Tips for Helping ASD Kids Transition Back to School After a Long Break

While children often experience a “summer downslide” after spending months away from school, teachers and parents have extra concerns about the impact of this year’s long break away from the classroom due to COVID-19.

Tips for Helping ASD Kids Transition Back to School After a Long Break

The abrupt shift from the daily routines of the school year into a time of uncertainty and constant change has already caused significant disruption to children’s lives—particularly those with autism.

Layered onto the typical summer downslide, this disruption will likely worsen. Now more than ever, children will need to feel adequately supported when it’s time to return to school.

Each new school year is an exciting yet challenging time for students (and parents!).

They face many transitions: meeting new teachers and classmates, learning different classroom procedures, adjusting routines, and encountering general academic opportunities and challenges.

Some children must adapt to and navigate new school buildings, adding another set of obstacles to manage. The more familiar a place, group of people, routines, or set of demands are, the more confident and successful children can be.

In this article, we provide suggestions to ease your child’s transition to the new school year. We fully appreciate that this upcoming transition might be more difficult than most due to the prolonged break from school and additional challenges caused by COVID-19.

It is important to note that because of the circumstances, your child may experience more of a delay in adapting to the new school year than in previous ones. Regardless, we hope these tips will help you and your child prepare for and overcome the challenges of this transitional season! The tips are suggestions; we imagine you might consider ways to adapt them to best meet your family’s needs.

girl with hair-bond

Set and implement a regular bedtime

While we may struggle with this, research confirms that establishing a regular bedtime (and routine to get there) sets the stage for a better night’s sleep and an easier time waking up and getting ready for the day. A predictable routine, right down to how the covers are drawn back and the pillow is plumped, is a helpful way to transition to bedtime.

Extra ideas:

Write down every step needed to help your child hop into bed, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. Start slowly: introduce step one, let your child master it, add the next, and so on as you help him/her prepare for bed. A predictable routine may help your child more easily get to bed at a regular time.

As each bedtime routine task is completed, your child could check it off the list, ring a bell, or in some capacity associate a completed task with an “I did it” acknowledgement. Positively reinforce the little things, which in reality, are big things!

Make a morning routine to get ready for school

At least six weeks prior to the first day of school, plan and implement a morning routine. This may include a visual chart with images organized in sequential order of what needs to be done to get out the door and head to school. Be as detailed with this visual as best suits your child.

Just like preparing for bed, start slowly—introduce task one, let your child master it, and add the next. A first task might be to get out of bed, the next to walk to the bathroom, and so on. What is most important is establishing (or re-establishing) a routine that matches your child’s skills and helps your child feel great about accomplishing these important self-care tasks, so he/she can leave the house and go to school.

Extra ideas:

As each task is completed, your child could check it off, ring a bell, or any type of “I did it” acknowledgement. As in tip one, reward the accomplishments!

Keep up with academics over the summer

In anticipation of the start of school, it is helpful to have your child participate in academic activities to maintain his/her knowledge and make sure he/she is prepared for the upcoming year. While this might seem boring for children or challenging for you, there are several ways to make it fun while lessening the downslide effect from months away from school. If you can even slightly offset the downslide effect, your child may be more prepared to transition back.

Extra ideas:

You and your child might play school together, or your child might be motivated by a sticker, treat, or some sort of positive acknowledgement for doing his/her hard work.

It might be helpful to reach out to your child’s teacher for additional resources to work on through the summer months, or you can make your own worksheets. There are many free or low-cost online resources available.


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Revisit and rethink sensory diets

Sensory diets are scheduled activities intended to help children self-regulate, making them better prepared to learn and engage in daily activities. If your child has a sensory diet that has been disrupted by summer break, think about a jumpstart prior to the beginning of school. Check in with your occupational therapist (via HIPAA-compliant telehealth as needed) to revise the sensory diet so it best meets your child’s needs.

Extra ideas:

If your child’s sensory diet entails going to a park and that is not possible now, think creatively about doing similar activities at home.

Meet classmates before school starts

It can be overwhelming to enter a classroom of new people on the first day of school. To avoid dis-regulation, encourage your child to meet with classmates prior to the first day. Set up a short play date at a neutral site or “virtual” meetups with classmates prior to the start of the year. Begin by meeting with one or two classmates, then work up to bigger groups. If your child has a friend or two in class, he/she will likely feel less anxious about the first day of school and might even look forward to it!

