As a pediatric occupational therapist and a mom to two school-age kids, I find that back to school time brings a mix of excitement and a healthy sense of apprehension about the upcoming school year.
Switching from the freedoms of summer vacation and preparing for the change in schedule and routines can set any parent into a tailspin. As an OT at Stepping Stones Occupational Therapy, I specialize in helping children achieve success and become more independent in their daily routines. Below are some of my favorite personal and professional tips to help set your student up for a successful school year.
1. Find the right backpack for your child.
“Pack it light, wear it right” is a national campaign by the American OT Association. OT brings an ergonomic perspective to the importance of choosing the ideal backpack for your child. Things to consider in choosing a backpack include the size, strap placement, weight and how to wear it to distribute the weight evenly. Choosing the right backpack is a simple step to help protect your child’s joints, support good posture and prevent back pain.
2. Make a checklist.
If your student tends to forget what to bring to and from school, write a checklist on a luggage tag and attach it to the back pack. A simple list such as “1. Binder, 2. Homework folder, 3. Lunch bag, 4. Bus route number” can serve a simple reminder and make afterschool time much more enjoyable.
3. When it comes to pencils, one size does NOT fit all.
In addition to buying the school supplies required by your child’s teacher, consider purchasing school supplies that support your student’s developmental level and fine motor ability. If your child has difficulty holding a regular pencil, try out different pencil grips or pens that make holding a pencil easier. Have you ever tried to use chopsticks but didn’t know how to hold them? Imagine trying to write a story with a writing utensil that doesn’t fit right or that you don’t know how to hold properly. It’s hard for kids to focus on what to write or to be able to keep up with handwriting demands if they have underlying fine motor problems that impact writing speed, productivity and endurance.
4. Changing seasons, routines and clothes.
The beginning of the school year is a time of transitions, not only for our children but also for parents, from the morning routine to afterschool activities and homework time. Before anyone gets overwhelmed, practice time management. Use a visual timer and give transition warnings such as letting your child know how much time they have left. “You have 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, it will be time to put on your shoes.”
Another life skill area that OT lends its expertise to is called executive functioning (simply put, the cognitive skills of planning, organizing, attention, memory, time management and sequencing). What are some ways to get your child off to the right start by planning ahead and staying organized? Always prepare for the next day the night before (I mean, who can’t use this advice?). Have your child pick out which clothes they want to wear and lay them out. Some kids with sensory processing challenges have tactile sensitivities. In other words, the tags, seams and certain types of fabrics are more bothersome and distracting because of how they feel. Make sure they’re dressed to feel comfortable and confident.
5. “Fast” food prep for lunch.
To simplify packing lunches in the morning, take a few minutes on the weekend for your child to pack their own snacks and select their own drinks for the entire week. Label a container with the name of each child, and each kid can pack their own snacks while practicing their fine motor skills (e.g. pinching Ziplocs and opening and closing packages). Send some love in your child’s lunch by writing an upbeat note on a napkin. After a fresh sandwich is made, just add the snacks, napkin note and lunch is ready to go… fast food style.
6. Host a back to school party.
At our clinic and school-based programs, the OTs and speech therapists mindfully support and teach our student’s social skills. Learning to get along with others, making friends and learning to be a friend is an important aspect of every student’s school experience. Support your child’s social skills at home by reading books that focus on these skills.
I know at my house, the beginning of school brings about feelings of excitement along with a twinge of sadness that the summer is coming to an end. To help lift the mood and make the transition into the new school year better, host a ‘Back to School Party’ in your backyard or a nearby park. It will give your child a chance to see his/her friends, regardless of whether they end up in the same class. Playing group games such as Simon Says, Bingo, Red Light Green Light, backyard obstacle courses and water balloon tosses with a partner are fun ways to practice motor skills, attention and working cooperatively… not to mention a fantastic way to renew friendships or meet a new friend. Send your guests off with a goody bag full of school supplies and look forward to a successful start of school!