If you are a parent of an autistic child, big transitions, like the transition to Kindergarten probably strike fear into you. Take a deep breath, and keep reading for 5 ways to prepare your child for a smoother transition. You can also check out Episode 23 of The Autism Little Learners Podcast if you prefer to listen to the information.
Sending a child off to Kindergarten can cause both excitement and anxiety in parents. The anxiety is most likely higher if you are the parent of an autistic child. I know when my preschool students move on to Kindergarten, a lot of parents say “Can he just stay here with you”? Well, it’s not me in particular, but it’s the familiarity, the trust, and the routine that is predictable for their child. They know that moving to a new building, with new teachers is a huge change for their child. Many times transitions, especially big ones like this, are difficult for autistic children. Today I’m sharing some ideas that have really helped my former students with the transition. Whether you are a parent or a teacher supporting a parent with the transition to Kindergarten, these 5 tips can help.
Visit The Kindergarten Playground
One way to promote a smoother transition to Kindergarten is by visiting the school’s playground during the summer. Most schools allow the public to play on the playground when school isn’t in session. So, check with the school to be sure, and then go play there as often as you can! This can be really effective in getting your child more comfortable at the new school before school even starts.
Plus, it’s a fun activity, so the association with that environment will start off on a positive note. Keep in mind, many schools don’t allow kids to go up the slide. So, that is one thing that you can try to develop a routine around. “Up the steps, down the slide”. You could even make up a little jingle about it “Up up up the steps, then go down the slide!” While playing on the playground, you might also notice things that you will want to give the teacher a heads up about. Jot these down, along with the playground activities your child seems to enjoy the most. These will be super helpful to the staff that will be working with your child.
Use A Social Story
Another way you can support a smooth transition to kindergarten is by writing a social story about the new school. Social stories were developed by Carol Gray. They are short stories that can support an autistic child with knowing what to expect in a new situation and teach a new routine. A social story can be used for so many things, from preparing kids for a visit to the dentist to explaining a snow day. Social stories support the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, teachers, and autistic children. Social narratives are similar to social stories and provide information to children. There are so many benefits of using social stories. They can reduce anxiety and create predictability. They can increase independence.
With young children, I like to add a picture to each page of the social story. This helps visual learners who need a more concrete representation of what the story is about. If you are new to writing social stories, or social narratives, keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be perfect! You could even simplify things more by taking pictures of the new school, the playground, and even your child’s new classroom, the gym, the lunchroom, and other areas in the school. Most schools will give you permission to come in and take a few pictures before school starts.
You can find a general story I wrote about going to Kindergarten in my free social story library. You may need to add some pages to individualize the story for your child, but it could help get you started!
Use A Kindergarten All About Me Sheet
The third way you can prepare for Kindergarten is by putting together an “all about me” sheet for the teacher. This sheet will be full of all of your tips and tricks for your child. Take time over a couple of weeks this summer to notice all of the little things that are helpful as you parent your child. Think about some of the unconventional ways your child communicates with you. For example, if your child takes your hand and brings you to the kitchen to let you know they are hungry, include that on the sheet! Other things you will want to include are:
- The child’s favorite characters, shows, songs on YouTube, toys, and other activities they love. This is so helpful for me as an educator! If I know a child loves Cocomelon and also likes to watch a certain ABC song on YouTube on repeat…that can really help me plan activities to build a positive relationship with them at the beginning of the school year. So, be sure to jot down things like bubbles, toy cars, Paw Patrol toys..anything at all that they like.
- Another thing you will want to make note of favorite foods and what your child drinks. Be specific. Like “he likes to eat cheese balls and drink apple juice out of his Superman bottle with a straw”. Most educators and super accommodating because we know that with our autistic students, details matter. I’ve had so many students who will eat a certain brand of fruit snack, but not generic ones. They may eat all fruit snacks except for green ones. They may refuse a broken cracker. I’m telling you, these details help me so much as an educator!
