Getting ready to go back to school

back to school

It’s back to school time! You’ve survived the holidays and now it’s time to get ready for the new school year.

We’ve put together a Back to School checklist to make sure your transition back to school is smooth. There’s nothing like rushing around on the morning of the first day of school trying to find the school hat that you thought was at the bottom of the bag but wasn’t (guilty), or realising that the school shoes don’t fit (guilty). Or not checking which uniform was required on the first day and putting on the wrong one (is it PE uniform day, or normal uniform day?).

Preparing the transition from holidays to school is even more important for kids with autism. The day’s schedule is about to change, their clothing, their food, the people they spend time with… It’s an anxious time so getting ready in advance with plenty of notice (at least a week) is important. Follow the Get Ready for School flowchart to make sure you don’t forget any steps to be ready for school.

Back to school checklist

12 steps to get ready for back to school

  1. Try on school uniforms and shoes – get used to wearing different clothes and shoes in advance. Have a school dress up morning one day a week before school goes back. Check the fit and make sure any new school shoes are comfortable. If there are new fastenings (like laces rather than velcro) practice getting them on and off confidently. You don’t want day one meltdowns because your kid can’t do up their laces.
  2. Pack school bag – go through all the items needed for school, independence and emotional regulation that your child might need. Pack the bag with them so they know where to find stuff.
  3. Practice eating lunchbox food – lunchbox food is different to food from the kitchen at home on a holiday-day. At school you can’t just go to the pantry and get something to eat. Practice what it’s like to eat morning tea, snack and lunch from a lunchbox. Have kids go shopping with you to pick the snack and lunch they are happy to eat.
  4. Talk about your teacher and classroom – some schools will send home a letter with the new teacher, a photo, and details about the new classroom. Talk about school, what they are excited about, what they are worried about, what they are looking forward to as part of preparing for the new school year. Be positive in talking about school.
  5. Do a practice journey – do a practice journey to school. You don’t want to be stressed on day one getting out the door, finding parking, walking to the drop off gate.
  6. Have a contingency plan – talk about options at school for when things go wrong. Can they talk to their class teacher? Is there a wellbeing officer, front office first aid, teacher on duty, quiet space to go at lunch time? Often it is break times (recess and lunch) where issues occur so talk through options for what to do at lunch time – where to sit, what activities to do, who to go to.
  7. Prepare for week one tiredness – transitions are exhausting, as are changes in routine. Be prepared for week one tiredness and crankiness. Don’t plan too many after school activities, plan proactive emotional calming activities and schedule earlier bedtimes for the first week.
  8. Count down with a calendar – mentally prepare by crossing out days on a calendar to count down until the first day of school.
  9. Social Stories – social stories or photo books can help to set up the new routine and what’s expected socially.
  10. Morning routine practice – get up early and practice the morning routine for school. Use the social stories or photo routine cards to get used to the rush of breakfast, getting dressed and out the door on time.
  11. Visit school and get used to the surroundings – prepare by visiting school. If it’s open, have a play on the play equipment or walk around the buildings and locker areas to make sure they are familiar again. Practice the walk from classroom to toilet.
  12. Play pretend school – have a mini-lesson at home and practice some of the routines at school like putting away bags in lockers, sitting on the mat and having story time, raising hands to ask questions, sitting down at a desk and writing.
Positive question prompts about school
Positive question prompts to talk about school.

Packing the school bag

Packing a school bag feels a bit like packing for an ‘every-contingency-holiday’. There’s not only the normal school stuff like uniform, art smock and communication bags. There’s also planning for toilet accidents and making sure they can manage themselves during the day.

Then there’s planning for emotional regulation and providing safe, comforting things. For our son, that’s packing books to read when he gets bored, or needs something to do at lunchtime. For our daughter, it’s often packing a soft toy so she can cuddle something familiar for comfort during the day.

Back to school - school bag checklist
School bag packing list

Back to school lunchbox

The other tricky thing for our neurodiverse kids is finding food that they will eat for lunch. Being on the beige diet can make it tricky finding food to go into the lunchbox that meets all the school criteria like being nut free, plastic packaging free, healthy ‘green light’ food.

Back to school - lunch box ideas
Lunchbox ideas for back to school

Back to school lunch notes

Remembering everything and staying positive is a big ask of neurodivergent kids. A lunch box affirmation or positive message can help let them know you’re thinking of them at break time. Break times are often the trickiest times, as it’s less structured, outdoors, requires social thinking, and is less closely supervised. Then there’s also the executive functioning – remembering things and being organised is often a lot to manage. We use lunch notes to give reminder messages (e.g. that they have a lunch order, or who’s picking them up after school, or if they need to drop off a note) to help with remembering important things at the end of the school day.

Back to school - lunch note affirmations
Lunch note affirmation

Back to school for parents

Adult routines change too when school goes back.

You have to wake up (earlier) and make sure lunches are packed and school bags packed.

You’ll probably have an app or two to install and check for school communications. There might be an official school news app, a sharing app for teachers to share student work and class messages, and an app to pay for excursions, lunch orders, camps and other extras.

You might want to make contact with this year’s teacher to let them know about your child and what works best for them.

Finally, if it’s a new school it can be worthwhile to do a practice journey from home to school so it’s familiar. To maintain calm on the journey to school, you might want to pick podcasts, a music playlist, car books or toys so the journey is not stressful. You don’t want to start the school day with emotional un-regulation!

All the best heading back to school!

Back to school countdown calendar
Back to school countdown calendar

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