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back5From August to early September there were many articles on things parents can do to help prepare their sons and daughters for that return back to the classroom.  However, there are so many social situations, nuances, and things we as parents and professionals can’t understand that our kids stress about until there is a huge meltdown.  So we need to fill the “social backpacks” of our kids with tools and strategies they can use when faced with social worries, glitches, and roadblocks.

I recently jotted down some thoughts of my clients around the start of school. I wanted to share these eye-opening and “real” statements they made and some suggestions for parents (and educators) to think about.

Put Visuals in the Social Backpack

“I really hope I don’t get the ‘tell me what you did over the summer’ essay.  Don’t they know that if I really wanted them to know, I would tell them?” – middle school student with Glassman reactions to writing assignments

Who is Glassman?

For those of you who are not familiar with “Glassman”, he is one of the characters found in the wonderful [easyazon-link asin=”0979292298″ locale=”us”]Superflex Curriculum[/easyazon-link] authored by Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Winner. Glassman makes you have big reactions to small problems; he makes someone “shatter” sometimes with very little warning.

Do you work with (or live with) anyone with this trait?  This client was clearly getting frustrated when talking about writing and this particular assignment.

I asked, “What is it about this question that is really upsetting you?”

He replied, “I don’t know what part of the summer they are talking about.  Summer has so many days in it!”

Gather Visuals

I asked his parents to send in pictures of different activities he took part in, pictures from their trip to the Cape, a video they took when he visited the Bronx Zoo.  The next session we went over these items and he left saying, “now I have a few things in my head that make sense to me and that I can write about.”

Kids need to be able to make a picture in their head, especially when it comes to writing.  By reviewing the visuals, providing him with some starter sentences, and putting them on note cards for him to stick in his backpack to take to school in case he is asked that question, he felt much more prepared.

Use as Conversation Builder

Then the issue arose, “What if they don’t ask me that question?” We talked about using that picture in his head about his Cape Cod vacation as something he can use as a conversation builder with a friend.  Now he is ready with a tool in his academic and social backpack!

Glitches & Rigid Thinking

“I hope they have a new person in transportation, because last year my mom had to call all week the first week of school because everyday they would run 3-4 minutes late and they should know that I hate changes in the schedule.  Well, I guess I could have walked since the school is in my back yard, but that is not that point!” – 4th grader who is very rigid and expects others to respect time and a schedule as much as he does.

Getting ready for the bus on those first few days is very anxiety provoking. Families are told when to generally expect the bus to come, but the first day is about “glitches” and sometimes they start even before our kids step foot into the school.

Talk about “Glitches” with Your Kids 

Talk about the fact that we have a general idea of when the bus comes, but then talk about a “time frame.” I talk about “time frames” with my clients to help create more flexible thinking, developing reasonable expectations, and to work on “waiting” (which is tough for all kids).

Create a Game

For example, the bus company tells the family the bus should be there “around” 8:20am.  That really means it can come anywhere between 8:15-8:25. Make a game out of it.  I had one of my clients make a “smart guess” about when the bus would come.  If he got within two minutes, the parents gave him an extra ten minutes of Lego time when he got home.  They did this for the first week of school, and he earned his extra time 3/5 days.

Tool for Social Backpack

On the days he did not earn the extra time, the family used the term “glitch” and said, “There was a glitch in the schedule and they are running late. Just because the bus is running late (or early), or even in the extreme case where the bus doesn’t show up, this does not mean it is the ‘rule’ but just a glitch that can be resolved.” How to get over a glitch is another great lesson that can fit right into one’s social backpack.

Packing the “Social Backpack”

This idea of a “social backpack” is of course metaphoric for providing individuals with strategies to carry with them through this social world.  However, it may have to start out being very concrete in nature, especially for younger children. A very simple way to start building this social backpack with your child (or client) would be:

Bag with a Tie

Get a small cloth bag with a tie/string so it can be pulled closed.  In it put the following items:

  • something that resembles your brain (for thinking),
  • your heart (for feeling),
  • your eyes (for observing), and
  • flexibility (I have used a rubber band, pipe cleaner–something that can go back to its natural state),
  • one favorite thing of theirs,
  • one favorite thing of someone else’s.

For some, I have also thrown in a plastic ice-cube to remind kids to “stay cool” when feeling agitated. Our social backpack is always growing; even as adults we are adding to it every day! (Great reference: [easyazon-link asin=”0979292263″ locale=”us”]You Are a Social Detective[/easyazon-link], Winner & Crooke.)

Discuss & Engage

Talk about the meaning of each item in the back pack and times when they will need to use them.

For younger kids, I may do a social story around the items. I may include in it times when they actually may have to go into their bag and look at the tangible item to help them remember or think about a strategy.

Older students may just need a list in their pocket or iPhone to help them remember and think about the items, what they represent and when to use them.

Re-Using Backpack Tools

Remind kids that once they are done using the tool in their backpack, to put it back in – even if the tool didn’t work.  When a tool doesn’t work, it just means it was the wrong tool to pull out for that context, it doesn’t mean the tool is bad.

Avoid Overload

Here’s the hard part: like the physical backpacks kids carry to and from school, we can’t let their social backpack weigh them down!

If we overload kids with strategies, interventions, concepts, etc., that will only add stress to their lives.  Social backpacks can get very heavy and messy if they are not cleaned and organized from time to time. Our kids will need guidance with this process, however, I feel it starts with the adults in knowing how much “stuff” in their backpack is enough.


It is important to understand that these thoughts were provided by clients with average to above average language and cognitive abilities. For those individuals that are impacted to a greater degree by their language and cognitive skills, using visual timers, social stories, picture schedules, taking tours of the school/classroom ahead of time, will all be important for tackling the start of school. Although these kids also need a social backpack, the tools and strategies in it will be different based on their own individual needs.

All kids can benefit from some type of prep before heading back to their “work place” later this month; yes, social is work. And remember, it is just as important to keep thinking about their “social backpack” as it is to think about the academic tools they need in their school backpack. I wish everyone a great transition into  the new school year.

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Chris, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven, holds a Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Behavioral Inventions in Autism and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist & Licensed Professional Counselor with a specialization in Autism Spectrum Disorders and social cognitive interventions. The Social Learning Center is dedicated to learning, understanding, applying and communicating effective methods of social teaching for each individual and those who support them.