With the weather cooling down and everyone back in school, the stressors may be starting to accumulate for some of your families and households. Though many families are excited and relieved about their kids returning to full days in school, and many college students are looking forward to life on campus, still more people are starting to feel the stress of new routines and expectations piling up.
In this post I will touch on many common stressors and struggles of the transition back to school, as well as some tips and simple changes that can help you or your family cope with the changes and establish routines that support regulation.
We will start by breaking down some of the most common struggles so that they are relatable and easily understood. We will then discuss some solutions that might help you and your family to deal with these challenges. Read on to discover how some simple shifts can reduce anxiety, meltdowns, and school refusal!
The first and biggest shift for many a student when going from summer to fall is the schedule. Some grade-school children may have gotten up earlier or later depending on daycare or camps, college kids famously became nocturnal over the summer months, and almost everyone enjoyed a lot more time free from homework and after-school activities like sports or band practice.
It can be a big and hard change when your body has gotten used to a certain rhythm of sleep and wake time. Have you ever traveled far from your hometown and experienced jet lag due to time differences, or had to get up at an obscenely early hour to get to an event or appointment on time? That feeling of exhaustion really sticks with you all day, no matter how much caffeine you get.
Neurodivergent (ND) children and teens often have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, and studies have shown that many ND young people have a biologically different circadian rhythm than their peers. If you’ve been able to spend a month or two really letting your body follow its own schedule, or if you’ve gotten used to being able to take mornings slowly, the rush of having to be at school by a certain time can be quite the challenge for kids and parents alike.
In addition, time that over the summer was spent on playing, napping, reading, daydreaming, and relaxing is now expected to be “better spent” on homework, projects, or after-school activities. We already know that ND brains need significantly more down time than typical brains, and the sudden increased demands on that afternoon and evening “free time” can make people feel frustrated, overloaded, and poorly regulated.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, autumn brings falling temps along with falling leaves. Suddenly we need socks, long sleeves, sweaters, and hats. Cooler temperatures can exacerbate some conditions like asthma and eczema and make some regulating activities like swimming more difficult to access.
The days shorten and parks and playgrounds close earlier. When heating systems kick on, the air even smells different inside! And don’t forget cracked hands and chapped lips – these can all be very distressing to kids with sensory sensitivities.
Mealtime is often a struggle for ND children and adults alike, and when it’s back to school time, we often have a non-family audience for the first time in months. Instead of being able to take your safe foods and eat them in your safe space, there are cafeterias with their lines, noises, smells, and crowds.
Other people might wonder at, or make fun of, safe foods and limited diets, and even well-meaning teachers and staff might make comments that are upsetting or distressing for a young person. In addition, some safe foods that were available during the summer, like berries or fresh fruits, begin to fall out of season, making it more challenging to create a balanced plate that your child will actually eat.
Managing Homework Expectations
With the return to school comes the return of homework – this is a huge added demand and burden on your child’s executive functioning. Not only do they have to survive the school day, which can be sensory and social hell, but also have to keep their attention and focus up once they are finally home, sometimes for hours on end.
Keeping track of long-term assignments due, staring down the barrel of class presentations, and struggling to function in group projects are all added stressors on top of the day-to-day homework grind.
New Self-Advocacy Demands
With the return to school often comes a new set of adults and peers – new classmates, new teachers, new admin staff and support staff. While all the people around your child last year may have been in-tune with their needs and communication style by the end of the year, the addition of new people to the mix is like starting from scratch in several aspects.
This is a whole new set of individuals with whom your child will likely need to advocate for their needs. Will they be understanding, accommodating, even willing to listen? Will a parent or guardian have to step in? Will your child’s needs even be believed? All of this can be really scary!
So, What Are Some Solutions?
We’ve covered a lot of areas of stress, and I hope that this post has so far helped you to understand why your child may be struggling more to self-regulate, stay on task, and stay positive during the first couple months of the school year.
In short, there are schedule demands, weather and temperature differences, mealtime stress at school, more demands around homework, and the need to navigate your support needs with a whole new group of people. That’s a lot on a brain that is still developing! Read on to learn about how you can support your child both in school and out.
The first thing I like to help families with is learning to give their child a way to effectively communicate both their energy levels and their distress tolerance throughout the day, week, and month. I commonly use a gas tank and engine temperature for energy and tolerance, or alternatively a battery and a boiling pot.
If your battery is empty (low energy, ability to do things, executive functioning all used up), you may not have the ability to complete a chore, go do another activity, engage in a conversation. And if your engine is overheated or your pot is boiling over, the slightest provocation or negative sensory experience may lead to a meltdown.
Teach your children about these concepts, and model them through the day! You can draw or print visuals to have around the house, or even just use a simple 1 – 5 scale where a person can hold up fingers. Before you go to make dinner, maybe say out loud, “wow, my battery is almost dead. I might need some help to get all this done!” If your dog is barking and your child is yelling, you could express that “I feel like my pot is boiling over, so I’m going to step outside and take a few deep breaths.”
Practice check-ins with your child while things are calm, so it’s not a foreign concept when things are stressful. And most importantly, if your child says their battery is low or their engine is overheating, believe them and help them use some coping skills!
Help Communicate With Adults
As parents, we often need to advocate for our children in a school setting. You may need to educate school staff about what happens if your child hits E or if the pot boils over, and give them their own tools to help your child regulate.
If school seems to be a constant stress, you may want to talk about an IEP or 504 plan with the school to make sure your child has accommodations to succeed. Give your child scripts to use in stressful situations, and make sure the staff knows what they are and what they mean.
Give Them a Break
Homework and chores are an unavoidable part of life in the education and family systems, but do they need to happen right away? In my previous post on Surviving The Storms, I talked about having some low- or no-demand time right when your child gets home to help them recharge their battery before heading into the evening’s activities. This is doubly important for ND children! Let them fill up their tank and cool off that engine before they go straight into homework or sports.
Be a Sensory Sleuth
If changing temperatures and different wardrobes are hard on your child, can you help them figure out why? Is it difficulty with temperature regulation (very common for ND people), struggles with the different weights and textures of clothes, strong or different smells (pumpkin spice everywhere!!)?
Help your child specify what is hard for them, and be patient while they are figuring it out. Often we don’t know that a thing is distressing us, just that there is Bad Input that needs to stop!
For stressful mealtimes, the sensory sleuthing can also help you pin down solutions. Some children, if they are extra sensitive to the noise, smells, and bustle of a cafeteria, may be permitted to eat lunch in a classroom, library, or office. Are they allowed to bring a friend with them to avoid the social isolation, if that’s what they want?
Also, make sure your teachers and staff know that your child may have special needs around safe foods, and that the teachers are NOT to comment on how healthy or “unhealthy” a lunch is. Remember, fed is best goes for big kids and adults as well as babies, and it’s better to send your child to school with a brownie and chips than for them to go hungry all day.
Customize Your Approach
All of this advice only goes as far as its effectiveness, and many families can struggle with figuring out the root cause of distress and then with determining which solutions will be effective. Never fear – individualized help and support is available. I have worked with students from Pre-K through college for over 13 years, and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience as well as my own Autistic perspective!
If you are worried about your child succeeding in school, or about their behavior when they get home in the afternoons, contact me today to chat about ways that I might be able to support you. It is possible for things to get easier with love, patience, understanding, and consistency, and I am more than happy to help you provide all of these in a way that specifically supports your child and their needs!