Back-to-School Basics

31 Aug

OK, I’m a nerd….I’ll admit it.  I’m one of those kids who loved school, adored books and even enjoyed a challenging homework assignment!  (Can’t you just see that big “L” on my forehead???)  For me as a child, the end of summer brought a mix of feelings.  On one hand, I adored the long, lazy, unstructured days spent playing with my friends.  On the other hand, the siren song of the new school year enticed me…all those new supplies, new school clothes, new books, new teacher and treasures of knowledge – vast potential awaiting me.   Even today, although I won’t be heading off to school myself in September, I feel that nostalgic excitement building.  Instead, I live vicariously through my children – planning, dreaming, imagining all the promise ahead for them.

But for Gregory, now heading into 5th grade, September brings with it, not excitement and anticipation, but dread and anxiety. Typically, Gregory has had a very difficult time adjusting to each new school year.  The new teacher, new room, new schedule, new class work – all requiring simultaneous adaptation – has often proven too much for him to cope with.  He would have melt-downs during school, followed by full-blown tantrums at home.  At school, it would be shredded projects, head-banging and crying jags.  At home we experienced slamming doors, projectile toys and even running away.  Obviously Greg’s limited and over-taxed coping mechanisms were insufficient to meet the burdens being placed upon them.

Over the years, we’ve learned a few ‘tricks’ that have helped his school year transitions. And while Greg’s transition into 4th grade was not without episodes, it was by far the smoothest to date.  I’m hoping that by applying some of the strategies that we’ve developed, this fall will be even better!

With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the tactics that we’ve employed previously with good results:

1.  Select the ‘right’ teacher.

The personality and teaching style of the teacher can have dramatic impact on the student.  While no one type of teacher is ‘right’ for every student, there most probably is a ‘right’ teacher for each child.

In Gregory’s case, the type of teacher that has been most positive is one who is nurturing, but has good control and structure within the class.  He/she is knowledgeable about Asperger’s Syndrome (and Greg’s need in particular), but maintains high expectations for success and achievement – both academically and socially.  And perhaps most importantly, Greg’s ideal teacher must maintain a calm, accepting, tolerant classroom, where the students support one another.

To help make sure your child gets the appropriate teacher assignment, start a dialogue with the guidance councilor, principal and current teacher the spring prior.  Discuss the types of teaching qualities to which your child responds best.  Include teacher assignment in the annual IEP meeting.  While our school administration will not necessarily make commitments or talk ‘specifics’ about teachers, the open discussion at least puts everyone on the same page about the needs of your child.  And face it, if your child transitions well and has fewer disruptive episodes, everyone benefits.

2.  Maintain skills over summer months.

Gregory is a perfectionist and finds it very stressful when he can’t do something or when he gets answers wrong.  To help combat this anxiety, I have Gregory (all three of my kids, actually) read nightly and do two workbook pages every weekday during the summer break.  They are free to read anything they would like, but I’ve utilized the Summer Bridge Activities workbook series by Michele D. Van Leeuwen for a several years now.  The material varies each day, but includes math, reading, writing, language and science over the course of the summer.  Since the work is based on the previous year’s curriculum, all the material is review, which makes the tasks fairly simple and the enables the child to feel successful.  And most importantly, this practice keeps the material fresh in the child’s mind, ready for the new school year.

3.  Meet teacher before school starts.

Last year for the first time, I arranged for Gregory and me to visit the school the week before school started.  It enabled us to meet his new teacher, see his new classroom (including which seat was his), see a list of other kids in his class, look through his new books, etc.  We included the guidance councilor in the meeting and took this opportunity to discuss some of Greg’s challenges and strategies.  The school was calm and quiet and Greg could stroll around at his leisure, taking it all in at his own pace.  He loved the experience and became more excited for the first day of school.  And when the first day arrived, Greg was already an ‘expert’ about his new class, entering with confidence instead of anxiety.

4.  Build positive excitement – but not too much!

Knowing how stressed Gregory can get about the new school year, I am careful to not talk about it too much ahead of time.  I might mention it in a round-about way, saying something like, “Look how much you’ve grown.  I can see you are ready for 5th grade.” I’ll also mention in passing the particular kids who will be in his class and maybe even some of the things he’ll be learning and doing (for example, the 5th graders put on a musical at the end of the year.)  I want Gregory to know that the new year is approaching (so as not to catch him off-guard) and that he has a lot to look forward to, but I don’t want to build it up too much.

