Managing Back to School Anxiety
I don’t have to look at my calendar to know that it’s getting closer to the day the kids are due to return to school. I also don’t need to see the mind-boggling number of “back to school” ads to remind me of the date either (BTW I think the Officeworks ones are annoying me the most this year…).
No, all I need to do is watch the growing anxiety of my children, of my son Gilbert in particular, to know that we are nearing the end of the holidays.
For kids on the autism spectrum, any sort of change can be difficult to deal with and to manage. We struggled at the start of the holidays as the kids made the transition from the routine of school to the non-routine of the holidays. So it is no surprise that we are here again as the kids contemplate the imminent return to school rules and routine.
I suspect a lot of kids are feeling the same way and I don’t blame them. To be honest I’m not at all looking forward to returning to the daily grind of ferrying kids to school and to after school activities while frantically fitting in housework, homework and employment in between…
But having that understanding doesn’t make it any easier to watch your children growing more and more worried with each passing day. It doesn’t give me any comfort while we deal with the tears at bedtime or with complaints that “my brain won’t switch off Mummy” or with the lashing out that is often the result of stress and anxiety.
While we will never be able to completely eliminate their anxiety there are a few things we are trying to put in place to minimise it and to ease their transition back to the classroom.
- Using social stories: created by Carol Gray in the early 1990’s social stories are widely used with kids with ASD to describe and define social situations. The school put together a social story for Gilbert for this year, describing his new teacher, his new classroom and locations and situations he may encounter during the year. We are hoping this story will help prepare him for the changes this year and will, in turn, lessen his anxiety. They are worth a shot with any child – I have included some pages from Gilbert’s story below as an example.
- Setting up a home timetable & routine: once all our extra-curricular activities for this year are confirmed we will be setting up a daily timetable and routine for all of us here at home. In the past, having a visual reference has helped the kids understand what will happen each day, be aware of the tasks for which they are responsible and become more independent themselves. Having an updated routine set as early as possible in the year will help the kids settle more quickly and hopefully ease their transition as well as lessen their anxiety.
- Talking about the first day: we have been having some conversations about what to expect on the first day so the kids are prepared for what may occur. For instance, at our school, the first day sees all the students head to the hall after lines to be placed into their new classes. I will also be off work for the first few days so instead of just dropping the kids at the school gate I’ll be coming in with them to make sure they are okay. Often it’s the little, overlooked details that can lead to a full-on meltdown – it pays to be prepared, and talk through these things with them, if you can.
- Giving them space & adjusting our expectations: in the last week we have ensured Gilbert and Matilda have had some time to do their own preferred activities so they can be as relaxed and as rested as possible for the start of term. Typically we have been having a planned activity in the morning followed up with some free time, like watching a DVD in the afternoon. We have also tried to adjust our expectations of their capabilities and behaviour, understanding that their state of anxiety is the main reason behind some of their behaviour at the moment. Obviously unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated but sometimes you have to cut them some slack, knowing how wound up they are inside.
- Remaining calm and projecting positivity: in my experience, if you set a calm and positive example, that can go a long way to helping your kids maintain a bit of calm themselves. In the face of a full-on meltdown, getting angry and frustrated yourself does not solve anything (believe me, I’ve been there and done that already!). Reminding the kids of the positives of returning to school and dealing with their anxiety and concerns as calmly as possible usually has a better chance of helping them through it.
Fingers crossed these strategies will lessen the burden of anxiety for my kids as they get ready for the return to school.
Do you have any tips for managing back to school anxiety? What does your kids’ first day back at school look like?