A New School: Easing the Transition

Moving to a new school is a big event in a young person’s life. Whether it be attending school for the first time or transferring to another school, the transition can cause fear or anxiety for a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Working together, parents and staff can help make this move a successful one by keeping in mind that a person with ASD needs predictability.

Why A New School?

For higher functioning individuals, it is important discuss why there is a move to a new school. Maybe a move to a new city or neighbourhood was necessary for work or personal reasons. A new school may better address the needs of the child. Perhaps the move has to do leaving elementary school for middle or high school. Whatever the reason, be prepared to discuss feelings around a move. The person may not understand or appreciate the reasons for a change of school, but try and talk about the positive aspects of attending a different school. There is always a bright side.

Creating Predictability

Predictability lessens anxiety. Familiarity with the school environment and routines through visual supports can make a new school transition easier. Here are some ideas to create predictability:

  • Call the school and arrange a tour of the building and classrooms.
  • Obtain a floor plan of the school and label relevant rooms.
  • Take photos of relevant areas. i.e. playground, classroom, cloakroom, gymnasium etc.
  • Take photos of teaching and office staff.
  • Assemble these photos into a scrapbook and label them. The book can be looked at a week or two before school starts. It can also be a reminder about the school day for the first few weeks until new routines become familiar.
  • Obtain a copy of the school handbook or past newsletters. Go over the rules and routines of the school.
  • Create a checklist of school routines to tape inside of an agenda, locker or binder. List things like – 8:40 am: School bell rings. 8:45 am: Hang coat and backpack in locker.
  • List times for class changes, recess times, lunch and dismissal times. Walk the child through these new routines. This is most effective when done at the school because children with ASD have difficulty imagining they are in a different place when they are at home. Photos can help with this process.
  • Write a social story about transitioning from summertime to school. Highlight the big changes that may cause anxiety such as waking up earlier, taking the bus, or eating lunch at school rather than at home.

The Support System

Parents and children need to know what support system the school has. If the child is in an inclusive classroom, are there quiet areas to go to if necessary? Will there be times where the child is pulled from the classroom for one on one work with a therapist or to spend time in a resource room? Identify who the key people in the school who can help when needed such as the principal, vice principal, guidance counselor and office secretary.

If the child will have an aide, it is a good idea to meet with this person before school starts to discuss learning styles, sensory issues and strategies to alleviate anxiety. An aide needs to know what motivates the child to learn and stay on task. For example, using a special interest can engage a child in the learning process.

Make a list of key phrases or certain behaviors and what those mean. My son says, “Do you want to play some more?” when he wants a task to end. He becomes echolalic when he does not understand a question. There are often pre-warning signs that occur before a meltdown happens. It is also important to disclose sleep habits, medications, and special dietary needs. The aide is the person at the child’s side and can often be the first person to spot difficulties.

All About Me Profile

When a person is new to a school, it is helpful to send an All About Me profile. Things to include in the profile might be:

  • Favorite and least favorite subjects in school.
  • Helpful accommodations (using a computer instead of writing, breaking down assignments into smaller parts, visual schedules, extra time needed for projects)
  • Strengths
  • Special interests (transportation, ceiling fans, trains, dinosaurs – whatever is motivating)
  • All about the family (siblings, parents, grandparents, important people in the child’s life)
  • Activities outside school
  • Anxieties/worries in the school day (PE, lunchroom, recess, reading, writing, noisy hallways)
  • Favorite things to do at home (read books, play Wii games, spend time with siblings etc.)

If special materials were created for the child at the old school, be sure and ask that they go to the new school. Familiarity will lessen anxiety and new knowledge can be built upon previous knowledge and skills.

The Week Before School

Here are a few suggestions for preparations to do the week before school starts.

  • Shop for school supplies if the school does not provide them. Most schools will provide a list of necessary supplies.
  • If lockers are being used, buy a combination lock and practice opening and closing it. Memorize the combination if possible or write it down in a place where it will be accessible at school.
  • Get a backpack or haul out the old one from last year.
  • Check what the PE clothing requirements are. If students wear uniforms to school, ask where those can be purchased if they are not supplied.
  • Wake up at the new time for school a few days beforehand.
  • Practice morning “getting ready” routines for school. Post the visual schedules for morning routines if they were not followed over the summer.

Starting a new school is stressful for anyone, but careful preparation is the key to success. Creating predictability about the school day will lessen anxiety and fear. There will be new challenges to face in a different school, but a solid support system and coping strategies will make the transition to a new school an easier one. Here’s to a great school year!

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