Mapping Out a Positive School Transition

Back-to-School has arrived!!! As we try to balance our farewell to summer with the anticipation of a new school year, we seem unable to escape the inevitable swirl of emotions that have endearingly been referred to as “First Day Jitters”. But despite what this harmless term implies, “First Day Jitters” don’t just exist on the 1st Day of School. The Back-to-School transition begins long before the eve of the 1st Day of School (back to school shopping, finishing summer work, etc.), and can linger well beyond the completion of the 1st Day (adjusting to morning and bedtime routines, learning the expectations of new teachers, making new friends, etc.). This early time in the new school year brings much excitement and enthusiasm, but also can bring anxiety and disappointment as the less structured days of summer draw to a close. Like any journey towards a goal, it can help to “Map Out” a path to a positive and successful school transition. Let’s look at some strategies that can help ease everyone back…

  1. Identify a Goal. Just like selecting a desired destination, help your child identify what a positive school transition might mean to them. Making a new friend? Being able to share something unique about themselves with their new teacher and/or peers? Navigating their classroom or school without feeling confused or lost? …Children, families and educators can partner together more cohesively when they share common goals and know they are working towards them together. With young children it can be difficult to identify and articulate goals, especially an “adult goal” that seems generalized (ie, “a positive school transition”). Try adapting a Get Well Map. Place a specific photo at the finish line that depicts a fun activity that your child is motivated to participate in a few weeks into the school year, and help them visualize their progress towards that goal. Share information about an Educational Growth Map with your child’s teacher to help facilitate positive behavior growth among students in the classroom.
  2. Be Patient with the Transition. Anticipate and prepare for a bumpy start! Kids have many activities that will be starting or resuming simultaneously with the start of the school year. The transition back to a structured daily routine and a calendar that seems to be filling up with commitments at lightening speed can be a complete buzz kill, especially if it follows what hopefully was a summer of unforgettable memories and moments of relaxation. Behaviors may flare, kids (and adults alike) may seem out of sorts, and nervous energy may be contagious. Be patient, maintain a sense of calm and…
  3. Keep it Positive. Don’t underestimate the power of positivity. If you are struggling with negative behaviors, remember that positive behavior & positive outcomes can be facilitated with consistent expectations and calm, clear redirection. Surround yourself with positivity and recognize negativity when it creeps in. When you sense negativity, it is probably an indicator that you and/or your children are in need of a break, rest, reconnection, help, or some extra support.
  4. Encourage and Facilitate Development of Independent Living Skills. Kids need opportunities to develop the foundational skills that build a future for independent living. It is hard to imagine that your toddler will eventually be packing their own lunch and driving themselves to school, but find a few moments to chat with a parent that recently sent their child off to college… They might just mention that they wish they had spent more time teaching independent living skills. Most, if not all, parents can relate to the crazy, hustle bustle morning routines. It can be a struggle just to get everyone out of the house with matching shoes and their teeth brushed. Nagging and yelling often begin during these morning routines, which makes for a negative and challenging start to a day filled with many demands. So it is not uncommon for parents to begin assuming most of the responsibilities of their child’s morning routine in order to speed it up… “Because we have to GO”!!! The process of developing independent living skills is a process that needs to occur in tandem with a child’s developmental level and with much repetition over time.

    A visual schedule can help a child develop greater independence in their daily routines.

    Take some time after the kids go to bed to make a list of the sequence of activities that need to be completed in their morning and bedtime routines. Evaluate what tasks (or steps of a task) your child is able to complete independently and which they require assistance with. Consider which task you might encourage them to become more independent with next. Start the morning routine earlier to give your child more time to complete steps of their routine at their pace. Don’t expect them to be efficient or proficient as these skills are developing! Seek guidance from an Occupational Therapist…experts at enhancing functional independence, and modifying and adapting tasks to the developmental level of children within the contexts of their home and family routines. 
  5. Use Simple Organizational Strategies. Kids benefit from predictability and consistency, as they are working to develop higher-level skills like sequencing, time management and organization. Have a consistent location for sneakers, backpacks, jackets, homework folders, etc. Last minute searches create or exacerbate anxiety, worries and frustration. Try creating a before- and after-school rhythm that includes a routine of placing school items in a consistent location before dashing off to afternoon and evening activities.
  6. Avoid Overscheduling. As kids are re-adjusting to the structure of the school day, be cautious not to overschedule with too many extra-curricular activities. The demand on children’s time and involvement in activities seems to be occurring at earlier and earlier ages. As much as these activities can be great for socialization and exposure to a variety of multi-sensory experiences, be mindful that they still have ample opportunities to engage in unstructured, technology-free playtime.
  7. Incorporate Fun, Imaginative Unstructured Playtime into Evenings Routines. Some children need some encouragement getting creative and imaginative after a full day in a structured environment. Make up a silly story at dinnertime with each family member taking a turn to contribute a new element to the plot. Help your child(ren) make a fort and bring a flashlight to complete reading homework assignments. Ask them pretend to be a waiter or waitress (dressing up with an apron & dishtowel is encouraged) to take drink orders in preparation for dinnertime. Alternatively, consider a casual game of catch or a bike ride in the evening to share time & connect about the busy events of the day.
  8. Reach Out to a Parent that could use a Meaningful Connection during this Back-to-School Transition. It is so wonderful to see so many Back-to-School photos of smiling children (and maybe a few eye-rolling teenagers agreeing to the obligatory photo) posted all over social media. These photos mark milestones, and it is meaningful to be able to share those moments with the family and friends in our lives. But it is also important to recognize that there will be some parents that find this season particularly difficult. Maybe this is the first year they are empty nesting. Maybe their child is experiencing a medical challenge that prevents their child from starting the school year with their peers. Or maybe a parent recently lost their child to a childhood disease, and this is a particularly painful time for them as they reminisce about their child. Consider who in your community might benefit from a little extra support during this time. Ask them to join you for coffee. Or consider encouraging them to be involved in a school function or volunteer opportunity. If you know or learn of a child that was unable to begin the school year with their peers due to a medical challenge, seek the help of a Child Life Specialist and the child’s teacher to facilitate opportunities to video chat or share photos. These moments can help to promote inclusion for the child with their peers during the Back to School transition, and ease anxiety when they prepare to return to the classroom. A Get Well Map can help a hospitalized child visualize their progress towards discharge home, as well as help a classroom of peers visualize when their friend may be able to return to school. The Get Well Map’s “neutral zones” always provide a child-centered and developmentally appropriate method to help children understand setbacks in progress.September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Get involved! #GoGold provides a wonderful opportunity to practice empathy and service to others, and teach our children these important life lessons too! Check out these inspiring organizations that are providing meaningful awareness events and resources.

Best wishes for a Back to School transition that marks the start of a terrific school year!


Christina Connors, OTR/L has over 16 years of experience working as an Occupational Therapist with children and adults throughout Maryland and Delaware. Inspired by her son’s medical journey, and her desire to ease anxiety and improve developmentally-appropriate communication for children and families facing medical challenges, Christina developed Child Inspired in collaboration with artist John Donato. Child Inspired is working to bring a blend of Art, Therapy and Functional Communication to healthcare and education settings in order to bridge the needs of children, families and healthcare & education professionals.

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