Tips for Transitioning Into a New Routine
Going to a new school. Returning home after vacation. Trying to break an old habit and start a new routine. Change, or transition, is difficult for most people — whether age 3 or 33.
But life is full is change, and transitions happen daily. Children with special needs often have a harder time handling transitions, especially during the school day — from breakfast to the bus, from reading to recess and from after school to the athletic field.
"Human beings thrive on predictability, and for many people, fear of the unfamiliar causes stress or anxiety. If we have good coping skills — being able to ask questions or state that we're unsure — we can help ourselves. Or, we might take a few moments to gather our thoughts," says Lisa Cyzner, a founder of The Cyzner Institute who holds a master's degree in occupational therapy from Columbia University and a doctorate degree from New York University. "Whereas automatically our brains have the ability to motor plan during non-habitual situations, children with special needs often have difficulty motor planning."
So, how do parents help their children? Cyzner works extensively with children with special needs, including those with regulatory disorders, attention deficit disorder, autism, pervasive developmental disorder, dysfunction of sensory integration, emotional/behavioral needs and more. Here, she shares some insight to help parents make transitions smoother for their children.
Q. Why are transitions more difficult for kids with special needs?
When faced with a situation that has not been regularly practiced, rehearsed or learned, children with special needs may not have any idea what to do. They may not be able to plan or strategize, so they can't execute the skills needed during times of transition or change. And if their language is affected — whether receptively (how they may think or interpret ) or expressively (how they verbalize) — they may not be able to express their fear or ask for help. For many children with special needs. what comes innately to most people, they need to learn.
Q. Does environment matter? Does school add stress?
Yes, environment matters, and sometimes is the most central to helping a child. Many times, modifying the environment can be the greatest source of help. For example, dimming home or classroom lights (while still meeting building codes), may help to create a calmer mood for children at home or as they enter their classroom in the morning. Providing visual schedules — whether pictorial or with words — can help a child have a sense of how the day will go. Learning to draw upon these schedules as a resource helps a child feel grounded and understand the expectations of a schedule.
For some, school can add stress, but it's important to analyze what part of school may be causing the stress. It may not be an academic subject, but rather that not enough supports are in place to help the child be successful. There are sensory supports, behavioral supports, environmental supports, etc.
Q. Are different times of day harder — mornings or afternoons?
This differs widely among children. Some children have poor sleep-wake cycles and may have more difficulty in the morning hours, or could be fine in the morning but need to have much less demands during the afternoon. Medication side effects also can impact behavior during certain times of day. And some children have difficulty with sense of time (especially young children), and thus this can affect how they handle different periods of the day. We also have to remember that many children with special needs have underlying biomedical reasons why their bodies handle stress differently — why they may not be able to pay attention for long periods of time, etc., is very individual to each child .
It's vital for teachers to do parent or guardian interviews and to have a connection to home life. Good parent-teacher communication on a regular basis is very important.
Q. What can parents do to help get kids out the door in the morning?
Routine is very important, but without placing too many demands that can cause additional stress. There is a delicate balance between preparing a child too little and too much for the day that lies ahead. Similar to how visual schedules are posted at school, schedules can be posted at home to help with morning routines. Some children respond well to the use of timers, even visual timers, that can help them gain a better sense of the amount of time they have to engage in a particular activity. Preparing snacks and lunches, packing backpacks and laying out clothes the night before are good tips for every busy family.
Q. How about transitioning to after-school activities?
Chose activities the child can handle physically and emotionally after school. Some children expend all the mental effort they can during the school day and perhaps are better off with low-stress, low-demand activities that keep them engaged but will not require more than their brains are able to process after a long day. Parents should always be intentional about informing after-school providers about how children might react to novel activities or whether they need rest breaks after a long day.