Ages: 7 - 13

Back to School: Tips for a Smooth Start to the School Year

Back to School: Tips for a Smooth Start to the School Year

Before Each School Year Starts

The back to school time can bring nervousness as your child adjusts and gets to know their teachers and team. Here are ideas for helping them adjust and for school staff to get to know them.

Create a one pager about your child to share with the school team, bus driver, nurse, and others they will interact with. Use these questions: what do people love about my child, what is important to them, what supports will help them. Put a photo and their name on top.

Taking Your Child to Visit School Beforehand

Visit school ahead of starting each year if possible for your child to meet the teachers and staff and see their classroom(s), where the bathroom is and where main activities are held. Share information about your child’s strengths and needs, and ask how the teacher prefers to communicate.

For younger children, encourage your child to spend some time playing on the playground. Create a “Your first day at school” picture book with input from your child’s teacher. Visit the nurse’s office to see what it’s like, especially if they need medications.

For older children and teens especially once they are taking classes in different rooms, have them walk through their schedule a few times on a day when there aren’t many other kids around. If they need help staying organized and getting to their classes on time, see if they can leave their books in their different classrooms instead of going to their locker between classes. Ask for a second copy of any textbooks to keep at home to avoid not being able to complete homework when books are left at school.

Talk about the different classes and activities your child will have in school to help them prepare. For example, they will line up to do certain activities and need to stop doing one activity to start doing the next.

For more impacted children, see if you can work with your child’s teacher to make a social story that shows the classrooms, hallway, where the bathrooms are, and their schedule with pictures showing each schedule like their locker.

Social stories or picture schedules that show visually the steps in a process or the day’s schedule may help your child. The Milestones Visual Supports Tool Kit has information and tips.

If your child is attending school virtually make sure you are clear on how the technology works and help your child practice and learn the most important steps. Check your Internet bandwidth. If you’re in need of internet access or better quality access, check your child’s school or county to see if they have free or reduced rate Internet access in your community.

Issues to Discuss with the School Team

Share with the teacher or interventionist issues you’re working on including anything that involves safety, how you and your child are learning what might set off or feel like a meltdown coming on, how you address that at home and how you’re handling safety in general at home.

Ask the teacher and interventionist how they handle behavior issues, If your child is still having toileting challenges, discuss how that will be handled.

If your child isn’t verbal, share how you communicate and what approaches and tools you use such as a communications device, visual supports or sign language.

Make sure there are food choices that work for your child’s sensory issues. Ask your child’s interventionist or school staff for help with what your child’s dietary restrictions and needs are ahead of school starting for both lunch and snacks, depending on if they will be packing or buying lunch.

Ask how birthdays and other special occasions like holidays are handled that may involve food, loud music and celebrations that may also be challenging for your child.

Preparing Your Child for Success

Think about how your child’s day is scheduled from when they wake up to how the day flows into evening and bedtime, especially as they make each school year transition. What activities do they have after school, including therapy? If possible engage your child in planning the schedule. Help your child plan for making time for and choosing when they will take a break.

Make sure your child learns at the start of each school year what the school rules are including being clear on what to do if they need to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom or if they feel sick and need to see the school nurse.

Start involving your child in picking and making their lunch and snack and checking their school’s lunch and snack schedule. If your child attends public school, they often provide reduced or free lunches or breakfasts.

For some children it’s helpful to have a visual schedule on an iPhone, a wipe off board, or a piece of paper. It gives them a sense of a routine, what to anticipate, and a way to be able to build in different activities such as homework and choice time when they can pick what they want to do. It breaks down their schedule rather than an endless power struggle of vast amounts of open time. The Milestones Visual Support Tool Kit provides tips and advice.

A Note about Executive Functioning Skills

Many autistic children and adults have challenges with what are called executive function skills. Executive functioning refers to a set of brain functions for managing your daily living including working memory, organizational skills, flexible thinking and self control. To learn more see this related article in the the Milestones Autism Planning (MAP) Tool.

Additional Resources

Milestones Afterschool Activities & Independent Leisure Skills Tool Kit

Leisure Skills article in the MAP Tool

Milestones blog article Help! How Can I Ease Back-to-School Anxiety? gives ideas for the transition.

Back to School Tool Kit from Mental Health America (available in English and Spanish)

The Milestones free autism Helpdesk or Family Consultations can assist you in finding resources and making a plan to help your child develop the skills they need.

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