Bright Beginnings: A Successful Start to the School Year with Your Neurodiverse Child
The beginning of the school year can understandably be a stressful time for parents, and most importantly, for children who are neurodiverse. A new school year comes with numerous unanticipated, novel, and unexpected changes, along with increasing academic demands. Add in social challenges such as the pressure to “fit in” and “be liked,” social conflicts, pre-existing mental health challenges, developmental disabilities, and learning disabilities, and you indeed have the perfect storm for the emergence of the feeling of “overwhelm.”
As I write the above paragraph, I can imagine your heart rate starting to increase as parents. HAVE NO FEAR! I am here to provide you with some tips on how to support your child’s experience during this school year. However, a few things need to be noted before we dive in. While I sincerely hope these tips are helpful, please recognize that each child is unique, and that’s what makes them amazing. These tips may not be beneficial for everyone, and that is OKAY! I always encourage parents to seek support for their children from a mental health professional who will get to know them well and offer further tips to help them adjust as smoothly as possible :).
Here we go:
- Relationship, Connection, Love: Before discussing any strategies or interventions, I always make sure that the parents I work with know that the relationship they have with their child comes before ANYTHING else. As you prepare your child for the school year, know that this is a significant moment for them, and there will inevitably be lots of changes to their routine and inconsistencies at the beginning. To counteract this, we need them to know that we have their back. Prioritize special time spent with them—just that. Time spent together doing something you both love—going for ice cream, watching a movie, playing a game, spending time in the park, or even baking a delicious dessert together. Criticism or negative statements have no place here—try to keep it as positive and calm as possible. This can be done for just 5 minutes at least once a week to begin to strengthen that relationship. Also, try your best to stay grounded as the parent. It can certainly be challenging at times to help your child through these significant transitions, but it’s important to remember that you are doing the best you can—it’s a learning process together, and your child does notice all the ways you cope with your stressors to help them develop their coping tools.
- Prepare, Prepare, Discuss: I’ll say it one more time: prepare (!!) and have discussions! Begin engaging them in conversations about their feelings regarding this school year. If your child is younger or nonverbal, they may not know how to express their feelings. That’s why it can be helpful to read stories to them about the first day of school and show them visual emotion charts to have them point to what their body/brain is feeling after reading the story. I particularly like the books “Daniel Goes to School” by Becky Friedman or “My First Day of School” by Michelle Adams if your child is between the ages of 4-6 years old. If your child is older, it might be helpful to have “check-ins” with them about how they are feeling, framing it in a way where you are simply letting them know you are there to talk to them if they want to, as a replacement for making demanding statements that they talk to you. Some conversation starters might include:
- I want you to know that I’m here if you want to talk about anything.”
- “You did a great job with _____ during last school year. I wonder what else you might be looking forward to.”
- “We’re a team, and I want you to know that I’m here for you no matter what. Let me know how I can help.”
- Social stories are helpful tools for neurodivergent children who find change aversive. They can be customized to your child’s situation and contain hypothetical scenarios that may arise during the school year, along with emotional identification and coping tools to prepare your child as much as possible. Reach out to your child’s teacher, therapist, school counselor, or other educational provider to obtain these, or you can find them online.
- Set Expectations (But Be Reasonable): If your child is anxious, expecting school to be completely calm with no moments of stress is unrealistic. When setting expectations for your child about their day at school, make sure you meet them where they are at, while also showing confidence in their ability to manage any situation that comes their way with support. For example, this could look like: “School might be very busy. I am looking for you to keep a calm body and voice as we get ready for the day. What do you think we could do to help keep our bodies and voices calm?” Placing the responsibility on your child to come up with valuable ideas for regulation increases self-confidence and may improve their motivation to use coping skills when they are the ones who came up with them.
- If your child has autism, you may want to consider writing out or having pictures of their schedule for the day and reviewing this with them. I also like to incorporate relationship building even in the expectation phase by working with your child to come up with an activity you can all do together at the end of the first day—whether it goes smoothly or has some bumps along the way. This could be planning an ice cream trip after school to debrief about the day and discuss what went well and what could be done differently next time.
- Utilize ALL Your Support: Remember that you do not have to do this alone! If you feel stuck in navigating your child through this transition, utilize your child’s school support team, such as the school counselor or school psychologist, for further interventions. Individual therapy for your child and parent support are also extremely helpful ways to ensure everyone feels prepared and comfortable for school year.
Here’s to wishing you and your child a flexible, fun, and fulfilling school year! Please do not hesitate to reach out to us here at Trinity Psychological Services if you would like to set up an appointment to gain further guidance for your child in this area.
All the best,
Marissa Ross, LAC