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 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 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.
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, so if there are changes that need to be made to their routine or to the expectations that are set 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.
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 that they know in depth and these are a great way in with a nervous student on the first day. Whether it’s a picture of their favourite character on their coat hook for a younger student, or a chance to create a presentation about something that interests them for an older one; knowing about and understanding a student’s special interest is a great first step to building a relationship with 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.
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. My students love rules and they hate it when they are broken. So whatever the boundaries, rewards and consequences are in you class, make them clear. Students need to know you treat them fairly and everyone else fairly too.
If things go wrong , and they might, first days are hard, take time to explain what has gone wrong and why, explore ways things could be done 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, or how they could put it right the time after. So be really explicit, e.g. “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 ok for the student to be upset but also explained how they’ve upset their friend and what they could do better the time after. Social stories and comic strip conversations can also be really helpful for helping to students to understand what to do at tricky times.
As the day draws to a close make sure whatever has happened the student leaves knowing that you like them. Many students with autism are perfectionists and will dwell on what they did wrong so 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 student with autism to understand and develop a way of keeping parents n 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 tricky. Parents want kindness but they also want reality, if they are in the loop 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!