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Dealing with the "Back-to-School" Blues: Tips for Parents of Asperger's Kids

Being out of school for a couple of weeks during the Christmas break is plenty of time to get children completely off schedule. With shopping, family get-togethers, and the late night on New Year’s Eve, most children have likely forgotten what it means to get up on time and get ready in a timely fashion.

Children of all ages often struggle to get back into the swing of things after being off for several weeks for Christmas break. They may not be ready to resume the frantic pace, start back up with classes, or dive into social activities. Even getting back on normal eating, sleeping and homework schedules can be very difficult. This is especially true for young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). At “back to school time,” these kids may feel concerned about their work-load and keeping up with homework, become physically sick with stress (e.g., headaches or migraines), feel pressured by what their teachers and peers expect of them, and feel sad or upset that the holidays are now over.

The good news is that getting your AS or HFA child back on track isn’t as stressful as doing the same after the much longer summer break. Below are some ideas that can help smooth the transition from school to home - and back to school - over Christmas break. Sufficient planning, reliable rituals, participation in school events, and a positive outlook can make the transition less difficult.

1. Help your AS or HFA child to avoid feeling frustrated or depressed about returning to school by making a short list of things he likes about school. Focusing on positive aspects of school will improve his mood and attitude. Your child can make note of classes, teachers, and extracurricular activities he likes, or meaningful friendships and experiences he values. Start working on the list a day or two before Christmas break ends, so the good memories are fresh in his mind when he returns to school.

2. Help your child ease back into school by reestablishing daily schedules and following them as closely as possible. Rituals promote a sense of security and stability. Consistent morning routines, regular meal times, homework study hours, designated recreation times, and bedtime schedules can help your child get back on track. Place a calendar on the refrigerator or in a central location so you can keep track of weekly activities (e.g., sports practices, music lessons, doctor's appointments, etc.).

3. Help your child to find ways to get involved outside of the classroom, explore her interests, and meet new people. She could join an academic club, attend a school-sponsored dance, go to a sporting event, try out for a school play, or join student council. Active involvement will help your child build strong connections with classmates, teachers and coaches. It's easier to get back into the routine after the holidays if your child has engaging and exciting activities to look forward to.

4. Adjust your child’s sleep schedule. Get started a couple days before he is scheduled to go back to school. You don't want your child to be falling asleep during class on the first day back. Start waking your child up at his normal school-time several days before he goes back – even if he stayed up late the night before. He will likely have no trouble going to bed on time on days when he woke up early.

5. Help your child to pack up his book bag the night before, and lunch if needed. Make sure she has packed everything. She wouldn't want to walk into math class on the first day, only to find that she has forgotten her calculator.

6. As part of New Year’s resolutions, encourage your youngster to set some school-related goals (e.g., raising a math grade by five points, making one new friend, etc.). As a parent, set your own goals as well (e.g., getting up a few minutes earlier each morning to have lunches packed before waking your child, giving yourself 30 minutes to meditate or exercise, etc.).

7. If your youngster is crying or throwing a temper tantrum because she has to go back to school, prolonging the return only makes the problem worse. No one likes to go to school, just like no one likes to go to work. Explain this to your youngster. There are just some things you have to do, or you get into trouble for not doing them. Ask your youngster if she wants you to get in trouble for her not going to school. Also, explain truancy (if you think that will work).

8. Earmark one of your youngster’s Christmas presents as a special one for the first day back to school (e.g., new shirt, new shoes, new backpack, locker decoration, etc.). Your youngster will be eager to get back to school to show the new item to his friends.

9. Keep school at the forefront of your youngster’s mind by talking about it each day of the holiday break. Ask her which friends she is looking forward to seeing when she goes back, which classes are her favorites, and so on. Read books off your child’s reading list, then ask her questions about the books. If your child brings her lunch to school, make a calendar with different food options for the first week when she goes back.

10. Help your child to avoid letting the post-holiday blues keep him from meeting his goals. A lack of motivation in the first couple weeks after returning to school can lead to a backlog of undone homework and an ugly list of incomplete assignments. Teach your child to start projects early, finish homework ahead of schedule, and prepare for tests and quizzes several days before testing dates. Reward him with treats (e.g., a special outing), and remind him of all the free time he has accrued since he didn’t procrastinate.

The end of the Christmas break is a time of mixed emotions (e.g., sad to be losing the freedom of sleeping in, playing all day and staying up late at sleepovers, family get-togethers, and the excitement that always prevails this time of year). Getting back to school after the break doesn’t have to be stressful though. Remember to stick as close as you can to the normal wake-up and bedtime routines during the break, but don’t worry about the times when the holidays keep family members out late – just get back on schedule the next day. Routinely engage your child in positive conversations about the return to school while he or she is still enjoying the break.

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