One Deep Breath And Back To School

I have a lot of respect for parents and educators who do everything they can to set their child up for success at school. Many spend countless hours modifying curricula, gathering materials and building documentation that will structure their child’s learning. Let me be really clear that I am in no way underestimating the value and arduous nature of that. But in my ten years as a fly on a classroom wall, and also as an auntie to a spectacular 13-year old on the autism spectrum, I’ve found a few things along the way that can help make the transition into a new school year a little easier:

Nonverbal Communication

The first week of school is an anxious time for everyone. My tendency has always been to be *super-positive* and cheer lead, asking ridiculous questions that have no answers like:

“Are you in middle school now? Wow! What does that feel like?”

While well meaning, this kind of noise has the potential to create even more anxiety for your child. There is a way to be positive, without talking so much. The key is to be neutrally engaged (not-so-easy for me in the beginning!) and use lots of non-verbal communication. Try to take in information about the way your child is experiencing school, rather than putting it out.

RDI really helped me learn to do that.


Think of your child’s school supply list as what their teacher need the children to have for the school year. Of course we have to buy the items, but going one step further, what does your child need? What materials will help her organize her stuff?

One year, we added one huge six-inch binder with zippered dividers. We hole-punched the folders that the teacher required and put them all in the one binder. This way my nephew only ever had to grab one thing at the beginning of a class and put away one thing at the end of it. During homework was a great opportunity for he and I to collaboratively organize the binder. It helped him take ownership of his belongings removed from the time crunch and sensory pressure of the classroom.

The First Few Days

One of the best things we ever did was to get permission to photograph the classroom, kids and teachers. This gives the child an opportunity to take photos of what’s meaningful to them and use the camera as a filter to process a lot of information that’s coming at them as they adjust to a new environment.

After school, during your child’s downtime, you can look at the pictures together and see what they see. Maybe certain kids or specific things in the classroom caught their eye? Invite your child to come up with a word or two that can give you an idea of what they’re actually encoding about their surroundings at school. This activity is mostly non-verbal and child initiated. Let them be the expert for a change and invite you in to their experience.

Find Your Friends Too

Who is your “go-to” person at your child’s school? Who really understands their needs? Start the conversation there. It could be someone in the office, the principal herself, or a single teacher teaching a single class – confidence is what makes the world go ‘round. Small, tangible bits of progress fills everyone’s tank and can be used as a template for other relationships and subjects within your child’s school life.

Breathe – pace yourself – and let that reflect in how you approach this coming year with your child. The next few weeks are only a starting point. Be mindful and deliberate about where you put your energy – your child will thank you for it.


Sara Winter was a classroom aide to kids on the spectrum for ten years, and  the founder of SquagTM . She lives with her husband and two young sons in Toronto.