5.  Maintain close communication with the teacher.

Since so much with Gregory is helping him manage his moods and emotions, during the first few critical weeks of school, I have almost daily communication with the teacher.  I will email the teacher to let her know if something at school that day was difficult or stressful for Gregory, so that she can head-off an issue the following day.  If he has a rough night or morning at home, I will also alert the teacher, so that she knows to handle him with kid gloves…at least until she senses his mood.

6.  Hold off on extra-curricular activities.

Knowing that Gregory’s senses and coping mechanisms are worked over-capacity at the start of the school year, I’ve learned not to have him start any other new activities after school for at least 6 weeks or so….and that includes play dates!  He needs the after school time to decompress from the stress of the day without any added pressures or performance expectations.  In fact, I usually encourage him to have some down-time (such as riding his bike, swinging or jumping on the trampoline) before even attempting homework.  In that mode, I also try to minimize any weekend activities or commitments during September to provide maximum down-time.

7.  Define safe havens at school and at home.

Even with the best laid plans and sensitive accommodations, Gregory will sometimes ‘lose it’.  His emotions will get too big for him to manage and he’ll have a melt-down.  We’ve arranged with the school, teacher and guidance councilor for a specific place to go when he feels the need to escape.  In our case, Greg’s ‘safe haven’ is the guidance councilor’s office, where hopefully she will also be available to aid him in calming down.  At home, Greg’s bedroom is his safe haven to escape from the intrusions of family life with two noisy siblings.  We’ve also equipped his room with a beanbag chair which provides added sensory input to help him calm down.

So, as September fast approaches, I can feel my excitement brewing.  I’m avidly anticipating back-to-school shopping for shoes, clothes and supplies.  I’m drooling over all the brochures that arrive in the mail daily, announcing great sales and a myriad of after-school activities.   As I drive past our local elementary school (at least 5 times every day!), I look over fondly, imaging my kids in their new classrooms, absorbing all those ‘treasures of knowledge’ that I so enjoyed.  And hopefully, with some planning and foresight, Gregory’s transition into 5th grade will be smooth sailing, and someday he’ll be able to think back upon his back-to-school days with fond nostalgia too.


Do you have any strategies that have helped ease your child’s back-to-school transitions?  If so, I’d love to hear them!


73 Responses to “Back-to-School Basics”

  1. dennisfinocchiaro August 31, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    As a teacher, this is a great post. For your child to succeed, this article really does give you great points!

  2. The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife August 31, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    These are great steps. You are doing good, momma! Best wishes in life and blogging.

  3. notesfromrumbleycottage August 31, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    These are great tips. I can see how they could make life for any child easier. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks RumbleyCottage…I look forward to having you along for the ride!

  4. megidio August 31, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Great post. Everyone can apply these in some way.
    Congrats on making Freshly Pressed! Best to you and your family in this coming school year.

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:27 am #

      Many thanks for the good wishes, Megidio. Being Freshly Pressed is pretty cool, I have to say! 😀

  5. Slamdunk August 31, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Fantastic advice–thanks for sharing. Our youngest (4 year old) has PDD-NOS and we see some of the described mannerisms

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:28 am #

      I’m glad you found it helpful Slamdunk…that’s what its all about! Good luck on your journey.

  6. August 31, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    I’m an educator and my mother-in-law is a former early childhood/daycare teacher – so we fit right into the awesome “nerdville” of loving school. (I’m not super down with the school supply shopping though – just saying.)

    Here are our prep-steps:
    1. Scrapbook about our awesome summer.
    2. Talk about how the summer activities will enhance the upcoming school year.
    3. Make fun lists of needed and “just because” school supplies.
    4. Make teacher gifts/crafts.
    5. Play games all summer long – to keep the skills up.
    6. Practice making healthy lunches.
    7. Take it one day at a time.

    Excellent post!

    K of

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:29 am #

      Thanks K….no, Nerdville is not so bad at all! Thanks for sharing your tips.

  7. twinkle August 31, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Great post! Best wishes on this leg of the journey.

  8. crystalhaze August 31, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    I’m also going back to school (8th grade) and I’m really excited! To get a new locker, meet my new teachers and see my friends! My school starts on Friday, and I’d wish seen this post earlier!

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

      Good luck with the new school year Crystalhaze…You’ll do great, I’m sure!

  9. educlaytion August 31, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    Nice job teach. Congrats on getting Pressed.

