School Behavior

How to Calm Turbulent Transitions Back to (In-Person) School

Returning back to in-person school for students with ADHD and autism means disrupted routines, uncomfortable transitions, and emotional dysregulation. Here, learn how parents and educators can use social stories to smooth those rough spots, especially for young children.

Portrait of cute African boy wearing big glasses while using laptop with mom, homeschooling and remote education concept
Portrait of cute African boy wearing big glasses while using laptop with mom, homeschooling and remote education concept

One year into distance learning, many of our children had settled into a familiar — if not altogether comfortable — groove. Some remote learners who typically struggle with friendships, emotional regulation, social cues, and relationships actually came to appreciate the break from the typical social stressors associated with school. Then — one after another — schools began to open their doors to full-time, in-person learning once again.

Many of our children are now expected to transition seamlessly back into the classroom. But when life tampers with schedules and routines, even ultimately for the child’s benefit, transitions are seldom without potholes and steep hills. Being told to abruptly stop one thing and start another is a very common trigger for problem behaviors, withdrawal, avoidance, refusal, and meltdowns, especially for children with ADHD, autism, emotional and developmental challenges, and others with similar learning profiles.

How can we, as parents and educators, help ease this transition back to school in a way that alleviates some of our kids’ unexpected behaviors and reactions while promoting appropriate social behaviors?

I recommend using social stories to prepare our children and to teach them the appropriate reactions and behaviors associated with the transition back to in-person learning.

What Are Social Stories?

Social Stories were developed and created in the early ’90s by a pediatrician named Dr. Carol Gray. Her goal was to help and support children by creating narratives that illustrate situations, problems, and ultimately, how to deal with them. Social stories are used to teach social norms, improve social skills, and reduce anxiety. Initially developed for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, social stories have proven beneficial for many children with common anxieties and other behavioral, social, developmental, and cognitive differences.

Transitioning back to in-person learning after a year of remote education is triggering anxiety and social concerns in many families; creating and reading social stories to prepare your child may help alleviate some of the fear of the unknown.

[Use This Free Guide to Improve Your Students’ Social Skills]

Your social story should focus on the individualized needs of your child. For example, if your child has social anxieties or insecurities, focus on socialization during the return to school. If your child has difficulty with transitions, focus your story on navigating these changes. If your child has executive functioning challenges, organization and time management could be the focus of the story. If your child needs to focus on impulse control, your story could center on emotional regulation. Some children may require multiple stories. Every child is different, with different needs. The key is to individualize the story and focus on the child’s needs to make the story a relevant teaching tool during this period of disruption and discomfort.

How to Create Social Stories

There are various social stories apps and computer software programs, ranging from no-cost to high-cost options, designed to guide and power the creation process.

You can also create social stories using existing pictures of your child or images of a generic student going on the bus, sitting at a desk at school, socializing with friends, eating lunch, etc.

When creating a social story, it is helpful to involve the child. This allows for ownership and may increase interest, accountability, and compliance.

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When creating a social story for your child or student, make sure the story:

  • has a specific goal that targets desired appropriate social behaviors,
  • is accurate and relevant to the transition back to in-person learning,
  • is of interest to the child,
  • uses positive and descriptive language while answering where, when, who, what, and why

Bari Glazer, a special educator and autism specialist from Massachusetts, recommends that social stories include descriptive and directive sentences, along with sentences of reassurance. Additionally, Glazer stresses the importance of creating stories using the child’s current level of comprehension needs in terms of visuals, the complexity of language, the length of the overall story, and the number of words vs. white space on each page as areas of consideration.

Here is an example of a social story for an early elementary student. One sentence per page plus a visual is appropriate.

I will go back to school to learn.

Sometimes I get nervous when I go to school to learn.

That is OK.

When I am nervous, I can ask to take a break at school.

Asking for a break is OK.

Staying calm in school helps me learn.

How to Use Social Stories as a Teaching Tool

When preparing and discussing the return to in-person learning, set aside some time to read the story to your child or students. Make sure the child is attentive, relaxed, ready, and open to learning. Read the book several times throughout the preparation process.

Initially, read the story as you would any other story. Glazer recommends making extra copies for others, such as grandparents and babysitters, and leaving a copy next to the child’s bed for a bedtime story. Have your child read the story to/with you. In addition, discuss personal experiences related to the social story and make connections to real-world situations.

As a supplementary activity in preparation for in-person learning, you and your child could practice role-playing and discuss fun story extensions while your provide positive feedback regarding expected behaviors and outcomes.

In the days leading to the return to in-person learning, keep the social stories accessible so that your child can review them independently. Once they are back in-person learning, they can continue to refer to expectations, solutions, and guides inside the social story as warm reminders of how prepared and ready they are to venture back to in-person learning.

The transition back to in-person school will take time — that is just a fact. Even as adults, change and transitions are difficult. As our children shift back to in-person learning, the use of social stories, continuous communication, and preparation will undoubtedly provide a sense of readiness and calm by addressing individualized and specific needs — and by demonstrating that, though transitions are tough, we are tougher.

Social Stories for ADHD: Next Steps

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