom. We include pictures of people, such as the bus driver and teacher. Emotions are hard for kids on the autism spectrum to understand and process, so we try to talk about them in advance. We might include a picture showing a lot of kids in front of a school and talk about how they are feeling the same way Abram is feeling – they are excited about their first day but a little nervous about meeting new people and starting a new routine.
By preparing the social story and rehearsing it many times before the start of school, we try to help Abram set expectations and lessen his anxiety. There is an analogy that I love about the exploding coke bottle. Thinking about all of the sensory input and new experiences for your child during a school day, imagine your child is a coke bottle that is shaken whenever they feel anxious. A noisy hallway? Shake the bottle. Strange smells in the lunchroom? Shake the bottle. Having to sit at a desk without the freedom to walk around? Shake the bottle. New people, places and a change in the routine? Shake, shake, shake. Before you know it, that pressure has to be released. The social story is just one of the tools we use to try to set expectations, get ahead of that anxiety, and prevent the bottle from being shaken so much.
Create an “All About Me” Book
As a parent, you are your child’s strongest advocate, but you can always recruit others to be in your corner. One way we do this is by creating an “All About Me” book before the start of school and sharing it with people who can become our allies, such as the bus driver, teacher and aides. Our book includes pictures of our family, where we live, and more facts about Abram. He’s afraid of bees and his favorite color is orange. He adores his younger sister. He laughs out loud during Ellen’s Game of Games show. By sharing Abram’s story, we give people a way to get to know him and create a connection.
As a former teacher myself, I’m not above a little gift to sweeten the deal. When we share the “All About Me” book with the bus driver, we’ll include a pack of Starburst to tell the driver she’s a star. On a stressful day for the teacher, like the first day of school, we’ll deliver some homemade cookies with our book. While the start of the school year is stressful for Abram, we consider the day from other perspectives and realize he’s not the only one feeling that way. The bus driver and teacher are meeting new people too, so a friendly face (and a sweet treat!) is welcomed by all.
Get into the Routine
A few weeks before school, we start transitioning from the lazy days of summer to a normal school day routine. Abram thrives in a structured environment, so he’ll tend to put himself back on a school schedule before I even think about it. We start with regular wake up times and bedtime routines. We lay out clothes to prepare for the first week so we’re not trying to negotiate what to wear or find a particular shirt in the inevitable chaos of the first few school mornings. We plan out lunches and let the kids have a say in it; if they feel some ownership in the process, they’ll be more excited about working with me to get the task done. I ask them if they want to buy or pack lunch and we plan ahead by setting aside lunch money or buying the sandwich supplies.
We also try to visit the school ahead of time. Your school might publish some open days, or you could call and schedule a private visit so you won’t be distracted by a crowd. I recommend these visits to everyone as a way to help your child get more comfortable with the new surroundings and routine. We visit the bus drop-off location and walk to the classroom together. We check out the lunchroom and find the bathrooms. If you use the social story technique, your child can now bring that story to life and visit the actual locations. Parents, don’t forget about that Individualized Education Plan (IEP), so plan ahead for those meetings and school visits, too.
As I prepare to send my youngest off to her final year of elementary school, I can’t help but think back to the very early days, when my firstborn was just starting school. For parents who are in that stage, I remember the anxiety you must be feeling, for both yourself and your child. Will you have a good relationship with the teacher? Will your child make friends? I wish someone had imparted some wisdom to me to relieve my anxiety, so I’m here to tell you that you will be ok and your child will be ok. Preschool and kindergarten teachers are all just gooey, sweet cinnamon rolls who can’t wait to wrap you and your child in a bearhug. They love little children, sticky fingers and all; that’s why they decided to be teachers. They will love your child, too. When you look back, you will cherish those early years, with the handprint artwork and handmade cards with a barely legible name. Hang in there, you and your child will both make it through the first of many first days. If you’re better at planning than I am, go ahead and fill out the little chalkboard with their name and age, what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite things. Take a photo and cherish it. Though my kids are older now and I can’t wait for them to get back to school, I know I’ll look back and cherish these days, too.