Make Social Learning Stick!

  • Easing the Transition Back to School

    Elizabeth Sautter, M.A. CCC-SLP

    Going back to school can be fun and exciting, but the transition is stressful for many children. A new school or grade means navigating unfamiliar systems, learning rules, managing emotions, and relating to new people and a variety of social situations. Parents and caregivers can play an important role in easing the tension as the whole family adapts to a new school year and schedule.

    Try to anticipate your child’s concerns and to address them in advance by embracing teachable moments throughout your everyday routines. Here are some tips and strategies that we share with the families we support at Communication Works, many taken directly from my book, Make Social Learning Stick!

    1. Discuss your child’s top two or three social goals for the school year (e.g., join a club, make a new friend, etc.). Help them create a vision for how this will look and feel and then help them identify the steps needed to make this happen. Use visuals for the end goal (e.g., playing chess in a chess club) with a map for how to get there (e.g., visuals and/or text about finding out if the school offers a chess club, picking a second choice if chess isn’t available, contacting the club leader, and attending a club meeting).

    2. Write a Social Story™ on a topic related to school (see Carol Gray’s website and samples below). A Social Story gives a short description of a social situation, what to expect in that situation, and what might be expected of someone in that situation. Include photos of the school in your story. This exercise can help all children understand hidden rules and can prime them for what is expected. Once the story is written, role-play the situation (or a related one) with your child. For example, if you’ve written a story about school recess, act out some scenarios that might happen during recess.

    3. Make sure a structured schedule and daily routine are in place and working, with consistent bedtime and wake-up hours. Discuss the morning and afternoon routines and create a written schedule, possibly with photos, that’s easy for your child to follow. Post the schedule, and adapt as needed once you get into the swing of a new routine.

    4. If your child has homework or after-school obligations (e.g., chores), engage them in coming up with a plan for getting their work done. Maybe they need a break right after school and a snack before starting. Or, some children like to get all their work done so they can have down time/fun time for the rest of the night. Have them pick the best homework spot in the house, and organize the area so they have the materials needed to be as independent as possible.

    5. Arrange play dates with other children who attend school with your child. Meet at the schoolyard or school playground to create familiarity. If possible, practice some common recess games such as four square, kickball, and jump rope. Role-play various conversations and help your child practice observing other children and joining in.

    6. Many children will open up about their day just before bedtime. Start your nighttime routine early so your child has time to share info about school and to wind down before sleeping. Use calming strategies such as mindfulness or deep breathing. Try placing an object on the child’s stomach and together watch it rise up and down as the child breathes.

    7. While reading with your child, help the child practice whole-body listening (Susanne P. Truesdale, 1990)—focusing eyes and ears on the story; keeping hands, feet, and body still and mouth quiet; and using one’s brain to think about the story and one’s heart to care about the characters. (The Whole Body Listening Larry books,, explain this technique in greater detail.) This is a foundational skill for appropriate classroom behavior. Suggestions for other books that can be used for school readiness are listed below.

    8. Give your child an active role in getting ready for school by picking out clothes or supplies or packing lunch. Have the child make smart guesses by looking out the window to determine what clothes to wear that day. Would a jacket be a good idea? Provide choices so your child can gain some control and ownership of the process. For example, “Do you want turkey or tuna for lunch?”

    9. Include a healthy breakfast in your morning routine, and encourage your child to drink water throughout the day. If the child is high-energy, find time for exercise such as jumping jacks, jogging, or walking before school starts.

    10. Establish lines of communication with the principal and teachers. If your child has special needs, make sure the school is aware of important issues and ways the school can support your child. If there is an IEP, 504 Plan, reports, or any other important information about your child, make sure that school staff have a copy prior to the start of school so that they feel prepared and informed.

    A child’s social world is forever changing, and we can help children build their awareness and abilities by coaching them. Transitions present a challenge for most of us, but thoughtful preparation makes a big difference. Take the time to help your child get ready for new school situations, and stay attentive to the child’s needs and reactions. If you’re feeling anxious about the transition, be careful not to impose nervous feelings on your child or to overwhelm her. Always consider the child’s needs, limitations, and strengths as you head into a new school year. By taking these steps, you’ll be able to ease (and sometimes erase) many back-to-school worries.


    Recommended children’s books:

    Kindergarten Rocks by Katie Davis

    Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate

    Dowd, M. (2008)

    Kevin Knows the Rules: Introduces Classroom Rules to Kindergarten through Third Grade (2008)

    Whole Body Listening at School by Elizabeth Sautter and Kristen Wilson (2011)

    Information on Social Stories ™ (link) (link)


                      Elizabeth Sautter, M.A. CCC-SLP is co-director and co-owner of Communication Works (, a private practice in Oakland, California, offering speech, language, social, and occupational therapy. She is the co-author of the Whole Body Listening Larry ( books. Her most recent book is Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence Through Everyday Routines and Activities (


    She can be reached at or look up her website


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