It's a mere two, or so, weeks until school begins again for the year, here in Victoria. If you have a child who is Autistic or an anxiety disorder I'm nearly 100% certain your child's anxiety levels are beginning to rise. I have such a soft spot in my heart for the kids who struggle with school and need a lot of support through transitions, whether they be big or small. This week I have been pondering the big transitions from primary to secondary school. Even if your child is in a P-12 school that transition to secondary school is huge. For a child with Autism and/or anxiety disorders that transition becomes bigger than Ben Hur. Following are some hints to managing this enormous transition:
Visit the school before classes begin.
Your child may have already had an opportunity to attend an orientation session or two at their secondary school. That may seem like a distant memory as the new school year approaches! If possible, try and organise a time to visit the campus with your child before the new school year begins. Administrative staff are probably already back, so it may be possible to have someone take you to see your child's home room and some of the other specialist classrooms. If you know some other children in your child's class you could also plan to invite another family to have a picnic in the school grounds together a couple of times before school begins.
By planning short visits to the school campus before school begins your child will have some time to become familiar with the school grounds before it is filled with students and teachers. They will be able to orient themselves to where the lockers, drinking taps and toilets are in relation to their classroom. They will be able to visualise all of these details clearly before they arrive on their first day.
When you are visiting take some photos of your child in various places in the school, hopefully with a happy smile on their gorgeous shiny faces. In the lead up to school beginning you can review these photos together and talk about your visit. You can also begin conversations about what they might get to do when they get to school. If you've had an opportunity to speak to someone at the school you can remind your child about some of the things your learned.
Make a social story booklet.
If you're fortunate the school may have already provided your child with a transition booklet with some photos and information they will need to know for their first few days. This is a practice I instituted in Our School because I could see that my precious school babies would need support over the holidays as they prepared to begin the school year. Especially if they were heading into a new classroom with a new teacher. My transition booklets include photos and information about the teachers they will have (all of them!!), photos of the classroom, where bags will be hung up, toilets and drinking taps and play areas. If your child is in a P-12 school and remaining on the same campus it is important to detail the things that will remain the same for them. Even if your child is moving to a completely new school there are some things that are the same in every school. There is always a break for recess and lunch. They will still change classrooms for specialist subjects, just like they did in primary school. Following are the headings I use in my transition books:
I include a calendar from the end of the school year through to the beginning of the next year with a little explanation of how long the school holidays are and when school will begin again.
- At the start of next year
This information is all about how the beginning of the year will happen - what day of the week they begin and what to expect on the first day. For example, there may be a whole-school assembly at some point in the morning session, there may be special activities the school does on the first day.
- My teachers
This page is filled with photos of teachers with their names and the subjects they teach.
- My classroom
On this page are photos of the inside and outside of the classroom, the bag hooks and the lockers.
- Things I need to remember
The details on this page are about where the toilets and drinking taps are, which play spaces they are allowed to use and the procedures for eating at recess and lunch time. They may eat inside or be required to sit outside to eat.
- Children in my class
This page contains a list of the names of the children in the class.
As soon as it is possible in the school year, organise a meeting with your child's teacher and, if possible, with their aide (if they will have one). Many schools have some student-free teacher preparation time before school begins so if you're able to meet before school begins that will be beneficial to you, your child and those who will be caring for your child. If you can come prepared with information about your child that will help their teachers to plan for their transition to school this will help make those first few days as smooth as possible. As an educator the questions I have include:
- What does your child enjoy doing for relaxation?
- What is your child really good at?
- What does your child struggle with the most?
- What kinds of things might trigger a meltdown?
- How do you handle meltdowns and the recovery?
- What are some signs that a meltdown might be imminent?
- What do you use as a circuit breaker?
- Does your child have a particular interest or passion?
Organise your child's folders, books and timetable.
I am fairly sure your child's timetable is already organised. This is usually completed by the end of the previous school year, in order to solidify staffing needs. You should be able to request a copy of your child's timetable before the school year begins. I would highly recommend colour-coding your child's timetable. This will cater to their visual needs and help them decipher the information more easily. If you could cover or label your child's books and folders with colours to match their timetable this will help them to independently organise themselves throughout the day. In the front of each book or folder, it would also help if there is a list of the things they need to bring to class for that subject. This is information you can ask for when you meet your child's teacher, or by phoning the school.
I have noticed, over many years, that children on the autism spectrum tend to have pencil cases stuffed full of so many things they are unable to find their pens and pencils in order to begin their work. A pencil case with two pockets can really help with this. The smaller pocket can be used to house the things they are likely to need in every single lesson. These might include grey lead pencil, pens, eraser, and if the pencil case is long enough, a ruler. The bigger pocket can be used to contain coloured pencils, textas, a glue stick and a pair of scissors. Please be diligent and name the items!! I know most schools provide class sets of scissors and glue sticks, but in my experience this seems to be the time when children with autism struggle. The getting up and trying to find these items seems to cause some disorientation and disrupts their ability to maintain focus and concentration. If these items are at their finger tips it is one less thing to distract them.
The other thing I would highly recommend is those erasable pens that are available now. I have yet to meet a child on the spectrum who deals with errors in their work terribly well. Liquid paper is always such a hassle, but an erasable pen is as easy to use as a pencil and eraser. The only caution there is that they don't go through laminators - the ink disappears! If your child's teacher wants to laminate a piece of work they'll need to photocopy it first.
I hope the beginning of the school year goes as smoothly as possible and that your child thrives in their new school environment. I wish I could hold all of their precious hands and walk each step of the way with them in person. I know that with some preparation now your child will be prepared for what will come!