This is a guest post by Kirsty Russell from My Home Truths
Each January I rarely have to consult my calendar to work out the date. As we inch closer to the end of the month and the return to school, my two older kids on the autism spectrum will become increasingly more anxious and stressed. That’s all I need to see to know that the holidays are drawing to a close.
Holidays are a blessing and a curse for us. On the one hand they often provide the circuit breaker needed after a long school term. They present a chance to relax, recharge and recover.
On the other, the lack of routine brings its own issues. It’s not uncommon for my kids to struggle to acclimatise to the fact they don’t need to be anywhere or do anything.
The December/January holidays are especially challenging because of their sheer length. Six weeks is a long time for kids on the spectrum to go without routine and certainty. And the longer the holidays last, the harder it is to get the kids to look at the return to school with anything but dread.
I’ve been a special needs parent for nearly 12 years now. With my eldest entering Year 6 this year, I’ve managed to develop strategies over the years to deal with the inevitable back to school challenges.
5 practical ways to prepare all kids (even those with special needs) for the return to school
So here are 5 practical ways to make the return to school a little less stressful for you and for your children, whether they have special needs or not.
Set up a holiday routine
This may be the last thing you want to do but developing a routine for the holidays may actually help decrease stress and address uncertainty for your kids, especially those with special needs.
A holiday routine doesn’t need to be prescriptive or perfect. It can contain rough timings for each day (i.e. TV between breakfast & morning tea; quiet time in room after lunch). Its function is to help your child come to terms with the lack of a normal school routine and to reassure them that there is still some structure and control in their lives.
A holiday routine is handy if you need to give medication at certain times, if you want to control screen time and if you want to continue with a similar bedtime to school term (very handy if sleep is an ongoing issue for your family). Here’s a rough schedule we’ve been using with our kids through the holidays to give you an idea:
We’ve found that having a holiday routine helps with our kids’ holiday anxiety while ensuring they don’t become too used to not following a routine when it comes time to return to school. It may just help your family too. Kat creates some great personalised routine charts.
Develop a visual calendar
A visual calendar can complement the holiday routine by clearly marking out set dates and activities, such as outings, appointments and vacations. A calendar can also be used to countdown the remaining holidays and mark out the eventual date of return to school.
The calendar performs an important role in clearly illustrating when changes to the holiday routine are to occur. It also gives a visual reminder that school will eventually go back and shows how many days are left until that happens.
You can use an ordinary calendar in a prominent position (like ours in the kitchen); a personal calendar in your child’s room which they can use to mark off the days; a calendar on a white board or even an online calendar that can be accessed on your child’s device.
Whatever form you choose to use, take the time to go through the calendar with your child everyday. Also highlight any changes to your plans as far in advance as possible to avoid any upset or added stress for your child.
Purchase new school items as early as possible
Many kids (with or without special needs) have sensory processing issues that prevent them from properly processing sensory input from touch, smell, sound, taste and vision. As a result, the texture of new clothes may overwhelm them and the smell of a new school bag or lunch box may be too much to bear.
Try to purchase new school items as early as possible so you can see whether there will be any sensory issues with the new items. If possible take your child along to help with the purchase – this will give you a good indication of any possible issues and allow your child to have some say in the purchasing decision too.
Purchasing items early will also give your child time to become accustomed to them prior to the return of school. A chance to become familiar with these things will be one less source of stress for your child when faced with all the other challenges of the new school year.
Create a social story
We are lucky that our son’s school puts together a social story at the end of each year to introduce the changes that will be taking place in the next year. This social story features photos of the new classroom, teacher, teacher’s aide and equipment that our son will have in the coming school year.
Having this information early on really helps him to feel a little less stressed with all the changes that inevitably come with the start of every school year. Stress, that is natural to all kids entering a new classroom, with new classmates, a new teacher and new work to tackle.
If your school is not in a position to provide something like this, you can always put together your own social story. Focus on the areas that will potentially cause the most concern to your child (change of classroom, teacher, classmates, etc.) and provide as much information as possible on the change and what that will mean for them.
Social stories are also fantastic for reinforcing expected behaviours such as raising a hand to ask a question, waiting in line and being quiet in the classroom. There are many websites and apps available that have pre-existing social stories already created for you to use or personalise to suit the needs of you and your child.
We have used social stories in a variety of situations in the past and they have helped all three of our children acclimatise to new experiences such as travelling overseas and welcoming our pug puppies to the family. Social stories can really be a great source of reassurance and comfort for kids when facing new and challenging situations.
Organise as much as you can
Most kids experience issues with executive functioning (the ability to plan and organise tasks). This is a skill that needs to be learned by practice, although many kids on the autism spectrum will continue to struggle with this skill well into adulthood.
As a result, many kids initially find it difficult to follow instructions, struggle with putting their belongings away and have trouble finding items.
Does this sound familiar in your house?
It’s important to assist kids to develop their executive functioning skills and become more organised and prepared for school. So it makes sense to do everything you can to make it as easy as possible for them to succeed.
This means you need to go to the next level of organisation.
- Develop organisational hubs. Look at your house through the eyes of your child and create organisational hubs in easily accessible and logical points throughout your home. For instance, you could create a hub in their bedroom as well as a command centre somewhere else in the home. Provide an organised place for them to find hats, shoes, glasses, devices, etc. This will make it much easier for them to understand where things should go and where to independently find what they are looking for in the future.
- Label drawers, cupboards and shelving. Make it as easy as possible for your child to find what they need to get themselves ready for school. For younger kids, use visual prompts. For older kids, use labels and ensure things are consistently placed in the same place, in one of the acknowledged organisational hubs.
- Create detailed checklists. Checklists can be used to introduce and reinforce new tasks in a step-by-step way. These can be developed for every possible task – getting dressed, undertaking homework, making breakfast, packing/unpacking bags, etc. Make sure you take the time to go through each checklist with your child and consider concentrating & perfecting one task before introducing another.
- Employ responsibility charts. These charts should set out clearly and visually what tasks need to be completed and when. Ideally these should be used in tandem with the checklists to help your child complete the task in a step-by-step way.
It might take a little more time, patience and effort, but it is possible to increase self-help and independence skills in all children, even those with special needs.
Do you have any further suggestions for getting kids ready for the return to school?
Kirsty Russell is a mother of three, two of whom have special needs. A writer by day and blogger by night, she is surprisingly unorganised considering everything she has on her plate. Each Monday she hosts the I Must Confess linkup over at My Home Truths where she makes a weekly confession and asks others to do the same. She also blogs about special needs parenting, being a pug mum and finding her feet now she is working from home. You can find her trying to avoid the housework on these platforms:
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