Helping Low Incidence Students Go Back to School in the “New Normal”

Adjusting to change can be difficult for everyone. For students with autism, change is often especially hard. It can cause high anxiety levels, as well as behavioral and engagement issues. 

Female school-based therapist in mask hands book to elementary school girl in mask in school observing coronavirus precautions.How, then, can you help these students successfully start a new school year when coronavirus precautions are in place?

Remember: These students may still be processing the trauma of last spring’s COVID-related school closures, which upended their schedules and disrupted their related services. Now that they may be used to staying home, going back to school poses even more challenges. 

And, you can’t count on the fact that pre-pandemic, school was always a known place. When students are expected to observe the schools’ precautions against the spread of coronavirus, they may react with more frequent outbursts.

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we’ve been asking ourselves how we can help low incidence students with autism return to school as seamlessly as possible. We hope our answers will help you, too.

Introduce the School’s Coronavirus Precautions Ahead of Time

The more information you can share with families prior to students’ coming back to school, the more you can reduce anxiety and behavioral outbreaks for students.

One sound strategy is creating visuals to share with families. Send them to students’ homes before the first day of class if possible. Families can use the visuals to talk students through the changes they’ll experience at the start of this new school year.

Some visual back to school resources to help students anticipate and deal with changes include:

  • Classroom Maps
    Use actual photos of the classroom’s new set up—its rearranged desks, removed furniture, sparsely decorated walls, and so on—to show students what to expect when they arrive. Such changes will likely be challenging enough without coming as complete surprises!
  • Classroom and Teacher Photo Boards
    All classmates may not be coming back to school at the same time, or even on the same days. Some may have opted for remote learning, if available. If possible, make photo boards picturing everyone. The boards not only prepare students to recognize their classmates’ faces when others do return, but can also reinforce a sense of class unity. Don’t forget teacher photo boards, too. If teachers will be alternating between classes, create a visual weekly schedule with pictures of which teachers will be present each day.
  • Visual Schedules
    Coronavirus school precautions mean new schedules. Create a visual timeline of the new school day. Include images of washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, temperature checks, mask breaks, movement to other classrooms, and any other new procedures. And, distinguish, as appropriate, which weekdays students will be in school and which ones they’ll be at home.
  • Safety Signs and Posters
    Make individual signs and posters to display around the classroom showing the new rules: washing and sanitizing hands, wearing masks, keeping six feet apart, and so on. Since many school walls will be barer (giving virulent droplets fewer surfaces to cling to), make your signage eye-catching, colorful, and kid-friendly!
  • Social Stories
    Put together social stories visualizing the classroom’s new physical and behavioral rules and expectations in concrete, specific ways. You can also create stories about the start of a new school year in general. The coronavirus disease hasn’t made all the normal “back to school stress” go away—it’s only intensifying them— stories about starting the school year right could be more important than ever.

Emphasize the Familiar When Welcoming Students Back to School

While the 2020-21 academic year will be like none other, it will also, in some ways, be much like every other. Make the most of the continuities as a strategy for helping kids cope with the discontinuities.

Female teacher stands at front of classroom where students sit at desks six feet apart, whiteboard reads “Welcome Back to School.”Help students identify and connect with what’s the same, not just what’s different. For example:

  • If the number or location of desks has changed, try to maintain the actual desk and decorations students know and use to find their seat.
  • If the number of students in the classroom has changed, put your picture board of all classmates in the classroom so students can recognize each other as more of them return.
  • If teachers are changing during the week, display your picture board of teachers on a weekly calendar so the students keep seeing all their instructors’ faces.
  • If students can no longer share supplies, manipulatives, or toys, set up individualized bins for each student containing their favorite items.

You can find some form of familiarity in all changes. Use it to your—and to your students’—advantage.

Download and Use PTS’ Back-to-School Resources for the “New Normal”

Students with autism need extra visual support, emotional reinforcement, and plenty of wait time to adjust to school coronavirus precautions.

Be sure to:

  • Keep presenting your visuals to all students during the morning routine in order to minimize anxiety and encourage adjustment.
  • Be sure safety signs and classroom posters are clearly visible, and review them with students on a daily basis.
  • Continue reading and reviewing the social stories about change you’ve prepared so students keep getting visual, verbal, and physical feedback on how they’re doing.

These changes are new to everyone. And, in time, the “new normal” will simply become the norm.

If you’d like PTS’ ready-made visual supports related to going back to school during the pandemic, click here for free and immediate access to our downloadable back to school resources for administrators, therapists, teachers, and parents and other caregivers. We’re all in this together!

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