Preparing Your Child with Learning Differences for the Transition from Elementary School
So, you are getting your child ready for intermediate school — or whatever your school district calls that point at which kids leave the more protected world of elementary without quite jumping into the deep end of high school. Just as this intermediate phase of schooling prepares students for greater challenges ahead, you can prepare your child with learning differences for new expectations with practice on some specific additions to the school day as well as social skills and independence.
If lockers will be part of your child’s school experience now, talk to the school about where your child’s locker will be. Ask for a top locker, near a safe room, at the end of the row. A bottom locker in a cramped space can trap your child during the stampede.
The school may be able to program the padlock to open without all the spinning right and left. It may also be possible to get a locker that works with a key instead of a combination. If a combination is unavoidable, have your child practice at home with a combination lock so it won’t be a new and confusing experience.
Confirm with the school whether your child will have to change from street clothes to gym clothes. If so, it will mean dealing with another lock, and more significantly, with changing in front of other students. Body privacy and sensory overload can vary greatly child-to-child. I talk about this psychology with my son, and we practice motor planning each time he changes into a uniform (basketball, taekwondo, and swimming).
The transition from elementary school may involve moving up to a bigger bus. Try these ideas on backward chaining to prepare for school bus independence.
To prepare for electives, I had my son start percussion lessons months before. I will also get my (previously nonverbal) son to choir practice twice a week. I discovered last year he could sing Christmas songs with the other kids while sitting in a restaurant booth.
He continues to play sports with great enthusiasm, without hope of making the very-competitive school teams. Oh, but somehow, if he could earn any position in choir/band/music, that is my mom goal for him. Time will tell if he is motivated to achieve this for himself. In our school, the subcultures of band and choir are quite nurturing, with a high potential of being accepted. A wonderful natural consequence.
To boost social skills, we host potluck parties and play groups all summer, including a growing number of neurotypical peers who orbit his world. We include kids from Scouts, sports, worship, and school. We include the kids who will ride the big bus with him next year, with the hope of on-purpose bus-buddy. I do ask the children to help my son on the bus when he is out of earshot.
All the kids benefit from summer-long reconnection — kids of all learning styles and strengths. But I have a selfish reason for hosting: the kids now look to my son as a social connector himself. My hope is that these relationships hold up during the rough years of puberty and into high school.
Always invite the parents and siblings. Your village will grow. I teach my son to be in charge of growing his social opportunities. We also talk about “they said no” so he can learn to be comfortable in his own skin no matter who comes and who doesn’t. We always have a Plan B and a Plan C.
There are many ways to work on independence with your child. Here are a few ways I’ve been doing it with my son as he approaches the start of intermediate school:
• He went on his first overnight camp (5-day, 4-night) away from family. To prepare, we read the packing list and loaded up the suitcase together. We talked about when he would wear each article of clothing, and why he would use each thing he packs. I then asked him, “Now, you tell me.”
• We practice at every opportunity his ordering his own food, checking in at therapy/doctors/dentists, and getting out our front door on time. Do not prompt your child. I actually turn my back and walk away, removing the audience. Our kids have lots of experience with us prompting them. See how much they remember on their own. Give them the opportunity of summertime to figure it out.
• I let my son be in charge of the front door key, locking and unlocking, both for motor planning of when and why we lock it, and the fine motor finger practice of into the hole, turning, and extraction.
• Send your child on solo elevator adventures, which we have practiced for years. Give your child ever-lengthening rope to return shopping carts across the store parking lot. Let him find his way back to the car as leader (with you walking behind).
• At a restaurant, I let my son tell me where to sit, allowing him to have the outside seat on the booth. For years, fencing him in was a coping mechanism. Not anymore. He also gets to practice more risk-taking when I park farther and farther from any entrance and let him out of the car on his own. I do pick situations with the greatest chance for him to succeed, but he doesn’t know that.
The common element in all we do is his intrinsic motivation. He must want to stretch, must want to take on the new challenges. If he can find joy in his own self-directed learning, he can make the transition well enough. “Well enough” is the goal. We can leave “perfect” to others.