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Transition to secondary school for autistic children – 10 tips for smoothing the move

mum hugging boy in school uniform on secondary school offer day

“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.

Extracts from Tom’s transition to secondary school booklet
Extracts from Tom’s secondary school transition booklet

Top 10 transition tips

Tip #1

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.

Tip #2

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

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.

Tip #3

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.

Tip #4

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.

Tip #5

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.

Tip #6

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!

Tip #7

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.

Tip #8

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.

Tip #9

Practice packing the correct items for school. The TomTag school bag packing checklist would be perfect for this!

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.

Tip #10

TomTag feelings notebook with example page filled inSet 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. 

Transition to secondary school resources

The National Autistic Society website has some useful information about transitioning to secondary school.

Leicestershire Autism Outreach Service also have a comprehensive transition resource pack that’s well worth checking out. 

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At School Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Feelings thermometer and diary

It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.

A seemingly simple thing that gets forgotten, ignored or left unnoticed can cause a big problem down the line. Simple ideas, simple tools, simple changes might be all that’s needed to solve a problem or do a better job than a complex solution.

A Share how I feel tag, with its thermometer-style colour faces scale, has to be one of the simplest uses for the TomTag system but since introducing it less than nine months ago has become our best selling product.  It can be used in lots of different ways which is perhaps one of the keys to it’s success – we’ve given some ideas in this free download guide.

Having recommended in our guide that using a feelings diary can help to identify patterns of emotions or behaviour and the triggers that could be causing them, we decided to make our own! 

My TomTag Feelings Notebook

Keeping a diary gets you into the habit of noticing and naming how you feel in different situations throughout the day or at times when you feel most anxious or worried.

There’s a scale for rating the strength of your feelings and a guide to help build up a vocabulary to describe your different feelings and emotions.

By making notes about what happened during the day or at key points you can start to build up a picture over time  which helps you to see patterns and identify the common triggers or stressors. Quite often these might be simple things that go unnoticed day to day but are easier to spot once patterns emerge. 

It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.


  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Bundle

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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School morning routines

Getting the whole family ready for school and out of the door on time and with all the right kit is never easy. There’s usually lots of shouting, nagging and panic involved!

Chaos or calm?

A less stressful and chaotic morning is possible with a little preparation. When children have the skills to get ready independently, they can start to take responsibility for themselves and their belongings without needing you to remind them every time. It might take a little practice and patience at first but it will be worth the effort in the long run.

Establishing a consistent morning routine (and the evening before) is also key to getting things to run more smoothly and helps everyone to understand what’s expected of them.

Visual checklists and schedules are an ideal tool to use when helping your child learn routines and skills for independence.

Use a consistent morning routine

Getting back into a routine after a long break or when starting school for the first time can be really difficult, especially for very young children or those on the autistic spectrum.

Create a visual reminder of all the tasks that need to be completed each morning and list them in the order in which you want them to be done.

It’s ok to use more detailed steps at first or attach a separate detailed list for each task to help make the process easier to understand.

Keep this list in a handy place in your child’s bedroom so it’s within reach when they get out of bed. Get them used to following the routine step by step each morning and work towards them checking things off independently each day.

Avoid the dressing battlefields

self care i can rememberKeep another checklist in the bedroom that will show your child what clothes they need to wear and what they should put on first. This avoids the pants over trousers scenario!

Setting out clothes the night before saves a lot of stress trying to find clean clothes in the morning. Start by laying out all the clothes for them so that everything’s ready to go the next day and then build up to them taking the responsibility for preparing this themselves.   

Tackle hygiene skills

self care follow instructionsTaking care of personal hygiene is a very important life skill for all our children to learn. We perform these tasks for ourselves everyday without needing to think about exactly what we’re doing.
For children just learning these skills, we need to break the task down into smaller steps. A picture list describing each step in the process is a great visual reminder that they can refer to each time they do the task which will help them to master getting it right.
Keeping a teethbrushing, toilet routine or washing checklist in the bathroom will help your child develop the independence to get ready in the morning by themselves and speed up the whole family’s routine.

Pack all the right kit

pack for school carrying bagGiving your child the responsibility for finding and packing everything they need for school might seem like a crazy idea but even the youngest or most disorganised child can soon get the hang of it, increasing their independence and reducing anxieties that occur over forgotten items.
Use a simple checklist attached to their schoolbag listing all the things they need to remember to take for each day of the week. Then they’ll also have it with them at school to remind them what to bring home at the end of the day too.
Getting into the habit of packing the night before is a great way to avoid that last minute panic searching for homework or games kit in the morning when you really should be leaving the house!

Make your own schedules and checklists

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Brush My Teeth Mini Kit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Can Do It Self Care Skills Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – Morning and Evening Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • Learn At Home Sticker Pack

  • My School Kit Sticker Pack

  • Organising My School Bag

  • School Morning Routines

 

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New school year, new start with TomTag

Looking forward to the children going back to school but dreading those chaotic school mornings?

Help your kids learn to get themselves ready for school, know and understand their own routine and remember what they need to pack – with less nagging from you and a lot less stress all round.

It really is easy with a little help from TomTag!

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Feelings Bundle

  • I Can Do It Brush My Teeth Mini Kit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Can Do It Self Care Skills Kit

  • I Can Do It Toilet Routine Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – Morning and Evening Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • My School Kit Sticker Pack

  • Self Care Sticker Pack

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TomTag: your stories – Elizabeth

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.

My elder daughter uses TomTag for: 

Younger child tag examples

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.

I’ve also found the tips and advice for teaching life skills on your website very helpful.

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.