  10. diarygirl13 August 31, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    This is lovely 🙂 I wrote one for A-level students as I just finished my AS. I will surely take your tips up 🙂 Thank you.

  11. beckyyk August 31, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    i wish i was going back to school to use these tips!

  12. vibeproductions August 31, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Great tips, keep up the good work. If you can learn to cope with life as a child your less likely to be an adult that throws tantrums when they don’t want to do something!

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

      Thank you vibeproductions….Some adults still do have trouble coping, don’t they…

  13. Sulfonix August 31, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Nice tips! Though I myself go to school, I’ll be sure to keep them in mind for I look forward to driving past my school, not to drag myself in the corridors, but to drop my own children there!

  14. Barry Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed 🙂

  15. aree August 31, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    This is a lovely post. I’m so appreciative of your sensitivity and awareness. As a transpersonal counselor I’ve worked with so many ultra-sensitive, brilliant and creative adults who suffered terribly through their school years for want of someone who would care for them as you are caring for your son. I wonder if you’ve seen this book, recently published by Thomas Armstrong: Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism,ADHD,Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences. A wonderful introductory article can be found here:

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

      Thanks for the comments and info aree. I will definitely check out the book you recommend, as I have not yet heard of it.

  16. teknophilia August 31, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
    Good luck this schoolyear to all of you, and thanks for the great article (the idea of safe havens is one idea that could probably benefit a lot of kids)!

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

      Thanks for the good wishes, Teknophilia. I agree that Safe Havens could benefit any child who is having difficulty coping, not just those with disabilities.

  17. EmilyConner August 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    Very interesting:)

  18. loupgarou73 August 31, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi there, it sounds like you have it all covered! Having Aspergers myself, but not diagnosed until my 36th year of life, it always astounds me how far things have come in terms of knowledge and practical ways of dealing with obstacles. Good on you for being so “hands on” with your boy. He will benefit from it in the long term. Some of us not diagnosed until much later in life have experienced a double edged sword-The simultaneous mix of having to survive and developing skills to do so without the support of professionals or parents who knew, and some not so good mental health outcomes from various traumas. It always warms me to hear of parents embracing and coping with the various triumphs and challenges of Aspergers. Great to hear 🙂

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

      Thank you for your comments loupgarou73. It does seem that right now is good time to have an Autistic Spectrum Disorders, if there is such a time. The awareness has increased dramatically in just the two short years that I have been learning about it myself. I am hoping that greater understanding generally will help so many people…not just aspies!

  19. John Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    Well said…Thought you were like me…Wondering what all this blog stuff was about? Stirred some positive debate. Well done

  20. Summer August 31, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    he’ll get over it when he grows up! its very normal! that happens to a lot of kids!!


  21. The Excited Neuron August 31, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Great post! I really liked your tips on keeping your kids’ engaged in learning over the summer.

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

      Thanks ‘Excited’! Unfortunately my son doesn’t share your enthusiasm. He is not so keen on the workbooks…oh well!

  22. phyllis rosner August 31, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    This is a remarkably well done article, so well done, so warm, caring, smart and effective, I think it ought to get wide attention. I wonder where else you might want to post it? Would the NYTimes be interested? Or some other thoughtful publication I don’t know?

    • Joanne Houldsworth August 31, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

      Thank you’re making me blush! 😉 I hadn’t thought about getting it published somewhere, but it would be cool! More importantly, it would help raise the general awareness of these issues….
      Regards, Joanne

  23. ajvamnight August 31, 2010 at 9:01 pm #


  24. game dressup August 31, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    that`s great! Thanks

  25. Scentsy bars August 31, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    I loved your list. I have a child who struggles with school, and I’ve found (he is starting his first year of high school), that if we just don’t talk about it until it is upon us, then he doesn’t get in a funk with the anticipation of it. Also, I make him tell me one positive thing about each class, and it can’t be “when it was over.” When he walks in the door each afternoon I pretend like it’s been a great day and say in the most cheerful voice, “honey, I’m so glad you are home. It makes me happy to see you. what was the best part of your day?” or something to that effect. If I help him focus ont he positive, and let him know that home is a safe, warm, and happy loving place, then he tends to do pretty well.

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:21 am #

      Scentsy – It sounds like you’re on the right track! Keep up the good work…Good luck to both you and your son.

  26. jessicaalexandra August 31, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    You are an extraordinary mother-so caring and loving. God knew that Gregory would need you and only you to help him on his journey of life. God bless you and your family and let Gregory know that fifth grade will be a great time!

