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11 Tips for Transitioning Back to School After a Break

May 20, 2024

While children often experience a “summer downslide” after spending months away from school. Transitioning back to school after a break can be especially hard for autistic children.

Starting a new school year is exciting but can also be challenging for all kids. They have to get used to new teachers, classmates, and routines. Some children even have to deal with a new school building.

In this article, we provide suggestions to ease your child’s transition to the new school year. They might take longer to adjust than usual, but we hope these tips will help both of you get through it! Remember, these are just suggestions, so feel free to adapt them to what works best for your family.

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1. Set and implement a regular bedtime

Research confirms that establishing a regular bedtime routine 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.

For example, you can 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 them prepare for bed. A predictable routine may help your child more easily get to bed at a regular time.

As your child finishes each bedtime task, they can mark it done, ring a bell, or find a way to say, “I did it!” This helps them feel good about completing even small tasks.

2. Create a morning routine to get ready for school

At least six weeks before 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 it best suits your child.

Just like preparing for bed, start slowly. Introduce task one, let your child master it, and add the next.

The 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 a routine that matches your child’s skills and helps them feel great about accomplishing these tasks.

3. Keep up with academics over the summer

This is especially helpful if your child with autism struggles in school. During the break, have your child participate in academic activities to maintain their knowledge and ensure they are 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.

Mother helping her son study https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/helping-asd-kids-school/

For example, you and your child might play school together. Your little one might also be motivated by a sticker, treat, or some sort of positive acknowledgment for doing their hard work.

It might be helpful to contact 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.

4. 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 before the beginning of school. Check with your occupational therapist to revise the sensory diet to best meet your child’s needs.

5. Meet classmates before school starts

It can be overwhelming to enter a classroom of new people on the first day of school. To avoid dysregulation, encourage your child to meet with classmates before the first day.

Set up a short playdate at a neutral site or “virtual” meetups with classmates before 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, they will likely feel less anxious about the first day of school and might even look forward to it!

You can try helping your child create a list of questions to ask their new classmates. They can ask them alone or with your assistance.

6. 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 their teacher to add some familiarity to the start of the school year! 


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A familiar face in the crowd reduces anxiety. Every teacher has different rules and expectations, which can overwhelm students. Meeting their teacher beforehand gives your child one less thing to be uncertain of on the first day of school.

For example, you can ask your child’s teacher to send a photograph of themself. Print and post the photo in a place your child will see often. Like other learning, reinforce who this person is.

7. 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.

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 must also find the right entrance, head to the classroom, and acclimate to the school’s outdoor environment. The more familiar and comfortable your child is with getting to school, the easier the transition will be.

Walk your child to the entrance door or practice dropping them 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.

8. 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, they can gradually set up, eat, and clean up.

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

9. 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 them do it independently! Start with a small first step towards independence, then gradually add more.

Young boy having lunch by himself https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/helping-asd-kids-school/

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 they are expected to adapt to the school’s environment.

10. 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 their preferred clothes, adding their favorite shirt, and eventually working up to a full school outfit.

11. Address your child’s emotions

Transitioning to a new school year brings many feelings to the surface. You can use an emotion chart to help your child explain their feelings about the transition back to school. 

Once school begins, continue to talk with your child about how they feel and what scenarios at school might bring about certain feelings.

An emotion 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, an emotion chart could be more complex and include simple whole-body figures that clearly express emotions.

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.

Transitioning back to school with autism

Transitioning back to school can be tough for kids with autism, even without any extra challenges.

But don’t worry. We’ve got some tips to help make things easier. By following these suggestions, you can create a plan to smooth out the transition and make it a bit simpler for your child.

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

FAQs

Q: How can I help my autistic child with transitions?

A: You can support your autistic child during transitions by creating visual schedules and offering clear, simple explanations of what’s happening next. Providing plenty of praise and positive reinforcement for each successful transition can also help them adjust more smoothly.

Q: What do students with autism struggle with?

A: Students with autism often find social interactions and changes in routine challenging. Sensory sensitivities can also be a struggle for some.

Q: Do people with autism struggle academically?

A: Some people with autism may face challenges with certain aspects of academics, while others excel in different areas. It really depends on the individual and their unique strengths and needs.

Q: What are the struggles of transitioning with autism?

A: Transitioning with autism can be tough because changes in routine and environment can be overwhelming. It’s important to provide support and strategies to help navigate these challenges effectively.

References:

Larcombe, T.J., Joosten, A.V., Cordier, R. et al. Preparing Children with Autism for Transition to Mainstream School and Perspectives on Supporting Positive School Experiences. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 3073–3088 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04022-z 

Adams, D. Child and Parental Mental Health as Correlates of School Non-Attendance and School Refusal in Children on the Autism Spectrum. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 3353–3365 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05211-5 

Nuske, H. J., McGhee Hassrick, E., Bronstein, B., Hauptman, L., Aponte, C., Levato, L., Stahmer, A., Mandell, D. S., Mundy, P., Kasari, C., & Smith, T. (2019). Broken bridges—new school transitions for students with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review on difficulties and strategies for success. Autism, 23(2), 306-325. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318754529

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