Back-to-School Basics – Asperger Mom

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Joanne Houldsworth is the parent columnist for WrongPlanet.net. She covers autism through the perspective of a mother of a young son with Aspergers Syndrome. She writes a weekly blog, entitled Aspergers: A Mom’s Eye View, where this article was originally posted.

OK, I’m a nerd….I’ll admit it. I’m one of those kids who loved school, adored books and even enjoyed a challenging homework assignment! (Can’t you just see that big “L” on my forehead???) For me as a child, the end of summer brought a mix of feelings. On one hand, I adored the long, lazy, unstructured days spent playing with my friends. On the other hand, the siren song of the new school year enticed me…all those new supplies, new school clothes, new books, new teacher and treasures of knowledge – vast potential awaiting me. Even today, although I won’t be heading off to school myself in September, I feel that nostalgic excitement building. Instead, I live vicariously through my children – planning, dreaming, imagining all the promise ahead for them.

But for Gregory, now heading into 5th grade, September brings with it, not excitement and anticipation, but dread and anxiety. Typically, Gregory has had a very difficult time adjusting to each new school year. The new teacher, new room, new schedule, new class work – all requiring simultaneous adaptation – has often proven too much for him to cope with. He would have melt-downs during school, followed by full-blown tantrums at home. At school, it would be shredded projects, head-banging and crying jags. At home we experienced slamming doors, projectile toys and even running away. Obviously Greg’s limited and over-taxed coping mechanisms were insufficient to meet the burdens being placed upon them.

Over the years, we’ve learned a few ‘tricks’ that have helped his school year transitions. And while Greg’s transition into 4th grade was not without episodes, it was by far the smoothest to date. I’m hoping that by applying some of the strategies that we’ve developed, this fall will be even better!

With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the tactics that we’ve employed previously with good results:

1.

Select the ‘right’ teacher.

The personality and teaching style of the teacher can have dramatic impact on the student. While no one type of teacher is ‘right’ for every student, there most probably is a ‘right’ teacher for each child.

In Gregory’s case, the type of teacher that has been most positive is one who is nurturing, but has good control and structure within the class. He/she is knowledgeable about Asperger’s Syndrome (and Greg’s need in particular), but maintains high expectations for success and achievement – both academically and socially. And perhaps most importantly, Greg’s ideal teacher must maintain a calm, accepting, tolerant classroom, where the students support one another.

To help make sure your child gets the appropriate teacher assignment, start a dialogue with the guidance councilor, principal and current teacher the spring prior. Discuss the types of teaching qualities to which your child responds best. Include teacher assignment in the annual IEP meeting. While our school administration will not necessarily make commitments or talk ‘specifics’ about teachers, the open discussion at least puts everyone on the same page about the needs of your child. And face it, if your child transitions well and has fewer disruptive episodes, everyone benefits.


2. Maintain skills over summer months.

Gregory is a perfectionist and finds it very stressful when he can’t do something or when he gets answers wrong. To help combat this anxiety, I have Gregory (all three of my kids, actually) read nightly and do two workbook pages every weekday during the summer break. They are free to read anything they would like, but I’ve utilized the Summer Bridge Activities workbook series by Michele D. Van Leeuwen for a several years now. The material varies each day, but includes math, reading, writing, language and science over the course of the summer. Since the work is based on the previous year’s curriculum, all the material is review, which makes the tasks fairly simple and the enables the child to feel successful. And most importantly, this practice keeps the material fresh in the child’s mind, ready for the new school year.


3. Meet teacher before school starts.

Last year for the first time, I arranged for Gregory and me to visit the school the week before school started. It enabled us to meet his new teacher, see his new classroom (including which seat was his), see a list of other kids in his class, look through his new books, etc. We included the guidance councilor in the meeting and took this opportunity to discuss some of Greg’s challenges and strategies. The school was calm and quiet and Greg could stroll around at his leisure, taking it all in at his own pace. He loved the experience and became more excited for the first day of school. And when the first day arrived, Greg was already an ‘expert’ about his new class, entering with confidence instead of anxiety.

4.

Build positive excitement – but not too much!

Knowing how stressed Gregory can get about the new school year, I am careful to not talk about it too much ahead of time. I might mention it in a round-about way, saying something like, “Look how much you’ve grown. I can see you are ready for 5th grade.” I’ll also mention in passing the particular kids who will be in his class and maybe even some of the things he’ll be learning and doing (for example, the 5th graders put on a musical at the end of the year.) I want Gregory to know that the new year is approaching (so as not to catch him off-guard) and that he has a lot to look forward to, but I don’t want to build it up too much.

5. Maintain close communication with the teacher.

Since so much with Gregory is helping him manage his moods and emotions, during the first few critical weeks of school, I have almost daily communication with the teacher. I will email the teacher to let her know if something at school that day was difficult or stressful for Gregory, so that she can head-off an issue the following day. If he has a rough night or morning at home, I will also alert the teacher, so that she knows to handle him with kid gloves…at least until she senses his mood.

6.

Hold off on extra-curricular activities.

Knowing that Gregory’s senses and coping mechanisms are worked over-capacity at the start of the school year, I’ve learned not to have him start any other new activities after school for at least 6 weeks or so….and that includes play dates! He needs the after school time to decompress from the stress of the day without any added pressures or performance expectations. In fact, I usually encourage him to have some down-time (such as riding his bike, swinging or jumping on the trampoline) before even attempting homework. In that mode, I also try to minimize any weekend activities or commitments during September to provide maximum down-time.

7.

Define safe havens at school and at home.

Even with the best laid plans and sensitive accommodations, Gregory will sometimes ‘lose it’. His emotions will get too big for him to manage and he’ll have a melt-down. We’ve arranged with the school, teacher and guidance councilor for a specific place to go when he feels the need to escape. In our case, Greg’s ‘safe haven’ is the guidance councilor’s office, where hopefully she will also be available to aid him in calming down. At home, Greg’s bedroom is his safe haven to escape from the intrusions of family life with two noisy siblings. We’ve also equipped his room with a beanbag chair which provides added sensory input to help him calm down.

So, as September fast approaches, I can feel my excitement brewing. I’m avidly anticipating back-to-school shopping for shoes, clothes and supplies. I’m drooling over all the brochures that arrive in the mail daily, announcing great sales and a myriad of after-school activities. As I drive past our local elementary school (at least 5 times every day!), I look over fondly, imaging my kids in their new classrooms, absorbing all those ‘treasures of knowledge’ that I so enjoyed. And hopefully, with some planning and foresight, Gregory’s transition into 5th grade will be smooth sailing, and someday he’ll be able to think back upon his back-to-school days with fond nostalgia too.

 

Do you have any strategies that have helped ease your child’s back-to-school transitions? If so, I’d love to hear them!

This story was originally posted on Asperger’s – A Mom’s Eye View

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