Extra ideas:

Help your child create a list of questions to ask his/her new classmates, whether he/she asks them alone or you assist.

Meet the teacher before school starts

If meeting face-to-face in the summer is not possible, arrange a virtual meeting so your child can meet and get to know his/her teacher to add some familiarity to the start of the school year! A familiar face in the crowd reduces anxiety. Every teacher has different rules and expectations, which can be overwhelming for students. Meeting his/her teacher beforehand gives your child one less thing to be uncertain of on the first day of school.

Extra ideas:

Ask your child’s teacher to send a photograph of himself/herself. Print and post the photo in a place your child will see often. Like other learning, reinforce who this person is.

Let your child get used to the commute

Take a walk or drive by the school before the start of the year, or even make going by the school a part of your daily routine. Consider the transition to school. We usually think about all it takes to get ready in the morning and how our children need to adapt once there. However, do not overlook the commute to school, be it by car, bus, or walking. Your child will also need to find the right entrance, head to the classroom, and get acclimated to the school’s outdoor environment. The more familiar and comfortable your child is with getting to school, the easier the transition will be.

Extra ideas:

Walk your child to the entrance door or practice dropping him/her off in the carpool line. This daily practice will make it much easier for your child to follow your morning routine once school begins again.

boy doing art

Practice a lunchtime routine

Practice preparing, eating, and cleaning up lunch as if your child was at school. Your child can start by helping plan the ingredients for lunch, then he/she can gradually set up, eat, and clean up.

The unpredictable environment of a school lunchroom can be overwhelming, but familiarity with his/her meal and the set-up/clean-up responsibilities will help ease some of the anxiety of returning to school.

Teach independence

As needed, encourage and teach your child to complete self-care skills independently. At school, your child may be expected to be independent during bathroom breaks and lunchtime. While it may be faster to do some of these tasks for your child at home, you are helping by letting him/her do it independently! Start with a small first step towards independence, then gradually add more.

This can be done one task at a time until your child is independent in each skill needed for school. Eventually, the tasks will become easier and take less time. Try to start this process well before the school year begins, so there is time for your child to get comfortable doing these tasks at home before he/she is expected to adapt to the school’s environment.

Practice wearing school clothes

While we love wearing our pajamas and comfy clothes all day, have your child practice wearing school clothes and shoes well before the new school year begins. Clothing textures, tags, and shoes add another sensory challenge that can exacerbate difficulties associated with transitioning back to school. Start slowly by having your child wear shoes with his/her preferred clothes, adding his/her favorite shirt, and eventually working up to a full school outfit.

Address your child’s emotions

Transitioning to a new school year brings many feelings to the surface. You can use a feelings chart to help your child explain which emotion he/she is feeling about the transition back to school and address it together. Once school begins, continue to talk with your child about how he/she feels and what scenarios at school might bring about certain feelings.

Extra ideas:

A feelings chart can be as simple as a series of emoticons, many of which are online and in the public domain. It is helpful to include emotion “pairs” such as happy-sad and angry-calm. Depending on your child’s level of cognitive and language development, a feelings chart could be more complex and include simple whole-body figures that clearly express emotions. If technology is not available, draw simple emoticons on a sheet of paper.

When sharing the chart with your child, use your words and pair them with body language that corresponds with the feeling your child is experiencing. For example, you might say, “Are you feeling sad?” while making a sad face and slumping your shoulders. Customize this according to your child’s skill level.

The transition back to school for children with autism is usually challenging, even without the complications of COVID-19. However, we hope these tips will help you put a strategy in place and make the change as smooth as possible.

This article was featured in Issue 104 –Transition Strategies For Kids With Autism

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Caitlin Koob

Caitlin Koob is an occupational therapy student currently completing her second Level II fieldwork rotation and is about to begin a PhD program in Applied Health Research and Evaluation at Clemson University in the fall. She has ample experience with pediatrics and hopes to devote her career to working with children with developmental disorders. Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA is Principal of design+cOnsulTation, an organization that works with designers to create therapeutic landscapes and evaluate their outcomes. She is also the co-author of many articles and books, including Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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