The first day of school!

In this article Victoria Hatton, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Inclusion Teacher in a mainstream secondary school, explores how to support children and young people with autism on their first day of school. 

Victoria has worked in both primary and secondary school settings, and writes a blog about how to incorporate and celebrate everyone's differences in the classroom.

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The First Day

The first day of school is almost upon us. As a teacher I couldn’t be more excited - that first day is my favourite time of the whole year! I’ll be dressing up as a pirate to launch our new class theme. Our room will have new decorations and there will be small gifts on my students’ desks to welcome them back. I didn’t do end of term gifts this year for either my Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) or my students. I wanted to start the year with a buzz, so I’ve saved them for September. 

Why? Because although the second of September is the most exciting day in my calendar, it’s the most difficult one for my students. Walking through the door on the first day of school can be a challenging prospect for any student; for a student with autism those fears are amplified multiple times. 

Whether it’s a new school or a new teacher, both mean enormous change. There are new faces to contend with, new voices, new desks, new rules and new routines. The old predictable routine has ended and in its place is a scary ocean of possibilities where anything could happen.

Making the most of change

As a teacher that ocean of possibilities is just what you can make the most of. Students expect change at this time of year; they are prepared for it. If there are changes that need to be made to their routine or to expectations, then this is the best time to do it.  

The first day is critically important; consciously or subconsciously you will be setting the tone and routine for the rest of the year. So if there are things you allow on the first day (e.g. going to lunch early) that aren’t going to be allowed for the rest of the year, make sure you make it really clear so the student isn’t set up to fail on subsequent days.

Get to know the child or young person
In order to exploit that ocean of possibilities you need to know as much about the student as you possibly can. LSAs, previous teachers and parents are a wealth of information. The more you talk to them and listen to them, the more prepared you will be. Find out which things the student loves, which they find hard and above all what helps them to feel better when they become overwhelmed. 

Many students with autism have a special interest, a topic they feel passionately about and that they know in depth. Knowing about and understanding a student’s special interest is a great first step to building a relationship with them.

•    For younger students, put a picture of their favourite character on their coat hook
•    Ask older students to create a presentation on something that interests them

A quick conversation about that special interest will also go a long way to help if the student starts to become upset during the day. Special interests have a calming effect, and will really help the student to understand that you care.

Be consistent and clear
If you really want to send a student with autism home happy after the first day, show them clearly that you are fair, always and unequivocally so. 

My students love rules and they hate it when they are broken. So whatever the boundaries, rewards and consequences are in your class, make them clear. Students need to know that you are treating them fairly, and everyone else fairly too.

When things go wrong
If things go wrong - and they might, first days are hard - take the time to explain what has gone wrong and why. Explore ways of doing things differently next time. 

A student with autism won’t necessarily understand, for instance, which part of their behaviour was deemed ‘rude’, especially if they feel they were being truthful. They may not know how to approach the situation next time. Be explicit

 “I know you don’t like it when you see people’s stomachs coming out of their T-Shirts but it made Sarah feel really sad when you called her fat. Next time do you think you could ask her if she would tuck her T-shirt in?”

You have provided validation that it was okay for the student to be upset, but have also explained why they’ve upset their friend, and what they could do better the next time. Social stories and comic strip conversations can be really helpful for helping to students to understand what to do at tricky times.

Highlight the positives
As the day draws to a close, make sure, whatever has happened, that the student leaves knowing that you like them. Many students with autism are perfectionists and will dwell on what they did wrong. 

Showing them that you value all the things they did right is really important. Smile at them as they leave. Neutral expressions are often really hard for students with autism to understand.

Develop a way of keeping parents in the loop. Parents, like students, love praise. Tell them the great things their child did well that day, but also tell them what they found difficult. Parents want kindness but they also want reality -if they are in the loop then they are in a much better position to support both their child and the school.
Above all, enjoy it! First days are what memories are made of. A child with autism is above all a child. Enjoy having them in your class and getting to know them. Because as I will be telling my students on the 2nd of September, this year is going to be the best one yet!

Differentiation is Easy

Author: Victoria Hatton

Date added: 25th August 2015