Helping Students With Autism Transition Into a New School Year
Parents and teachers can minimize the stress with some joint prep before school starts.
When my son was an elementary student, he struggled with transitioning into a new class at the beginning of each school year. It could take him weeks to get used to a new classroom and curriculum, and sometimes months to develop a trusting relationship with his new teacher.
Over time we discovered some tactics to make the change easier for him, helping him develop a relationship with his new teacher more quickly and transition into a new classroom and curriculum more smoothly.
Transitioning to a New Teacher
In his early elementary years, it would take my son up to six months before he was comfortable with and able to trust his new teacher. To shorten that time, we worked with the school to introduce him to his new teacher before the start of the school year. Our ideal approach was to have my son meet his new teacher before the end of the previous year so that he had the summer to get used to him or her.
That was not always possible, however, so some years we met a few days before the school year started. We wanted to ensure this meeting happened before the the first day of school when he was also processing all the stimuli of a new classroom, in addition to the social weight of being there with other students.
We learned that this opportunity to meet the teacher before school started helped him develop a relationship and trust much faster.
Transitioning to a New Classroom
Similarly, it was helpful if my son could visit his new classroom prior to the end of the previous year if possible, or if not at least a few days before the new school year started.
A classroom visit was an opportunity for him to get used to the sight, sounds, feel, and even smells of a new classroom without the pressure of focusing on the lesson or on social issues at the same time.
I took the opportunity to review the classroom for issues that I had learned might cause problems for my son. For example, if his desk or storage cubby was too close to the classroom door, it caused him stress during transitional times of the day when students rushed in and out.
I talked to his teacher about placing his desk in a location where he could stim (or make repetitive body movements that helped him manage stress) without disturbing others; where he would not be distracted by noise from the hallway or playground; and where he was close enough to the teacher to engage with him or her and refocus as needed throughout the day.
I found the best approach was to take a step-by-step walk through the day with the teacher, and together envision things that might come up. This allowed us to make changes that day, rather than make changes on the fly after the school year started and after my son was experiencing stress.
Transitioning to New Curriculum
We would also request a meeting early in the new year with the new teacher to go over his individualized education program (IEP) accommodations and ensure that we were all on the same page. We made sure the new teacher, my son’s speech or special education teachers, and his case manager were there, as well as his previous year’s teacher, if possible.
In these meetings, we took the opportunity to talk with his new teacher and his previous teacher about my son’s strengths and challenges in the classroom. We also discussed the lessons learned and creative approaches previous teachers had used that were successful. We would focus on his areas of growth and how to nurture them, challenging behaviors and how to manage them, and what worked and didn’t work the previous year and why.
Depending on staff availability, this meeting could be held at the same time he was introduced to his new teacher and classroom as mentioned above, or it could be a separate meeting after the school year had started. It did not have to be an official IEP meeting, and we would work with the school to set it up as needed.
A Smoother Transition
Helping my son transition into a new school year required coordinating with his school and new teacher before the start of the school year. By introducing him to his new teacher and classroom, and doing a little preparation with school staff around his IEP and curriculum, we found that his transition was much smoother and more successful for both him and his teacher.