Easing Into Back To School

By Janis D. Gioia

For parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety or adjustment disorders, depression or low frustration tolerance, back to school routines can be challenging. Traditional back to school transition advice usually includes things like having supplies readily organized and a quiet, well-lit place to study free of distractions. This is fine for most children. But children with special needs react to the changes in the new school year differently, and may well come home from school and throw a tantrum before their backpack is even unloaded.

Here are some tips to help you help your child relax and transition to the new school year and its routines.

Prepare for Change. Discuss the changes the school year will bring weeks before the changes occur. Slowly help your child get to bed earlier and begin waking up at the time he will need to be up for school. Ask your child how she feels about starting the new year so you can address any fears. Reading books like, Will I Have a Friend? or The Kissing Hand can help. Ask your children’s librarian for help with bibliotherapy books on the areas where your child has concerns. Visit the school and grounds often to familiarize him with the building, restrooms, and staff.  Meet with the teachers prior to school so there or no surprises for them or your child. If a counselor is available, schedule a meeting to plan for a smooth transition.

Use Empathy. You may not understand the anger or anxiety transitions bring for your child. Your other children may not experience these kinds of emotions. For children who are anxious, angry or depressed about the changes the new school year brings, comments like, “There’s nothing to be nervous about,” or “Your sister doesn’t act like this every day before school” are not going to help. Instead, validate the fears, the anger, with calm quiet statements like, “I understand you are very nervous about your new teacher and your new class. Let’s think of a plan to help you manage this transition time.” For example, if the bus ride home is too noisy and chaotic possibly your child could wear noise canceling headphones, sit at the front of the bus, or get picked up after school.

Snack Healthy. Nothing causes a meltdown faster than a tired and hungry child. Depending on your child’s lunch period, she may be getting home from school running on empty. Fruits like bananas and apples, Cream of Wheat or oatmeal, low fat cheese sticks, whole grain cereals or crackers all make wonderful after school fare. Make sure your child is drinking lots of water to avoid dehydration, prevent headaches and increase alertness.

Relax first, study later. If your child is tense, anxious, angry and easily frustrated, asking him to do his homework can be like setting a match to a fuse. Skip the advice that teachers often give about having children get homework done first and then be allowed to play. Think of how you feel after a long day at work. Would you want to walk in the door and be told that you have to immediately complete a project that you are working on at the office?

Probably not. So help your child unwind from school by doing what helps her to relax. Ideas are limitless.  Some include coloring, using modeling dough (Aroma Dough is wonderful and has delicious, soothing scents) taking a warm bath or shower, or physical activities like running outside, riding a bike and playing with the dog. After thirty minutes of down time, your child will be more ready to tackle homework assignments, chores, or head out to an after school activity.

Help Your Child Develop Self-Awareness. Help your child develop self awareness of what works for him and what doesn’t.  Your child will know when the best time is for her to study math facts, write a report…do that spelling assignment, take out the garbage, or go to dance class. Too often as parents we push a child to do what best fits into our schedule so we can check off an item on a to-do list and get to the next thing. Some children work best right after school, some after a snack…others after dinner and a shower. Help your child see when he is feeling most energized and focused for the work he has to complete. If your daughter loves an afterschool activity but is always having a meltdown at 4pm, see if it’s offered at other times or on weekends.

My son usually balked at doing homework assignments until sometime after dinner. This went against the teacher in me who thought that homework should be done immediately while it’s fresh, leaving the night free for activities and relaxing. After struggling with him for a year or two, and then seeing that the homework actually did get done, even if it wasn’t exactly the time I would have chosen, and that his grades were just fine, I left him alone and we have had no further issues regarding homework.

Strive for Balance. Children with special behavioral needs usually don’t easily transition from the school day right into an after school sport or lesson. Expecting to shuffle them from the bus stop and off to piano lessons or a sibling’s football practice is probably not going to work out well for you, or them. Create balance in activities and if possible schedule them so that your special needs child has a break between school, relaxation and activities.

Create a Soothing Space. A soothing place where your child can relax is just as important as a well-supplied study area.  Create a place, preferably in your child’s bedroom, where he can relax. Fill the space with overstuffed pillows, a CD player with relaxation music or your child’s favorite music, a stress ball to squeeze, an air freshener or potpourri in a soothing smell like lavender and vanilla, a few smooth river rocks  to hold (found in discount or home improvement stores) and a stuffed animal or two. Accompany your child to the space and model relaxing there. Relaxation isn’t easy for a child who is stressed. The key is to have him relax before he’s so angry that he shuts down and won’t give relaxation a chance.