I have previously shared a few ways to manage back to school anxiety. The ideas I shared in that post included:
- Using social stories to introduce new concepts & expectations;
- setting up timetables and routines;
- talking about the first day back and what to expect;
- adjusting your expectations of behaviour; and
- remaining calm and projecting positivity.
More recently I shared some organisational tips to make the return to school a little less stressful plus some tips for helping your kids better organise themselves for school. Used as a combined strategy, these ideas will definitely help your kids better adjust to the return to school and to the resumption of routine.
However, as much as organisation can help reduce back to school anxiety, it may not be enough on its own to address your children’s needs. So I wanted to suggest another 3 ways you can help reduce back to school anxiety and help your kids achieve a greater level of calm.
3 ways to reduce back to school anxiety
Identify & address their individual sensory needs to increase self-regulation & calm
Each child will have individual sensory needs. Most kids with ASD will have sensory processing disorder which means the way they receive sensory input from their surroundings is either under-developed or over-developed. This can also be the case with kids without a recognised diagnosis.
In our family, my son is a sensory seeker – he needs more feedback from his environment than he can usually get so he constantly touches things and spins around and jumps up on things just so he can feel more centred. He has a very high pain threshold too and is ALWAYS moving in some way – which isn’t the best combination for school!
Over the years we’ve found the following techniques work well to help address my son’s sensory needs and reduce his anxiety:
- Deep touch pressure – where I lay a pillow or cushion on top of him and use virtually my entire body weight to give him deep pressure (which he calls a squish). This can also be achieved by using a weighted blanket or vest, rolling the child in a blanket or quilt and giving them a bear hug.
- Jumping on the trampoline – my son went through a phase where he jumped on the trampoline every morning before school which helped calm him down before heading off each day. He also benefits from the use of a trampoline at school should he require further calming during the day.
- Massage – we’ve used massage in the past, in conjunction with meditation techniques, to provide deep touch pressure. Encouraging your child to concentrate on each part of their body as it receives the massage also introduces them to meditation concepts.
- Joint compressions – we were taught this technique by our OT and it really works well to provide more sensory input and to provide calm. Starting with the fingers, you gently pull on each joint as you work your way along the body to the toes. My daughter was never a huge fan of this one but my son loves it!
On the other hand, my daughter is a sensory avoider – she is overly sensitive to pain and to touch. She finds loud noise, as well as constant background noise, overwhelming. And she tends to find calm seeking oral stimulation. So we’ve found a few different techniques to help her:
- Ear muffs/headphones – my daughter has a pair of earmuffs in her school bag so she can use them when noise gets too overwhelming in the classroom, playground or in the hall at assembly time. She also tends to use headphones a lot at home to block out background noise when in her room.
- Brushing – again under the guidance of our OT we undertook the Wilbarger Protocol which involved brushing the skin a number of times a day, in combination with joint compressions. This protocol is designed to decrease sensitivity to touch and helped our daughter better deal with her sensory sensitivities. Although she was never a fan of the joint compressions!
- Chewy jewellery – my daughter chews when she is stressed. Over the years she has destroyed the collars on her shirts and has even bitten holes through the front of t-shirts as well. Giving her something specific to chew on, such as a chewy necklace, has helped keep her calm as well as saved further clothing from being destroyed.
- Weighted blanket – going to sleep under a weighted blanket provides my daughter with a sense of security and calm. It protects her from unexpected sensory input and helps her get to sleep sooner.
As you can see it’s really important to identify the individual sensory needs of your kids and to do your best to address them. This will make a HUGE difference to their levels of anxiety and stress, particularly when heading back to school.
Use their special interests to engage them in conversation about school
We all know it can be a challenge to get ANY child to open up about what goes on at school. But this is definitely a greater challenge for kids on the spectrum. And if you can get anything out of them at all, it will more likely be a trivial detail about the bad word that so and so said in class, or how their jumper scratched them all day, or how annoying it was when their teacher used the squeaky marker on the whiteboard.
Conversation isn’t my kids’ strong suit but I have a better chance of getting them to open up when I start talking to them about a special interest. My son is currently mad for tennis and cricket so asking him a question about his favourite tennis player or the performance of his chosen cricket team gives me the opportunity to bring the conversation around (eventually) to his school day or to how he is feeling about heading back there.
Similarly, my daughter’s interests in Pokemon, Minecraft, Skylanders, Shopkins and YouTube tutorials allows me to open up a conversation with her based on these special interests too.
Now this is not a foolproof plan and my kids will sometimes resist my attempts to engage them in my focus of conversation (because, let’s face it, it’s not theirs!). And it’s also prudent to wait until a calm moment to engage them – you do need to pick your time wisely lest you stress them out further by pushing too hard.
But this approach could be well worth a try in order to get your kids to open up about their fears and worries and start the process of reassuring them. This is not a quick win approach by any means but, in time, this could yield some real rewards.
Consider postponing the re-introduction of homework and after school activities
School can be stressful in so many ways for all kids. There’s the academic challenges in the classroom and the social challenges in the playground. Plus the transitions between subjects, potential changes in routine during the day and sensory challenges of everyday life.
Our kids use up so much energy just getting through the average school day that it’s no surprise that we, as parents, are often the subject of their pent-up frustrations when they get home. And when you add anxiety for the unknowns of a new school year onto that pile of stress, you have one very wound up child.
To help your kids ease back into the regular routine of the school term, consider talking to their teacher and postponing the re-introduction of homework for a couple of weeks. This will give your kids some extra time in the afternoon to find ways to de-stress and recover from the demands of the day.
After a couple of weeks they should be in a better state to recommence their normal homework load without the undue stress of the start of the school year on top of everything else.
Delaying the recommencement of after school activities is another approach that may help reduce back to school anxiety. For the same reasons discussed above, setting aside time in the afternoon to recover from the stress of the day will definitely make it easier for kids to cope with the demands of the return to school.
These 3 approaches, in conjunction with the others I have shared previously, have definitely helped reduce back to school anxiety in our kids during the first weeks of term. I hope they can go some way to helping your kids adjust back to the routine of school with less stress and anxiety too.
What approach do you take to reduce back to school anxiety in your kids?