Back-to-school Tips

June 5, 2024

The beginning of any new school year is a transition for neurodiverse students - summer break is ending, or maybe it’s less of a transition because of an extended school year program. Maybe this is the first time in March 2020 a neurodivergent student has been inside of a classroom that isn’t on Zoom, or you’re prepping around the sensory issues with wearing a mask in school or meeting new teachers in person for the first time.

Typically, going back to school is a challenge for the whole family: parents might be used to having their little ones at home all the time and are now sending them off to a school setting, or a college freshman might be moving away from home. Maybe re-entering school means engaging more often with members of your kid’s team and having to advocate all over in the IEP process. Or maybe you’re starting at a new school entirely. Either way, there’s a lot to unpack in a non-pandemic situation, but as we are fighting through (or emerging from) a pandemic, the return to the classroom is looking different this school year.

While back-to-school season is a readjustment for the whole family, neurodivergent students returning to the classroom have different concerns. For many kids, remote learning was a dream. It allowed the neurodiverse crowd to actively work in a controlled and comfortable environment, and it kept distractions or worries at bay. As we potentially wind down from the days of Zoom and Teams, we may have some work to do to prepare young ones for this familiar, yet new transition. Or, we’re totally staying remote as part of an IEP or because school isn’t fully reopened.

Regardless of your situation, Positive Development teamed up with our resident neurodivergent self-advocates, Haley Moss and Libby Parent, to share their top tips for making back to school a little bit less stressful on everyone:

Art by Libby Parent
Art by Libby Parent

1. Set realistic expectations

It’s so easy to get very ambitious in goals and expectations - you expect your neurodivergent child to fully participate in class, get straight As, avoid trouble at all costs, and somehow become the most popular kid in class while joining multiple sports teams. This “dream” might not be realistic - we might not have the motor skills to be athletes, but are super creative, or we might not want to look like know-it-alls by raising our hand constantly or admit we need help. Instead, brainstorm with your child (and their team) about what’s realistic - maybe the goal this year is just to make a new friend, or to speak in complete sentences. Every kid is different, and it’s most important that they feel supported, safe, and challenged (with reassurance that they have support if something is too much).

2. Try to help limit worries they may experience beforehand by giving positive affirmations

Kids (especially neurodiverse ones) are subject to constant self doubts, or doubts from others. Giving them affirmations that they are doing the right things, or learning in their own right way, may help to lessen the burden of feeling like they aren’t following the same path as their peers, or even the paths you may have hoped they’d follow. Self-doubt can be detrimental when it comes to young minds, and we need to try to eliminate this set back as early on as possible.

3. Create a new routine together

Summer break (or an extended school year) have their own routines: maybe your kids went to camp, worked a summer job, or you had a predictable family vacation thrown in there. But with the school year, routines change as family members head off to school (carpool or bus, perhaps), have an array of classes depending on the day, homework, therapies or practices. When adjusting, consider writing out the schedule or routine, or figuring out what works best for everyone. For autistic and neurodivergent people, routine can help give direction, stability, and a source of pride in kids who sometimes feel lost without predictability of what’s going to happen on any given day. Of course, things might change, like someone gets sick or there’s a substitute teacher, but try to explain which types of changes might not be accounted for or how to best handle those moments.

4. Practice self-advocacy skills.

Self-advocacy is the thing that needs to be taught more often - parents and teachers seem to do the majority of the advocating! To build strong self-advocates, consider inviting your kids to IEP or planning meetings, or to share their goals and expectations for the school year with everyone. Or, ask guiding questions to figure out what decisions kids might want to make -- like what they’re looking forward to or what they might like to do at recess.

5. Help them understand that while they have differences, they are not broken compared to their peers.

Here’s the thing, kids know when they’re different -- either because they’re being bullied, or they internalize messages they hear or feel surrounding their grades or social life (we’re often told we are lazy, dumb, awkward, and all sorts of other things). Normalizing difference and neurodiversity in appropriate-to-them ways eases the potential blows to self-esteem; Haley’s parents famously compared her autism to Harry Potter when she was 9 since she was obsessed with the series as a 4th grader.

6. Reassure them that you are there to help

Kids often get a sense of loneliness, or alienation when communicating with kids who differ from them. Oftentimes, they can come to the conclusion that they’re either meant to navigate hardships alone, or that no one will take them seriously when they attempt to voice their concerns with feeling lost or lonely. Understanding that their feelings are valid is the first step to make sure they know they have someone to go to when things aren’t going their way. Small reassurances along the way that you are there to help them get through these rough years, can do so much for their mindsets and outlooks as time goes on. A parent’s job is never truly finished, so helping them understand from a young age that you will always be there is sometimes a secure thought that persists even in adult years.

7. Starting a daily check-in list may help calculate where anxiety may derive from

When you’re young, it’s hard to stay organized, and for neurodivergent students, it might be difficult to identify feelings. To help, we recommend using the emotions wheel to describe feelings, or to check in with ourselves and others daily. Maybe we’re avoiding bullies or have constant tummy-aches. Maybe there’s a big test scheduled. Either way, there are tons of things that bring anxiety for neurodivergent kids, and checking in regularly can help figure out why we’re anxious. Libby says a checklist is something that she wishes was around to help guide her when she felt lost during a very impressionable era.

8. Make time for fun/hobbies!

You (and your family) all have hobbies and things you enjoy outside of school. For autistic and neurodivergent folks, these hobbies and passions mean a lot to us - and having them as things we enjoy (not as “rewards” for completing homework or making progress in life skills) and doing them together is relaxing, fun, and keeps us calm. If you’re feeling adventurous, try some new things too, but if it’s too much, then no pressure. Haley used to draw and paint after she got home from school before doing homework or whatnot ~because~ it helped her unwind from a day of learning and social masking.

9. Trust yourself

“Starting school after a long break was always nerve racking for us as neurodiverse children.  We had concerns, worries, and constant fears that bullying would persist, or that we would be left to fend for ourselves in times of need. As long as you trust in yourself to give your child the guidance that they need, then that's the most pertinent point to take to heart.” ~Libby & Haley

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