When you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), entering the school system can be an overwhelming experience. Once you have finally adjusted to the kindergarten scene, it is already time to make the leap to grade one. Try the strategies below just before the school year starts, to make the transition smoother for you and your child.
Get Back Into Routine. Ease your child back into the school routine before school actually begins. Start by having your child go to bed and wake up at the times that will set them up for success. If you have time, practice your routine for going to school as well. Once you are at the school, tour the grounds to re-familiarize your child with the play area and remind them of the safety rules.
Refresh Yourself. Before the school year starts, review your child’s report cards and their most current assessments from the professionals involved with them. Use this information to help you advocate for your child once the school year begins. Generally, schools will use the assessments you provide, to develop a support plan for your child, says Angie Birchard, a kindergarten teacher with expertise in working with special needs children and their families. Birchard stresses that both parents and the school have to work together as a team to make the transition happen smoothly. Start the school year right by being clear about your child’s needs and strengths so you can advocate well for your child.
Be a detective. Observe and write down what works well at home and in the community for your child. Take note of what helps your child with transitions. Notice when they are able to sit and attend to a task. Notice what regulates them. The more information you can gather about what works well for your child, the better. Then, share this information with the grade one teacher when you have an opportunity to meet with them.
Modify strategies for school. Birchard shared that “not all strategies that work at home are feasible in a classroom” especially if support staff is not available. When this is the case, work closely with the school to create alternatives for your child that are based on what works at home, but make sense in the classroom.
Reconnect Early. If you want to have a smooth transition to grade one, you need to be proactive, says Narmilee Dhayanandhan, speech and language therapist. Dhayanandhan has worked extensively with children, parents and professionals impacted by ASD for the past 10 years. One way to be proactive is to meet the grade one teacher before school starts. Most school staff begin returning one to two weeks before school reopens for the year. Try to connect with the principal or one of the special education staff before the school year begins. Ask them for permission to visit the classroom with your child and to meet the grade one teacher.
Have fun at home. Dhayanandhan recommends giving your child play-based and academic opportunities at home. She explains that these opportunities end up being the building blocks for grade one and beyond. For example, helping your child to develop pretend play skills, where they act out a character or play theme, helps your child develop flexibility and creativity in their thinking. It is a challenge for most children on the spectrum to engage in pretend play. Check out the books More Than Words and Talkability, both by Fern Sussman, for tips to get you started. With academics, Dhayanandhan states that creating routines that involve reading books together, looking at sight words, having fun with numbers and practicing writing skills will be great preparation for grade one and the homework it brings.
Have fun in the community. Swimming, gymnastics, and karate can be great opportunities for your child to learn a new sport, but also prepare them for the next school year. Dhayanandhan explains that physical activities help to regulate the body, so that the mind is better able to learn. This will depend on what actually regulates your child. Not all children on the spectrum respond favorably to physical activity. Determine what works for your child and pursue those activities. If your child can tolerate it, community-based activities can also be great social opportunities and a time to work on attention and follow through skills.
Stay positive and focused. Some parents have encountered school staff that have not been receptive to working with them in a collaborative manner. Birchard says, “Parents need to stay as positive as possible, no matter how difficult.” In order to do this, be clear about what your child’s rights are and who has the power to ensure those rights are observed. Do your best to work with the classroom teacher, but if this is not working, keep moving up the chain of command until your concerns are adequately addressed. You can also contact your local ASD support group for an advocate that can attend school meetings with you.
Overall, Dhayanandhan recommends “parents avoid becoming overly anxious and nervous about the transition to grade one.” Instead, she suggests finding fun ways to celebrate the transition with your child while you use the tips listed above.
By Karyn Robinson-Renaud MSW, RSW