Guest blogger: Julie Hornok
I walked into my oldest son, Andrew’s, kindergarten class and my heart sank. The room was brightly colored and beautifully decorated with care, but that wasn’t where my eyes were drawn. There were four tables with four kids each, and a table off to the side with only two kids. You can guess which table my son’s name tag was placed. It was his first day of kindergarten, and in my mind, he was already an outcast. My temperature began to boil, and I marched over to the teacher to demand he be switched. Before I reached her, someone stepped in front of me and unknowingly saved me from making a horrible mistake. I left without saying a word, and that teacher not only gave my son a wonderful kindergarten year, but later became a strong advocate for my daughter with autism when she needed it most.
Starting a new school year can be emotional for any parent, but the extra worry autism brings, can make us do or say things that might hinder our child’s experience at school. Here are eight things I learned in my three children’s kindergarten years to help you start your school year off right:
1. Establish open communication with your child’s teacher. Wait a few days into school and then send a note introducing yourself and sharing about your child. Do not make any demands at this time. Similar to a friendship, wait until the relationship is established to ask for anything. A positive relationship is the key to successfully being heard and getting what you need later.
2. Become an encourager of the teacher. Find out the teacher’s favorite drink, treat or collection and gift her with these things every once in awhile. Write notes of encouragement expressing your gratitude for teaching your child. Thank her for even the smallest thing she does right with your child. If the teacher feels supported and encouraged by you, this will reflect in her time with your child.
3. Under-react when you see or hear something you don’t like at the school. If your child is not in danger, under-react. Give the problem a few days to allow your emotions to settle down, then take the time to ask the teacher over the phone or face- to-face (e-mail and text can be easily misunderstood) about what happened in a non-accusatory way. There are often two sides to every story.
4. Look for volunteer opportunities that will get you inside the classroom. Look for opportunities that will allow you to interact or observe your child’s class as a “volunteer.” Do they need a helper for centers, library or lunch? Can you assist in an art project, help implement a class party or chaperone a field trip? Offer your time to the teacher…she will be grateful for the help. You will learn valuable information about your child’s classroom structure and which kids are potential friend material.
5. Ask for the schedule of your child’s day. This will help you to ask simple pointed questions that will open up dialogue with your child about his day. If he is pre-verbal, this will give you the information you need for specific questions to ask on his communication log with the teachers.
6. Mentally prepare yourself to be extra patient with your child’s behavior the first month of school. Adapting to a new schedule, new classroom, new kids and new expectations is tough for any kid, but for our kids with autism, it can be completely overwhelming. Try to take a step back, give more grace and less demands at home than usual while he adjusts.
7. Make a strict plan that you can stick to before and after-school for screen time. The research is out: too much screen time is not good for kids. Make the rules and be consistent with them, so your child knows exactly what to expect. Maybe require physical exercise before and after screen time or plan a family activity instead. Expect push back from your child at the beginning, but like all things, it will pass if you stay consistent.
8. Take some “me time” at least once a week. We often care for ourselves last, but we are better parents when we are doing the things that we enjoy. It’s not selfish. It is ok to take a little, so you will have the energy to give. We think there is no extra time in the day, but finding some time for yourself will benefit the whole family.
Soon after school began, my son’s kindergarten teacher re-arranged the tables, and Andrew was no longer at a table for two. He made friends, loved school and is now a senior in high school. Looking back, I know whoever unknowingly blocked my path to the teacher that morning did me a huge favor. I learned to step-back, take a breath and approach the classroom with a more level head. Hopefully these eight things will help you do that too.
Julie Hornok is an author, speaker, event planner and advocate for autism. Her writing has appeared in Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, AutismSpot, Thrive Magazine, Literary Mama, Chicken Soup for the Soul series and many more. Her first book, United in Autism: Finding Strength Inside the Spectrum, will be released in October 2018.