February 10, 2020
By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D
Many students with LD, ADHD, and NLD become increasingly nervous as back-to-school approaches and even during the first couple of weeks. They may have had negative experiences before with classes or peers leading them to experience anticipatory anxiety, which may take the form of headaches, stomachaches, and specific fears of the year ahead: who’s in their classes, will there be bullying, what’s expected by teachers, having to take gym, etc. Following are strategies that will help you manage the transition, and set up the year to maximize success.
Deal with Anxiety
- Recognize anxiety is a real feeling, but not an accurate prediction of what’s going to happen. Too often parents get caught up in the anxiety themselves.
- Meditation is proven to turn off the “fight or flight” response, and the breathing techniques are useful for dealing with challenges or frustration. It’s a good time to start practicing daily. There are apps for all ages (and even walking meditations for those who have trouble holding still).
- Exercise is another good way of dealing with anxiety. It doesn’t have to be a sport. Walking outside can be calming.
- Children often know what helps them feel calm—reading, listening to music, playing with pets, etc. —but don’t think to initiate those activities. Remind them.
- Encourage using self-talk. Realistic self-encouragement can be thought through ahead of time: “I can handle this,” “I know I can get help if I need it” are examples. Model using self-talk yourself: “I’m stuck in this traffic jam, but I’ll get there. “
Anticipate the Transition
- Change sleep and waking schedules back to the school schedule, if you haven’t already.
- Think through the practical issues of the school day, from the timing of getting up and out to the system of organizing backpacks and binders. Kids with ADHD often find those “count down” timers helpful.
- What does your child need to bring that first day or week? Young children love buying special school supplies; older students may have had summer assignments.
- Sometimes students are intimidated if the new year means new school buildings. Have a walk through; some even find it helpful to use or make a map showing where classrooms are located.
- Establish go-to relationships. It can be helpful to meet new special education teachers or counselors ahead of time so there’s a familiar face if needed. Get back in touch with school friends. Have a play date either before school or schedule one soon after school starts. It’s a big confidence booster.
Setting the Year Up for Success
- Think about what worked (and didn’t) last year. Make a bullet list of what worked before and share it with this year’s teachers. A focused list gets read.
- Set up supports that might be needed. Line-up organizational support, tutoring, and a structure for meeting or communicating with teachers.
- Have a planning meeting early, and set up a tone of collaboration. It’s more helpful (and less likely to meet resistance) if you present the school with a list of challenges or concerns instead of a list of demands. You can then discuss how best to address your concerns.
- Set up communication so everyone working with a student is in touch; continuity is critical and it does take a community working together to achieve the best results.
- Past social experience can be intimidating, but past success can be the basis for this year’s start. Encourage thinking about sitting with friends at lunch, possible ways to become involved this year. Sometimes scripting or talking about what might be shared can help: sharing what happened over the summer, asking about others’ vacations, talking about the new year.
Although a new school year can bring up worries based on what’s happened in the past, it can also be a fresh start with lessons learned. Being both proactive and calm goes a long way to ensuring that your child starts the year off right.
Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.