Since my daughter has been very tiny, her routine is sacred to her and even the slightest change can set her into an instant meltdown. Many of our kids rely on ‘the same old routine’ because knowing what’s going to happen gives them some control and makes them feel safe. For my daughter, it doesn’t matter how large or small that change or transition is, she tortures herself with every possible “What if…?”. She loses sleep, she stops eating, her sensory sensitivities intensify, then she shuts down.
With the new school year right around the corner, many children are struggling with the upcoming transition back to school. Below are five ways we have guided our daughter through transition and they could be effective for dealing with going back to school:
1) Talk About It
Talk about it, but not too much. My daughter’s speech and communication skills have greatly improved, making it much easier to explain things to her and ensure that she comprehends. For bigger events, like back to school, I start talking about it a week in advance. For smaller events, usually a couple of days is good.
First, briefly bring the event up, when it will happen, and how long it will be. Bring it up while doing something calm and when your child is feeling ‘safe’ so it’s easier to digest. Then let it go. Allow your child to process that part of it. Then as you get closer to the actual event, for example returning to school, you can provide more details.
2) Mark the Calendar
We put events on the calendar marking all the days it will occur (e.g., like First Day of School). This gives your child a way to keep track of it and she can mark off each day with a sticker or ‘X’. With regards to going back to school, you can mark the start date of the new school year and let your child mark off each day preceding the start of school. This will help her visualize the upcoming date and have some control over getting prepared. Kids Calendar is an app calendar for children ages 5-12.
3) Create a Social Story
An essential in our house, a social story is basically a way to talk through the situation or event in a way the child can understand. So, if Grandma comes to visit, the story would go something like this:
School will be starting in two weeks. I have from ___ to ____ to get all my new school supplies picked out. When school starts, the school bus will pick me up in front of the house and bring me to the school. My new teacher this year will be ______. In class, Mrs. _____ and the kids in the class will (1) _____, (2) ______, (listing the classroom routine). I might feel (list feelings with appropriate face stickers). It’s okay because I know what I can do. I can go to Mrs. ___, the guidance counselor for some quiet time. I can go to the library and quietly read a book. I can go to the bathroom to be alone for a few minutes. I can use my words with my teacher Mrs. ____ or my guidance counselor, Mrs. ____ and they will listen. I will be okay because I have a plan.
We read the social story each day, usually at story time—just before her bedtime book—while I massage her.
4) Make a Plan
The word that works really well with my daughter is ‘Plan’. Many children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and various other isms like this word not only because it helps to layout the basics of what will happen but it also gives them some control. They have to contribute to the plan to ensure its success. Giving these kids that small amount of power is so important for their self-esteem and it inspires them to do for themselves. We usually have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, etc., in case a change is needed. Using a visual cue, such as a “Change” card, can let your child know a change in plans is coming.
5) Sensory Diet, Sensory Tools, Calm Down Time
A sensory diet with sensory tools accompanied by calm down time are three essentials. No matter what else is going on, be sure to prepare your child’s body for what’s happening by giving his body the sensory input it needs to get going.
For us, that means a tremendous amount of proprioception and vestibular activities. If needed, be sure your child has her favorite fidgets and calming tools by her side. Finally, make sure your child has some constant calm down time throughout the event. For some children, there may be no calm down time during school, since recess may be just as stressful as classroom time however, often the school can and will make special accommodations during the transition. Make sure your child has this much needed calm down time when he returns home.
Transition requires a great deal of planning, organizing and communication but it’s all worth it if your child is able to get through life’s surprises and changes with greater ease. There are days where even the best set plans don’t work the way we hoped, but all you can do is try different tools until something clicks. You’re teaching your child today how to take care of himself tomorrow. Be strong and listen to your gut.