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…).


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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.

School Social Story

  • 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?

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25 Responses

  1. Emma says:

    I have a little boy starting preschool this year! I am planning on taking him in on his own while Dad stays with his brothers, try to make it special
    Emma recently posted..10 Days of Hearts

    • Kirsty says:

      That sounds like a really good plan – it’s always good to make them feel special when starting preschool or school. Good luck with it, I hope it goes well for your son and for you too!

  2. Robomum says:

    Morning and afternoons are such a battle. Your tips are great. A calm, methodical routine works best. Early to bed with lots of discussion about the next day. Good luck! I’ll be doing the same!
    Robomum recently posted..Yesterday, at Westfield

  3. Miss Cinders says:

    How awesome is the school for putting together the book for Gilbert! What a brilliant idea! I’ll definitely be sharing the idea with everyone I know who would benefit from it. My bestie is having a rough time at the moment with her little son going into Year 1 and not knowing any details of his teacher etc yet to prepare her little man. I think this is a great idea to take to our school and encourage them to use it. It will make such a huge difference.

    Thanks for linking up to TIK lovely xxx
    Miss Cinders recently posted..Things I Know

    • Kirsty says:

      It is a great idea. We’re lucky that the principal at the school has a special education background so she knows all these strategies help our kids and has been able to get the teachers on board too. I hope more schools can come on board and do some preparation to help kids on the spectrum cope that little bit better in the classroom – it would benefit everybody if they could.

  4. Ness says:

    Your Gilbert is so lucky having you for a Mum helping him cope with anxiety, establishing routines etc.

    As a parent who is also on the spectrum, I struggle with having to be the person who in charge of organising everything for the family etc. So much so, that I was doing the big school shop yesterday, had a head spin in Target, then a panic attack and had to ring my husband to come and get me.

    Personally can’t wait for mine to go back. Hope it all goes well.xo
    Ness recently posted..Hot Topic

    • Kirsty says:

      I feel for you Ness – seeing how my older 2 struggle with organisation and putting themselves out there in social situations I have all the respect in the world for adults on the spectrum. Credit to you for managing your family so well! If it makes you feel any better I’ve had my own sort of meltdown at the shops in the past, when things have seemed too hard and overwhelming. I think that sort of situation can get to the best of us, at times…

  5. Rhianna says:

    Great tips there lovely and what an awesome school to help out with the social story, it is great to see schools that are happy to work outside the box to make life easier for students. Fairy wishes and butterfly kisses Kirsty, I hope the return goes smoothly for you
    Rhianna recently posted..Things I Know Early In The Morning

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Rhi – we are very lucky with our school – it was our local public school too, often it’s all about the luck of the draw when it comes to the school for which you are in zone. For once, we seemed to have lucked in!

  6. Me says:

    What a great school to do that for Gilbert – I am sure that it made the world of difference for him.
    I will be thinking of you all and sending lots of positive energy your way next week – take care !
    Love, hugs and positive energy !

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Me. We were so very lucky with his school. It’s small and the principal has a special education background so she is very open and understanding about the needs of both my kids. Let’s hope I can get them off on Wednesday without too many hiccups!

  7. So many challenges presented by ASD. I really enjoy reading your posts on the subject, I find them to be a real education and that I can apply some of your strategies when engaging with kids on the spectrum.
    Bree @ Twinkle in the Eye recently posted..Flash Blog Friday Linky Party

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks so much Bree. I am hoping to write more of these posts this year, both for autism but also for my son’s other diagnosis of albinism. Increased awareness and understanding for both these conditions would go a long way to improving acceptance. Any step forward, however small, has go to be a step in the right direction!

  8. Emily says:

    These are great tips Kirsty, I plan to do up a visual chart so my No.1 knows what she has to do every morning before school. I will also talk to her about what school will be like. Wishing you and your darlings a very smooth transition back to school. xx
    Emily recently posted..Because I have no shame I’m flashing – back in time that is!

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Em – that sounds like a great idea for your big girl. I hope she has a great start to school next week too!

  9. Glamamuma says:

    Thanks for the great tips for getting back to school – I will certainly be drawing up a weekly routine chart just so they know whats coming. I am also dreading the drop offs pickups after school run around and especially now my hubby is going to be away most of the first Term I am tired just thinking about it!!
    Thanks for great tips !!
    Glamamuma recently posted..Morning Rituals

    • Kirsty says:

      Oh no, I hope you survive Term 1 without your husband. Even though I do most of the running around it’s so good just to have that support at night, especially when you feel the need to vent at the end of day! I hope it goes well for you.

  10. Shari says:

    Oh Kirsty I hope that it goes really well for you all – I think your point about positivity and remaining calm in the midst of the angst will be so important for a successful back to school transition. x

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Shari. I think that one is the most crucial one too but also the hardest one to implement in practice… 😉

  11. Grace says:

    Great points, Kirsty. I keep reading about the importance of communicating with your children about that first day of school. It really just starts with a simple chat, doesn’t it?
    Wishing Gilbert the best of luck for a smooth back to school week x
    Grace recently posted..Is Australia racist or multi-cultural?

    • Kirsty says:

      It is all about communication Grace and establishing dialogue with your kids at home as well as with their teachers at school. Talking through what might happen on that first day is such a simple way to help your kids make a smooth transition to school. And keeping up the talking through the term can also help resolve any problems they encounter along the way.

  12. “the daily grind of ferrying kids to school and to after school activities while frantically fitting in housework, homework and employment in between…” Urgh. Our eldest is starting school next week. I think I’ve got starting school anxiety! I know he’s also equal measure anxious and excited. Best of luck to you in making yet another transition – you must long for the days when there were only 3 school terms! xxx

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Bec. At least I have 3 kids at the one school for once. It’s only for the one year but I’m going to take it! Good luck for your start to schooling and for your boy too!

  1. January 21, 2016

    […] have previously shared a few ways to manage back to school anxiety. The ideas I shared in that post […]

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