- Are there word approximations or gestalts that your child uses to communicate with you? If these might be hard for someone less familiar with your child to understand, write them down! For example, if your child says “Are you okay” when they are hurt, be sure to put that down. If they say “whee” when they want to swing, let us know. Maybe they pull your hand and bring you to what they want or stand close to something they want. These all provide important information that can support a smoother transition.
- The same thing can be said for “triggers” or fears. I’ve had students who have a fear of certain songs on YouTube. Maybe they are scared of toys that make noise. If you can think of anything like this, go ahead and include it on the list.
In the all about me form, include your child’s picture and family information! It’s also helpful if you include information about where they might need some extra support. Things like, “can pull pants down in the bathroom, but needs help pulling underwear down”, or “he can take his shoes off, but needs help putting them back on”. You probably already talked about any safety issues during a transition meeting, but I’d be sure to write those things down again. If your child at risk of eloping from the classroom or playground? Do they put small things in their mouth? This will help refresh the teacher’s memory until he or she gets to know your child better. I created an “All About Me” template just for you. Grab it here.
I do have a free reinforcement inventory that you can download. It’s a quick little checklist that you can use to let the teacher know all of your child’s favorite things. Attach this to the “All about me” document. If you are an educator you can send this home for your students at the beginning of the school year!
Practice Adaptive Skills
The fourth way you can make the transition to Kindergarten smoother is by practicing some of those adaptive skills over the summer. Adaptive skills include activities of personal care or daily living. These are things like eating, dressing, mobility, and toileting. Think about which skills might help your child be a little more independent at school. If your child is not potty trained yet, work on a couple of steps, like pulling their pants and pull-up down in the bathroom, or sitting on the toilet. You can listen to episodes 18-21 for tons of potty training tips!
Another thing you could try to work on over the summer is sitting at a table to eat, or being able to unwrap any food that has wrappers. Other things that might be helpful are putting on a jacket and learning to zip. You could get the zipper started and have them pull it up the rest of the way. Hanging a backpack on a hook is another great skill that you can focus on before school starts.
Meet With The Kindergarten Team
The fifth suggestion for creating a smoother transition to kindergarten for your autistic child is to arrange to meet the teachers and visit the classroom ahead of time when possible. Many schools have implemented a K-start or its equivalent. This is awesome because it allows kids to come in and meet the teacher 1:1, with their family, before school starts. Be sure to ask if you can take some pictures of the classroom and the teacher when you are there so you can add them to your child’s social story. If your child’s school doesn’t have K-start meetings, reach out and see if there is an option to meet privately vs at the big open house night. The open house night can quickly turn into sensory overload, so my suggestion is to have your child visit the classroom at a different time if at all possible.
Start Your Back To School Routine Early
Here is a bonus tip! Think about starting a “back to school routine” a few weeks before school starts. When will you start the bedtime routine and wake-up routine during the school year? Be sure to start that ahead of time so your child can adjust to the new schedule. I know that sleep can be very unpredictable with autistic children, so it’s extra important to develop a bedtime routine and get it going ahead of time. This can really help prepare your child for the best start to their Kindergarten year!
If your child or student struggles with sleep, you are not alone. I reached out to the Autism Advocate Parenting Magazine about this and they are donating an article on this topic just for you. It will be linked in the show notes. If you haven’t heard me talk about the Autism Advocate Parenting Magazine before, I’m going to shout their name from the rooftops right now!! I love this magazine. I feel that it is equally relevant to parents and educators. They have articles ranging from current research to eloping, to gestalt language processors to sleep. I look forward to getting each month’s edition in my inbox at the beginning of each month. If you want to subscribe to learn more about the magazine or subscribe now, click here. Be sure to use the code “autismlittlelearners” at checkout for a discount.
I wish you the best of luck during your transition to Kindergarten. You can always come back to these tips every year, because they can help for any transition to a new grade at school!