Helping Neurodiverse Kids Navigate the Start of the School Year

3 min read
Back to School

The first day of school can be exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure for students. This may be especially true for students who are neurodiverse, who might struggle with changes to their routine. Whether they’re starting a new school or switching from summer activities to the classroom, change and uncertainty about what the school year will be like can set off negative behaviors and emotional responses. Preparing your child for the start of a new school year can help decrease the chances of a difficult, overwhelming, or even negative transition. 

Here are a few simple ways to help your child feel more confident as they approach the school year.

4 Steps to a Smoother Back-to-School Transition for Neurodiverse Kids

1. Talk About Feelings

If your child is verbal, the first day of school jitters can be a great opportunity to discuss their feelings toward school. This will give you the opportunity to understand what makes them feel nervous, if anything concerns them about a specific subject, and how you can support them.

If your child is nervous about a new teacher, reach out ahead of time to talk to them. Schedule an in-person visit or video call and attend any open houses and parent-teacher meetings available at the start of the year so your child can feel more comfortable in their new class. Additionally, discuss positive aspects of the first day of school as well, such as seeing old friends and having chances to make new ones.

Lastly, ensure your child knows that they can talk to you and bring their concerns about school or their learning. The day before the first day of school, consider having a day focused on them and their favorite activities. If your child struggles with executive function, a designated learning coach can help keep them focused and goal-oriented for their learning future.

2. Discuss Their Schedule

Having a sense of their schedule and an action plan can be helpful for kids who may have executive function difficulties. When their schedule becomes available, go over the classes together and the times each class is held. Additionally, it may be helpful to make weekly action plans for doing homework and any extracurriculars and ensure they have some time in their schedule for fun and unwinding. 

Other ways to prepare may be to do a walkthrough or open house of your child’s school with them to get a sense of where they can find the resources they’ll need every day—like their classroom, the bathrooms, and the lunchroom—and anything else that may be a part of their routine, like the library, the gym, the nurse, and the administrative office. 

3. Utilize Organizational Strategies

In addition to preparing ahead for school, keeping a student who has difficulty focusing or paying attention on track throughout the year is essential. Instead of relying on one method of organization or reminders, such as a calendar, choose a few. Keeping a corkboard with a calendar and daily notes can be a helpful addition to phone reminders or other online calendars the school might make available. Having something tactile, such as a paper planner, can help your child build a system of writing to-do lists that break large tasks into smaller ones and allow them to cross things off as they’re completed.

Ensuring your child’s teacher knows they have a student with autism or ADHD is also important, especially if they’re your child’s only teacher for the year. Teachers can be powerful allies at school, so it’s essential for them to have a full picture of your child’s learning style and needs. They might also have suggestions for organizing important papers and homework at home. For example, clearly labeled and color-coded folders can be helpful visual cues for where homework and project papers should always be.

4. Set Up a Distraction-Free Zone

One of the most effective ways to encourage focus is to set up a designated homework space at home. This should include a comfortable desk or writing surface with a seat, good lighting, a place to plug in their computer, your organizational tools, and something for alleviating their fidgeting or stress, such as therapy putty or a fidget toy. 

This space ideally should be away from overt distractions, such as televisions or busy areas. If possible, having the space separate from their bedroom can also help minimize distractions from toys or the bed. Creating this dedicated space provides consistency and helps facilitate focus, which can make the transition from school to homework more manageable.

Casey Schmalacker

Casey Schmalacker, Vice President at New Frontiers, is a seasoned leader in marketing, sales, and business development. With a dual degree in Government and Law and Economics from Lafayette College, he has spent the past 10 years coaching students, adults, and organizations to improve executive functions, soft skills, and workplace performance. Casey’s approach is rooted in strategic development and a passion for personalized coaching, emphasizing a culture of continuous improvement.

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