  27. breadtobeeaten September 1, 2010 at 12:05 am #

    Maybe it’s my being all uprooted and in another country, but this caring little post makes me want to be a dad and give my kids workbook pages and read with them at night. Thanks for sharing!

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:17 am #

      Awwwww shucks breadtobeeaten….that’s so sweet! 🙂 Best wishes.

  28. goldenpast September 1, 2010 at 2:04 am #

    Maintaing some sort of communication with the teacher is probably one of the best back-to-school advice ever!
    They can tell you a lot more than what your child can.
    I know my own mother was vey skilled in talking to my teachers.

  29. 2zpoint September 1, 2010 at 2:54 am #

    I have a 320 pound autistic brother…Break his routines…go on I dare ya!LOL! These school times Ive come to find are my favorite memories and I’ll bet they’ll be yours too later on.

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:15 am #

      2Zpoint – Yes change can be troublesome…I find it is best to do a lot of preparation ahead and make sure my son knows the new plan well ahead of time. Good luck to you and your brother!

  30. lpjo September 1, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    This is a great article and what a fortunate family to have you looking out for them all. My daughter is going through the assessment phase as a few issues showed up in her transition to high school. I found myself trying to keep the teachers calm and giving them ideas about how to handle certain situations that may prove difficult for my child. I wish I’d had your article to back up what I was saying. I work in the school system as a SEN TA and love my job as I get to spend time with children in small groups getting to know them very well. Does your son have a SEN TA in class?

    • Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:14 am #

      Lpjo – It sounds like you are on the right track with your daughter. I’ve not heard the term SEN TA before, but I’m assuming it’s a teacher assistant or aid? No, Gregory doesn’t have an aid and is in the mainstream classroom. He does fine academically and luckily we’ve had great teachers to help him cope with the rest! Good luck on your journey!

  31. onepillawayfromchaos September 1, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    If only all parents were as interested in the success of their children as you are, the world would be a much better place. You are surely an inspiration to many people, including me. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing this. My own son is only 19 months so I have a little time before facing the back to school days. Best of luck to you, your family, and especially Gregory. 🙂

  32. sunnysideup95 September 1, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    thank you ~ !

  33. Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson September 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    These are great back-to-school tips for nearly every parent — even those without Asperger’s! Those summer Bridge worksheets are great. Just short enough to be easy to complete, but filled with meaningful activities.

    I teach at the college level, and the things that you are doing with your son now (especially the nightly reading) will pay off for him eventually!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    If you’d like to check out my bloggie, it’s called Lessons From Teachers and Twits. It’s the place where education and parenting collide.

  34. Edi September 2, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Excellent post, as a teacher I recommend others to read it too.

  35. klerat September 3, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    Thanks Joanne, for doing a great job

  36. Lisa September 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    Great article, and I hope Gregory’s 5th grade school year is positive and successful for him!

    My second grader is also on the spectrum, so some of your tips are very familiar to me. Daily e-mails, meeting teachers beforehand, etc. I have also found that social stories help my son when he gets overly anxious, and seeing his daily schedule every morning also helps. He knows what to expect on any given day. I have also asked his Special Education Coordinator to allow him to have some time in the “motor room” every morning right after he arrives. The physical exercise helps him calm his engine, and hopefully helps him feel a little more coordinated.

  37. Katie Wetherbee September 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    Love your blog~ great, honest insight! Thanks so much.

    One thing I’ve found to be helpful to the transition process is identifying some peers with whom a child is comfortable, and then requesting that a few of these kids can be in the same class. Many schools are willing to accommodate this request, though not all will be able to disclose which kids have been placed together. If you’re able to obtain a class list early enough, setting up a casual afternoon at the park or an outing to see a movie can be a great way for kids to reconnect and make that first day less daunting.

    As with any solution, it doesn’t work for every kid, but for many it can be a great boost.
    Again, thanks for a great blog!

  38. Tatum Llanes November 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    There are times that i dont read more than two lines but i think that your blog can be an exception. Cheers !

  39. Priscila Kolsrud January 10, 2011 at 4:44 am #

    Mes remerciements pour cette colonne, le contenu ma réellement immensément plu. Grace à cet article jai extrêmement beaucoup appris des nouvelles choses que je ne savais pas.

  40. Joanne Houldsworth September 1, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    Thanks so much Mental Disorders 101. I appreciate your support!


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