Sure Fire Ways to Combat Back-to-School Anxiety with Autism
Just when it feels like we have settled into a summer routine and schedule, we turn the page on the calendar and realize it is almost time to head back to school.
Being a middle school teacher of students with autism, I have witnessed and experienced the anxiety, stress and panic that parents experience with the start of a new school year. Rest assured, there are some things we can do to help alleviate the stress and anxiety for both the parents and the child.
Visit the school
Visit and tour the new school or classroom with your child, arrange to meet the teacher and do a walkthrough. It would be ideal to schedule this before the summer break. Contact the guidance department to schedule your tour with the teacher to ensure that disruption of the class is at a minimum and you have the teacher’s undivided attention. If you are not able to schedule before the summer break, contact the school during the summer and request a tour with an administrator. During the tour be sure to ask about daily routines and schedules, changing of classes, elective opportunities (art, music, library, and physical education), transportation, lunchtimes and cafeteria procedures, and opportunities for inclusion with peers (if they will be in a self-contained classroom).
Following the tour, begin to discuss any changes in routine with your child. For instance, when transitioning to middle school, chances are there will not be a playground or recess. Instead, they may have physical education or gym. The cafeteria and lunch line will be significantly different in middle school than in elementary school. Your child may be switching classes every period or in a block schedule; these are all things that need to be talked about as early as possible to allow for your child to process the changes and formulate any questions or concerns they may have.
Take note of any changes in start and end times of the school day from their previous school year. For example, in our county, middle school starts significantly later than elementary school. This change impacts sleeping, eating and yes, bathroom patterns. While insignificant it may initially seem, many children have difficulty using the bathroom in a public place or are used to having a quiet/rest period in the afternoon. By being aware of the schedule, you can begin to alter your child’s schedule at home leading up to the start of the school year.
While conducting the tour, establish a protocol with the teacher or administrator for your child should they become overwhelmed and require a safe place. This could be the guidance counselor’s office, a resource room or another classroom. The most important thing is that your child knows there is a safe place they can go to deescalate and have time to regroup before going back into the classroom.
Attend a school-sponsored event prior to the start of your child’s school year to get your student excited about belonging to the school. If a basketball game or track meet would interfere with any sensory concerns, try a book fair or curriculum night (science fair, math night, or robotics competition). This past year, the feeder elementary school and I coordinated a field trip together to give all the students an opportunity to have fun together while they had an opportunity to get to know me. The idea is that your child begins to feel a sense of community and belonging to their new school and begins to form an attachment or bond with them. If your new school has T-shirts, water bottles or lanyards for their students, try to purchase one that your child would like. I delivered “swag” (as the students called it) to my incoming students at their elementary schools and they thought I had given them a winning lottery ticket. They were so excited to have tokens from their future school that it helped pave the way with their transition.
Drive the route that either the bus or the car will take to school
Our students succeed when they are familiar with their routine and surroundings. Changing the mode and route of travel can be extremely upsetting. Perhaps this year they will be riding a bus instead of a car. If that is the case, contact transportation and arrange a bus tour and request the route that the bus will take.
Allow your child to view the bus and even get on the bus at the compound to allow them time to process the change. If at first you encounter some resistance for a tour, insist that you speak to a transportation manager and explain the situation. Practice walking to the bus stop in the morning and afternoon at the scheduled pick up and drop off time. If necessary, set a timer in the morning so that your child has adequate warning to leave for the bus and a mad dash to the bus is avoided.
If you will be driving your child to school, check with the school on the car line procedures. Typically in middle school, students enter and exit the car unattended but your child may require additional assistance or supervision. Discuss with the teacher the preferred drop-off and pick up time and location to minimize any unnecessary anxiety or stress. Once you have determined the pick-up and drop off location, practice driving to school in the morning and afternoon so that your child is familiar with the time and route. The more things become familiar, the easier the transition will be.
Provide the teacher with personal information specific to your child’s success
In my personal opinion, this is by far the most valuable information you can provide to your child’s teacher. You know your child more than anyone and you are the expert in their development. While teachers have the background education and are trained to execute strategies in the classroom, we do not understand all the intricacies of your child…yet. Provide your teacher with everything you want us to know about your child. What they like and dislike, what they enjoy and what scares them, if they have food preferences or sensory issues. This is the time to tell us everything. What behavior strategies are successful and which are not.
While your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) outlines goals and objectives and may even include a Behavior Intervention Plan to address their academic and behavioral success, typically it does not contain specific personal details that define your child as the unique and gifted individual that they are. I had a parent prepare a printed PowerPoint presentation of their daughter that told me about her family, hobbies, extracurricular activities, strategies that worked and those that did not and photos of her throughout the summer. This provided me with the research and insight on how to connect and build a lasting relationship with their daughter before ever meeting her. This is the beginning of the collaborative relationship between you and your teacher. It takes an open and honest relationship to successfully prepare your child for the post-school world, your teacher is ready to take the journey with you.
Create a list of questions or concerns that your child has and contact the school or teacher to have them answered.
After the school tour, the bus tour and the conversations that you have had about your child’s upcoming school year, give your child the opportunity to ask some questions. Give them an outlet to voice their questions or concerns and follow up with the school or teacher for the answers. This process allows the student to take ownership of their school experience and responsibilities. It is also a beginning step for self-advocating and determining what they need to be successful. No matter how trivial or inconsequential the question may seem, let them present it in their own way or write it down. Empowering them to take charge of their education and personal comfort are huge gains towards independence and self-awareness.
Open house prior to school starting
Ask your teacher if they will be providing an open house or meet and greet prior to the start of the school year. This provides an opportunity for your child to meet their classmates, observe their classroom and walk through the school one last time before the school year starts. In the past, I have scheduled my open house in the evening the week before school starts. I purposely schedule it outside of schedule pick-up so that the school is not overly crowded causing sensory issues and I can give my undivided attention to my students and parents. If your child is not in a self-contained classroom, plan on attending the open house at a time that is best suited for your child. Contact the school and ask what time is typically a slow period or if you can attend at an alternate time that is not going to overwhelm your child.
As the summer draws to a close and you are preparing for the new school year, the most important thing you can do for your child is to prepare them for their new routine and schedule. Your children are amazing, unique and talented individuals who are able to achieve amazing feats, we just need to provide them with the map to get there. Routine, consistency, and schedules are their tools. You can do it and so can your children.
Tracy Oxley is a middle school teacher at Johnson Middle School in Melbourne, Florida. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Exceptional Education from the University of Central Florida and a Master’s Degree in Exceptional Education with a certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from the University of Central Florida. She is married with six children ranging from ages 27 to 3 and has a rescue dog named Julie, is an avid sports fan and loves the outdoors.
This article was featured in Issue 51 – School: Preparing Your Child for Transition