Strategies, ideas, and resources for easing a child into new routines
by Randi Sargent, parent and assistive technology (AT) advocate
For many of us who support students with special needs, back to school either comes too quickly or not quickly enough. After a summer of relaxed schedules and vacations, we need to prepare our kids for "back to school" and for our kids who rely on assistive technologies, this involves more than a trip to Target for markers and paper. Read on to learn about visual strategies and low-tech assistive technology tools you can use to help kids transition smoothly to a classroom and minimize back-to-school anxiety.
Create Visuals to Illustrate New School Routines
Visual supports, such as schedules and people locators, help kids with special needs get back into or learn a new school routine. These can be made in low-tech ways using magazine pictures, photos and picture symbols from Boardmaker or other free sources. To familiarize a child with a new environment, get or take pictures of the teacher, classroom, cafeteria, bathroom, gym, playground, and other key areas around school. Use these to introduce the new environment and later to make the daily classroom visual schedule. For purchase, there are even pre-made bracelets available with classroom routine symbols! Parents can make wearable/changeable schedules that shows daily after school activities and therapies.
To teach or remind a child of a new or task-specific routine, create picture-based mini-schedules. For example, consider their new morning routine and create a mini-schedule with symbols and pictures. What tasks does the child need to complete to get out the door in the morning? This might include toileting, dressing, eating breakfast, washing up, donning their coat /backpack, and taking the bus. Depending on the child's level of independence, you may need to break down the routine into large or small tasks. Time Timer is a classic visual-aid product used in classrooms to help students understand the passing of time. Store visuals in portable wallets and communication books so your student has their visual reminders or communication aids with them at all times.
Some students stress about where family members are during the day while they are at school. Use family photos to create "people locators" showing where Dad or Mom will be during the day or who will be home with them after school. They can refer to this visual for re-assurance and hopefully avoid asking the same questions over and over.
Communicating Personal and Social Information
Any child facing a new teacher and peers needs to introduce them self. For children with special needs who have impaired communication, low-tech AT can help make a successful introduction. A Talking Photo Album is a great tool for using pictures, text, and voice to create an "About Me" book to show classmates their interests, abilities, and assistive technologies they use. It can be especially helpful as an introduction for a new teacher. For ideas on what to include in a teacher information packet, see the article on preparing the school for your child at the About.com link below and adapt these for a visual version. Students love to show pictures of their vacations and favorite things making a Talking Photo Album a great way to socialize with peers.
Read Social Stories Together
Stories about going to school offer important lessons for all children. Popular characters such as Arthur, Franklin, and the Berenstain Bears all have their concerns and questions about new teachers and making friends. See the link below for a recommended list of social stories you can share with your child in a comfortable, non-stressful way. Kids may want to read these over and over.
Make Back to School Fun
Plan a special trip to get your child with special needs involved in purchasing their school supplies. Use symbols or pictures to make a visual back to school shopping list. See the links below for free printables of back-to-school coloring activities and games.
With some planning and preparation on the part of parents and teachers, visual strategies and low-tech assistive technology can help students of all ages get back into the school routine and start the new school year with confidence.
Learn more from these resources:
- Back to School Social Stories for Young Learners (scroll down to "Recommended Resources" at this Cindy's Autistic Support page).
- Back to School Books for Older Students:
- Articles/Resources about Back to School:
- "Preparing the School for Your Child with Special Needs" (about.com)
- "Back to School Guide for Special Needs Families"
- Back to School Visual Supports:
- for sale and for free at Say It With Symbols
- Pre-made symbol-based resources using Boardmaker at Boardmaker Share
- School Supply symbols from Slater software (pdf)
Randi Sargent is a parent of a teen with multiple disabilities who uses AT throughout his day for communication, mobility, and learning. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Federation for Children with Special Needs, Boston, and is a member of the AT Advisory Council for the Massachusetts's AT Act program (MassMATCH). Sargent is the founder/owner of Say It With Symbols.