If you are anything like me these next few weeks are a mixed blessing. The return to school…the return of my sanity…the return of so many more responsibilities…the return to chaos and yet a life that (dare I say) feels more normal. Summer ‘busy’ is just so different from school year “busy”. Ready or not, here we go!
Back to school time is rough for everyone yet for families living with autism it goes to an entirely different dimension. I asked the attendees at the August Support Group meeting here in Omaha to help share some Parent to Parent advice for the return to school. Here are some of their tips.
Get back into a bedtime routine. Gone are the days of letting the bedtime slide. No more “just one more Phineas and Ferb episode” or “just one more battle with Bowser”. Let’s face it, bedtime is now going to start before the sun has even decided it is time to depart. For many of our kids it takes hours to wind down and each family has to find their own routine that works. Some of you live this routine summer, fall, winter and spring with no exception. Well, the bad news is that for those of you who were fortunate enough to have that reprieve, your time is up! In fact, many of our support group families have been working hard to get their bedtime routines back into place so that they have a few days under their belt before that first day back at school.
Create a morning routine. Have you ever gotten out of bed and then felt like nothing was going right? If so, I imagine you would do anything to crawl back in bed and stay there. For many of our loved ones on the spectrum this is what every day feels like. You can help them bring some calm to the start of their day by helping them create a morning routine. Imagine their stress and anxiety about school and then magnify it by ten after having to rush around the house searching for homework, a backpack and perhaps even a lost shoe.
The goal of waking up with plenty of time to get ready, finding exactly the clothes they want to wear and having a breakfast of their liking is pretty lofty. Our challenge is to set the stage so that they can do it as independently as possible without wearing the same clothes every day and eating the same two foods every meal. Oh, and to accomplish this with as little stress as possible. Veteran parents cautioned though that it is important to not do everything for your loved one. Start with a basic routine and as they master a skill add a new one in the mix.
The best advice from other parents was to pick your battles and do as much as you can the night before!
Focus on growing independence. Forward momentum. That is the ultimate goal. There will always be steps forward and a few shuffles backward but the ultimate goal is forward momentum. Every new school year brings a time of reflection. What is one more thing that they can learn to do for themselves? Perhaps it is time for their very own alarm clock? Maybe it is putting his own shirt on himself or tying her own shoes? As time passes and they master a skill we need to remember to move on to another skill. As children grow up they become more independent. Children with special needs deserve the opportunity to grow too. Maybe it is pouring their own cereal in the morning or even packing their own lunch. Maybe it is simply being accountable for finding their own shoes and backpack in the morning. No matter where your loved one is on the spectrum there is something to focus on to help them expand on their skills of independence. And as a parent it is our job to find ways to empower them and help them grow to be as independent as they can be.
Preparing for the school environment. Continuity is HUGE! One of the hardest things for our kids is to get in the routine of school and then be told they have two months off. Finally they return again but to find a new classroom, new teachers and often a classroom full of new faces.
Some schools will share with you the name for next year’s teacher. If you are one of these lucky families than you can spend the summer talking about the new teacher and maybe even looking at her picture (you can get from last year’s yearbook or even the school web site). Some teachers will even be willing to exchange emails with your child to help build a rapport over the summer months. This doesn’t have to be frequent but just a couple times goes a long way towards helping build a connection with the child. Our family spends a lot of time talking about our teacher so that our son stays familiar even though he hasn’t seen her in several weeks. In our world, out of sight equals out of mind. But by talking about her we keep her in our sights.
Some great parent to parent advice has been to keep the school in your summer routine. Make it a priority to go to the school playground over the summer to play on the equipment and talk about which doors they use in the morning and which ones they use at recess. Do anything you can do to keep the school a familiar and comfortable place to them during the summer months.
Your loved one needs some quality time in their new classroom before the first day of school. Most schools host an open house; however, those are over stimulating for everyone (even those without diagnosed sensory issues!) Your son or daughter should make a brief appearance that night but that is not the time to show them around and help them explore their new classroom. Try to schedule a visit with your teacher during a quiet time of the day. Most teachers are there the week prior getting the classroom ready. Check with your teacher and see if you can make a short visit to see the classroom and get acclimated. Your child will benefit greatly from being able to spend some one on one time with you finding his desk, exploring the room, and mapping out that route to the lunchroom and even the bathroom.
Coming Out. To disclose or not to disclose. That is a loaded question! And it is truly a decision the family must make together.
This is a very common discussion at our support group. We have learned from many parents how very powerful this disclosure has been for their loved one. Several of our families have crafted letters to the parents of the other students that explains autism/aspergers and how it impacts their child. This is often paired with some autism information and a classroom talk to the children about autism. People fear the unknown and many families have found that by removing the “unknown” they have improved the classroom environment. Yes, this is a very scary “coming out party” but family after family has shared how this has truly helped their situation. We just want you to give it some thought. Every situation is different and every year is different.
And for those of you who do disclose, your child is now in a classroom with a bunch of new faces and not all of them will have been there for last year’s talk. Time to pull out your letter and see if you need to make any changes!
Strengthening the team. Send a brief email to the teacher just checking in and offering to help with any issues that may arise. Keep in mind the start of the school year is CRAZY for them. Odds are that you are not the only one clamoring for their time. Keep your message clear and concise and friendly. Now is not the time for a list of demands but rather a friendly message of help. Let them know if you are available to help out in the classroom or maybe by helping plan holiday parties. Either way, the goal is to let them know that you understand that they have many demands on their time and that you want to be there to help any way you can and that you want to help strengthen the team!
Many of our families send a short letter to their teachers every year sharing the strengths of their loved one as well as giving a heads up on those magical reinforcers that mean the difference between compliance and non-compliance. Providing the teacher with concise, helpful, up to date information about the child creates a win for everyone. By sharing this information you reduce the learning curve for the teacher thus making everything better for the child, teacher and the parents!
These are just a few items from a parent to parent perspective to help you prepare for this transition back into the classroom Before you know it you’ll be back in the swing of things and settling into your new routines. Please come join us on the Autism Society’s Yahoo Group and share your back to school stories or questions. Good luck and remember we are out there if you want to chat!