Strategies to Help Our Kids Return to School

Over the months of summer vacation from school, it’s almost impossible to create the same level of structure and type of environment at home as exists at school. Besides, many of the routines of family life typically aren’t conducive to structure anyway, and whatever routines you do have can easily unravel during the long summer vacation.

But as much as we as parents often look forward to school starting again, the transition from summer and home back to full-time school is almost always a shock to our kids’ systems. This is true regardless of how much they enjoy school and how great their school may be for them. It’s a complete change from what they’ve been doing over the summer months.

Be prepared for regressions in the first weeks of school, even if your child is at the same school with the same teacher and therapists as the previous year. This is perfectly normal. Rarely will these last very long, though. If they do, this could be a sign that your child is struggling with more significant issues in their classroom than simply adjustment.

Here are some techniques you can try to help ease the transition back to school. Every child is different, so start with the ones that work with your child’s strengths.

  • If your child responds well to social stories or stories in general, read them ones about going back to school. Create a story yourself involving pictures of your child’s school and their teachers. You can print them out, add some simple words, and make a little booklet. Don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare. Similarly, you can try YouTube videos that talk about school.
  • Talk about school in your child’s presence using a positive tone, even if your relationship with the school is strained. Kids, even if they have receptive and expressive language challenges, can often pick up on these cues, positive or negative.
  • If you use a visual calendar to help your child know what’s coming up, put some sort of note (special sticker, picture of the school, etc.) on the date when school starts and start checking off the days leading up to it. If you do this in your tradition, think of it like a back-to-school Advent calendar.
  • Dial back your own personal obligations the week before school starts and the first week of school. Clear as much as you can off your calendar that doesn’t involve family responsibilities. You’ll want to be able to devote as much of your energy and attention as possible to the transition. This will also help you be as calm a presence as you can for your child.
  • Start adjusting in small increments your morning and nighttime routines to align with your school’s schedule a week or two before school begins. Figure out when you need to start the morning routine so you’re ready to leave for school without feeling too harried. Prepare as much as you can (e.g., pack school lunch) the night before.
  • Reach out to your child’s teacher and school therapists and discuss ideas for a good transition. Get them up to speed on any challenges your child is currently having, and discuss strategies on making the first days of school easier on everyone.
  • Give your child lots of leeway with ‘ritualistic’ behaviors during this transition. For example, my son lines up a couple dozen objects on the bathroom counter after his shower in the morning. He counts them as he goes. This whole process takes 10 minutes, but we account for it in our schedule because it helps him center himself within the morning routine. Expect your child to cling more strongly to these types of activities during major transitions.
  • If your child benefits from a ‘sensory diet’ (a regular routine of any sensory input that calms them), plan to increase it during this transition.
  • Keep a log of things like changes in behavior, sleep, diet, etc. and anything noteworthy that happened each day at least a week before and after school begins. If your child is having a hard time, these logs can help you look for patterns. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. I’ve found that a paragraph or two is generally sufficient.
  • Don’t push your child toward new skills or goals until they get settled into school. For example, if you’re working on getting your child to look people in the eyes more, don’t push that when school starts. Your goal the first week of school is just to get back into the routine and see where things are.

It may take some planning and effort, but with some preparation and flexibility you can greatly increase the likelihood that going back to school will be a positive experience for everyone.

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