Self-talk was key in helping Tom manage his back-to-school anxiety.
Self-talk is rehearsing silently something that you think someone you trust would say to you in a situation you find tricky or challenging. Being able to self-talk is useful as it is something a child can do to help themselves. It has been a game-changer for Tom as he can use this whenever he is feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s get started
You can use this Prompt Sheet to help your child develop self-talk to manage their back-to-school anxiety.
Here are our tips for using the sheet which is available as a free download using the link below:
Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work or school. This helps them feel that their worries about going back to school are valid.
Give your child the words to describe their feelings. Introducing and explaining the phrases ‘back to school blues’ and the ‘oh no feeling’ help them understand the emotion and feeling behind their back-to-school anxiety.
Ask your child to show you how strong their ‘oh no feeling ‘is. If they struggle with language try simple visual scales using either numbers ( 1-5) or the intensity of colours (green – red) to make it easier for them to rate their feelings. The TomTag feelings tag, a thermometer-style sequence of 6 feelings faces, is a good option to use.
Explain that their ‘oh no feeling’ is the right feeling but too big. Like a shout that needs to be shrunk to the right size – a whisper. The drawings on the Prompt Sheet are a good way to show this
Tell them that to shrink the ‘oh no feeling’ they should think of 3 good reasons why going back to school is ok and say these reasons to themselves when they feel the ‘oh no feeling’ starting
“I’m feeling worried about eating in the canteen.”
“I am concerned that the lessons are going to be a long time.”
“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”
These were some of the worries my autistic son Tom had when he was moving from his beloved small and familiar mainstream primary school to a much larger secondary school.
The move from primary to secondary school is one of the major transitions in a child’s life. All children are likely to feel some level of worry about this move but for many children on the autistic spectrum, who crave stability and predictability like Tom does, this transition can be particularly difficult.
Secondary school transition issues
Like many children with autism, Tom has anxiety about the unknown and finds it difficult to think flexibly. He felt safe and secure with familiar routines established in primary school. Not being able to predict what might happen in his new secondary school and the thought of dealing with change and different rules was a real worry to him.
As a parent, my worries were mainly around his lack of social understanding, his communication difficulties, and his sensory challenges.
How would he:
cope with the many new social situations he would encounter in secondary school?
manage his feelings and emotions when things didn’t go as planned?
deal with the increased sensory demands of his new environment?
Preparation is key
Every child with autism is different so a ‘one size fits all’ approach to transition is therefore not going to work. It’s vital that transition planning should be personalised to each child. By preparing your child as much as possible beforehand using some of the tips we’ve listed below, we hope you’ll be able to make those first days and weeks in the new school a lot less worrying for you and your child.
Top 10 transition tips
Arrange for your child to visit their new school several times before they start and at different times of the day e.g. lunchtime, breaktime and during lessons. Tom made frequent, short visits which helped make his new school more familiar to him and took away some of the worry he felt about eating his lunch in the canteen.
Make a “My School transition booklet” which your child can keep and use as they need in order to reduce anxiety.
Tom’s booklet included a map of the layout of the school, photographs of key staff (particularly the teaching assistants that were going to support him) and photographs taken of him in the important places, like the school canteen, main hall, classrooms and a safe place for times of stress.
A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette – “walk on the left hand side so we don’t get squashed and we can let other people pass” was a simple inclusion in the booklet but meant that he knew what was expected of him when the corridors filled with students.
Establish a link with a member of staff who can act as a mentor and home-school liaison. Set up a home-school book to pass on information about any worries/concerns or any relevant developments at home.
Create a personal profile written with the help of your child to include all the information new staff should know about them. Tom’s profile mentioned his need to have frequent movement breaks and his worry about the long lessons.
Get used to a homework routine in advance of the new school start. Start simply with a 10-15-minute task at a regular time each evening in a quiet environment.
Make a visual timetable showing the school day to make lesson order & break times more predictable. The TomTag School Timetable kit is ideal for creating portable and personalised timetables for your child without the hassle of printing, laminating or Velcro!
Practice the journey to and from school, making sure your child knows the location of bus stops, road-crossings, meeting points or anything else significant on their journey.
Familiarise your child with their new school uniform and deal with any irritating seams or labels. Tom practised wearing his blazer at home so that he got used to how it felt and was also told he could take it off during lessons.
Ask your child’s current primary school to work on preparing your child for the transition by including activities around organising and managing their own items at school.
