Best Practice for Back to School

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As a parent, you want the new school year for your child to kick off with success. But if your child has autism or other developmental delays, this is not always so easy. Here is behaviorist’s spin on one of the most common and crucial tips for setting your child up for success. In cross-comparing the many lists of suggestions, some appear very frequently such as setting kids sleep schedules back, making time for homework/reading each day and creating concrete rules about screen time. However, there is one tip that appears across every single list I have found.


Visit the school before the first day.  

What is important to keep in mind here is that the experience your child has while visiting the school is key.  From a behavioral standpoint, when introducing a child to a new experience, activity or item, we think about the notion of ‘pairing’.  

Pairing is the process that occurs when one event, experience or item can influence another by the way they are paired or experienced together.  When one very familiar item or activity is associated with something that is new or unfamiliar, the unfamiliar item or activity can “take on” or be associated with the same feeling that the familiar item or activity produces for the person.  

Here is an example. Imagine you have never been on a train before but you have had a bad experience with a power outage and lights going out in the past.

If there is a mechanical problem on the train during your first ride resulting in the lights going out and the train needing to stop for a while, you may be less likely to ride the train in the future. In this case, your first train ride (unfamiliar) was paired with the negative experience of the lights going out (familiar).  

Conversely, if you love the band Maroon 5 and get on the train to find the entire band sitting there, you will likely associate that positive experience with your first train ride and look forward to train rides in the future. In this case, the unfamiliar scenario feels positive because you are associating it with something familiar that is positive.

This works the same way for your child.  When planning the first visit to your child’s school, consider the type of experience you want your child to have.  What sort of activities, items or experiences can you arrange to ensure that your child’s first visit to the school will be paired with good things?  
Simple rules of pairing for scholastic success:
  1. Follow your child’s lead
  2. Avoid presenting demands but instead, narrate and comment on what they are doing
  3. Show them that the ‘good stuff’ and fun things can happen at the playground, in the classroom and with the teacher
  4. Provide verbal praise that describes what they are doing well (e.g., “Wow, you did a great job going across the monkey bars!”)
  5. Have fun!

Here are some thoughts about using pairing during your visit:

The playground:  Visiting the playground is an easy way to begin the pairing process.   Many children will quickly find something familiar they enjoy about a playground and want to engage in that activity.  During this time, have fun with your child!  Run around, explore, play hide and seek, swing on the swings and most importantly- follow your child’s lead!  Avoid rushing them through their play time to go into the building or making any demands on their play.  Allow your child to truly enjoy this experience.

Visiting the teacher and classroom: A visit into the building to meet the teacher and see the classroom is likely to go more smoothly if you have already had a fun experience on the playground.  Remember what you are learning about pairing:  do not place demands on your child which could cause them to associate this first meeting with doing less preferred things.

Remember your child’s interests and priorities; if your child LOVES to read aloud, having him or her read to their teacher might be a good idea. However, if your child finds reading to be a challenge, this would not be a good activity for the first meeting. You may also consider letting the teacher know about your child’s interests and preferences in advance. Many teachers will be happy to have a silly game or a favorite stuffed animal on their desk to show your child.  You are now helping your teacher with the pairing process!

We wish you all the best with using pairing to make your child’s first encounters with their school a success this year!  For more information about transitioning into school or any other questions you may have, feel free to contact us at Constellations Behavioral Services.  ​

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