Do you remember what it was like to be a kid on the last day of school? What a mix of emotions and memories.
The sadness of saying goodbye to a beloved teacher … the understanding that you won’t see your friends every day…the anticipation of warm days biking, swimming, running and playing… the sheer joy of months of delicious freedom.
Because I now work in a school, these feelings have never fully left me. Now, however, I get to experience them from a different perspective: as an adult, helping my students to manage their own complex emotions.
As the head of The Quaker School at Horsham, I’ve realized that, for children with complex challenges like autism, ADHD or sensory processing disorder, the joyful anticipation surrounding summer break is often overshadowed by the uncertainty of change.
Saying goodbye to friends and teachers may feel catastrophic. The unknown of the next school year can be cause for deep worry. The new summer routines may induce high stress.
While there may be very few universal truths in special education, I would say that one of those is that transitions are difficult for children with complex challenges.
With the arrival of summer break, several transitions loom: the transition from school; the transition to camp, Extended School Year (ESY) services, or traveling; and — before we know it — the transition back to school.
When making the major transition to summer break, here are 5 things you can do to help your child with complex challenges:
#1: Start Counting Down.
You know what may be more difficult than a transition? A surprise transition. Counting down the days until the end of school helps your child get used to the idea of change over time.
Start crossing the days off the calendar when there are 20 school days remaining. As you cross off each date, talk about your plans for the summer and why this is exciting. Use positive language, and have your child write on the calendar one thing they are looking forward to each day.
#2: Create a Social Story™.
A Social Story is a simple way to describe a new situation and model the appropriate responses to that situation. By reading a Social Story to a child, we help new events or activities feel more predictable. Children no longer have to imagine what might happen; they are reassured after seeing characters in the story experience the same types of life events.
Below is an example of a Social Story I wrote for summer break. (If you wish to create your own,The New Social Story Book by Carol Gray is a fantastic resource.)
After June 8, the school will close for the summer.
I will go back to school at the end of August.
Everyone likes having a break from school.
I will have fun during summer break.
I will miss seeing my friends every day, but I will have playdates during the summer.
I will be sad to leave my teachers and friends, and I will be happy I can go swimming every day at camp.
#3: Plan and Review.
Unstructured time is certainly important for developing executive functioning, social skills and imagination in children. However, too much unstructured time can be very difficult for children with complex challenges who often crave routine and sameness.
I encourage you to have a plan for the summer days and share the plan ahead of time with your child. Will they be attending camp, ESY, staying with their grandparents, or spending fun days with mom or dad? Once you know how your child will be spending their days, make sure you review the plan with them so they know what lies ahead.
#4: Schedule Playdates.
Your child is going to miss their school friends, so knowing they will still get together with them over the summer could be a great comfort. If your child is going to be home, try to create opportunities for them to see other children from their school.
#5: Visit Your Child’s New Classroom + Teacher.
While not all schools may be as accessible and accommodating as The Quaker School, it can’t hurt to ask to visit! Reach out to your school’s division head or principal to ask if you can bring your child to meet their new teacher and see their classroom.
Demystifying what is to come later will help relieve your child’s anxiety. For really anxious children, you can take pictures of the room and the teacher and put them in your Social Story™. The summer may not seem so scary when they know what to expect afterward.
Finally: don’t forget to have fun! Summer is a warm, sunny, bountiful and glorious time of year. Enjoy it with your child! Let us know your summer plans in the comments below, or over on Facebook.