Set aside time to discuss your child’s worries and concerns about the transition. Encourage them to write down or draw about any concerns they have about moving to their new school. Remind them of relaxation and self-help techniques they could use if they are anxious. The TomTag Feelings Notebook is a helpful place to record worries and concerns.
We learn a great deal from listening to our customers about their experiences with TomTag. It’s always interesting to find out about the different ways they use our products and wonderful to hear how it often makes such a real difference to their lives.
We thought it might be helpful to share some of those experiences and ideas with you too so we’ve interviewed a number of our customers who have been kind enough to talk about their different stories and backgrounds with us.
First up is Elizabeth, a childminder from London, and mum to two girls aged 4 and 12.
Why did you purchase TomTag?
I bought TomTag to use with my daughters as both girls are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are both verbal and relatively high functioning they still need some support with their daily life activities.
I’d describe my youngest daughter as being in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, always needing reassurance about what to expect during the day. The eldest has executive functioning issues and needs support to help her sequence activities and with organisation.
Did you use any other type of visual supports before you tried TomTag?
I used to make my own picture timetables and sequences. It was very time consuming having to print off the pictures, laminate them and then attach them to Velcro. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the Velcro system so when I saw TomTag advertised in Aukids magazine I decided to give them a try.
So, how do you use it?
In lots of different ways!
For my younger daughter I have set up:
daily timetables that I create by prominently displaying 3 tags on hooks on the fridge (and also in the other rooms where she needs to use them) to show her what her morning, afternoon and evening routines should be
a toilet routine reminder hanging in the bathroom which is a simple picture sequence checklist to break the routine down into small steps.
social story resources to help prepare for things like visits to the doctor and hairdresser. I explain what’s going to happen and the order of events whilst we look at the pictures together.
as a picture sequence to check she has followed the correct steps for washing her hair
How has TomTag helped your children?
My little one finds TomTag very comforting. She feels in control of her day now and is less anxious about what is going to happen next. Seeing her routine in pictures also helps with teaching her sequences and time concepts. She loves the ‘hands on’ system – she particularly enjoys clicking the buttons in and out!
My older daughter finds TomTag really helps with her organisational skills. She feels less anxious at school knowing she has all the right things with her. She also likes the ’hands on’ nature of TomTag and she’s now started taking responsibility for planning and organising her day. For example, when she started going to choir as an after school activity, she changed her tag by herself to show this change of routine.
Do you have any suggestions for how we could make TomTag even better?
The range of images supplied in the various sticker packs is generally good. I have used the blank stickers to draw some personalised images – an umbrella, keys and phone charger.
I think there could be some additional ‘days out’ type images e.g. summer fair, fun fair, adventure park or castle. Perhaps a jumbo version of the tags and buttons would be useful for children who have sight problems but I appreciate the product would not then be as portable!
Overall I think TomTag is a wonderful product and it has really made life easier for both my daughters.
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your story and for giving us some insightful tips on how TomTag works in your home.
Follow the highlighted links in the interview to find out more details about all the products used by Elizabeth and her family.
Would you like to share your story with us?
All it takes is a short chat with us on the ‘phone, ideally send us a few pics of your TomTags in use then just leave the rest to us. It’s easy to get in touch with us, all the details are on our Contact Us page.
How do you teach a reluctant child how to pack their own bag with all the right things they need for the day ahead and to bring it all home again?
Clare, whose own children learnt this important skill with TomTag, recommends the following simple steps:
1. Select one day when there are not many items to take to school. Use only one tag from the TomTag pack to make a list of the relevant items and activities for that day.
2. Set aside some time the night before to pack the bag with your child and attach TomTag to their bag. Praise your child for remembering and packing everything they need for the day.
3. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.
4. Ask the child to pack their bag on their own for the same day using TomTag as a visual reminder of what items are needed. Then check their bag for them. Praise your child’s success. If something is forgotten, refer back to the tag and repack.
5. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.
6. Your child packs their own bag using TomTag as a visual reminder and does not have it checked. Praise your child’s success.
7. Choose another more complicated day and repeat the process. Gradually build up to a full week and using the full TomTag set on the child’s bag.
Packing their school bag independently, being organised and taking responsibility for their belongings are great life skills for all children to learn but are especially important for those with additional or special needs. TomTag uses only picture cues so it’s easy for any child to use.