Day one of school can be chaos – there are suddenly no clean socks to be found, the zipper is broken on the brand new backpack, and someone is playing hide-and-seek with the car keys. Among all this, the first day of school is full of what I like to call NDEs: New and Different Experiences. What are our standard NDEs for back to school? The uniform, the bag, the lunchbox, the hat, the stationary, the classroom, the teacher, the students, the classmates, the routine…you get the point!
Whether it is their first day of school, or their first day back for the year, for kids on the autism spectrum these NDEs can be overwhelming and can lead to a spike in anxiety around the start of school. By familiarising your child with as many of these NDEs as possible in both a gradual AND positive way, you can help to make the transition to school much smoother.
With day one just around the corner, here are some top tips on how you can help your little one prepare for the first day and reduce their separation anxiety and stress.
1. Visit the school
In the next few days, try to visit the school with your child. Admin staff are usually on the grounds on the first few pupil free days, so you may like to call to see if you can walk around the school. If you can, remember to visit the key areas your child will be using – the classroom (including where they will put their bag and drink bottle), playground, eating area, toilet block, and office. You may even be able to meet their teacher on a pupil free day. If you can’t go into school, you can always walk to the entrance or around the gates to help your child get used to the new surroundings. Take some photos of your child and the things you see on your visit to have a look at later.
2. Create experience through imagination
Get creative with your child to help them build a mental image of what it will be like going to school. You could help them draw a picture of themselves in their uniform and bag, in the classroom with their teacher, walking to school or getting in the car. You could draw a picture for them of their school grounds, classroom, or playground? If you haven’t had a chance to visit, hop online to get a map or have a look at the satellite image of the school from above. As you’re creating these images for your child, talk to them about school – use their teacher’s name and the names of any classmates you know of. You can also create a social-story, a picture schedule, or role-play some common school situations (with toys or acting) – like arriving at school, the bell ringing, reading time, or lunchtime. Social stories are a way of using pictures to show each step of common situations that kids face – similar to a comic strip. You can print or draw these pictures yourself, or use one of the many apps around (such as ‘Stories About Me’).
3. Talk with your child
You may have noticed your child becoming more and more worried or anxious as their first day gets closer. Ask your child if they have any questions about school – and if there is anything they are scared or worried about. You may not have all the answers, but you will have some! Tell your child that everyone feels nervous about new and different experiences – for all the superheros out there, remind them that the only time we can be brave is when we are worried. It can also be helpful to talk to your child about other times they felt nervous about a big change – like starting kindergarten or day-care, changing a swimming teacher, or moving house – and how they got used to the new situation.
4. Practice new routines
Going to school also means a new routine in the morning. Start to practice this routine as early as possible to help get everyone on board for the first day. Many parents find visual schedules helpful to keep their kids focused on the steps to getting ready for school in the morning. Visual schedules should include a picture for each of the steps your child needs to do to get ready (e.g. eat breakfast, brush teeth and hair, get dressed, pack bag). You can also laminate these pictures and add velcro to each one, so your child can remove each step once they have completed it. Visual schedules are also available on your smartphone – such as ‘What’s Next (Visual Prompts)’, ‘First Then Visual Schedule’, or ‘iPrompts’. It is very important to introduce this routine before the first day, so everyone has a chance to practice. Remember to reward your child for practicing their new morning routine – whether it’s with a bonus fun activity or a special outing once they’re ready to go.
5. Get in the zone the night before
Getting as much ready as possible the night before will allow you to have more time and mental space to prepare your child the next morning. Even better, get your child involved in these preparations to familiarise them with the steps for the next day. Help your child select and lay out their uniform (cut labels and wash multiple times if necessary), help them to prepare their backpack and school supplies, and agree on what is going into their lunchbox for school. Before bed, read a fun story about starting school or go through the morning routine with them one last time. Remember – we are all much calmer and more resilient when we are well rested, so an early night is a must! Finally, getting in the zone the night before means that your first school morning is as simple as possible – this goes for your child AND for you! Help make your morning run smoother, by having yourself organised the night before too.
6. Keep calm and enjoy the ride
With everything in place, it’s time to cross your fingers that the first day of school will go well. Is it a guarantee – definitely not! Even with your best intentions, things can still go awry on the first day. Make sure your wake-up time gives you plenty of extra minutes for ‘damage control’ before you need to walk out the door. Keeping calm as a parent is also essential – so get up early and have that cup of tea if that’s what you need to get centred before you wake the kids. If your child has a meltdown, slow down and be with them – remember this can be an incredibly overwhelming day. Being on time for school on the first day is not the main goal – arriving at school with a little one ready to learn and face this next big change is!
This post was written for us by Grace Sweeney from Brisbane Kids Psychology Clinic, Benchmark Psychology.