Back to school, back to school

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  The Staples back to school commercial with the mom blissfully loading up on back to school supplies, doesn't have the same ring to it this year…

 In the past, September typically signals the beginning of the (much needed) school year structure and routine. Don't get me wrong, we all love a good ol' Canadian summer of fun, staying up late, camping, heading up north etc.  But all good things, must come to an end, or be put on pause until the next summer. Transitions aren't easy in the best of times…humans are creatures of habit, who often resist change.  Covid-19 did not get the memo.  Not only has it turned our lives upside down across the globe, it has made the "typical transition" back to school even harder, and at times, impossible to manage (and I am speaking from the perspective of an adult, who has all of the skills required and is highly trained to adjust and cope with change, whether I want to or not).

 As a working mom of three, transitions play a huge role in my professional and personal life.  I have worked in the field of Behavior Analysis, more specifically, Special Education for over a decade.  I have provided support to countless families, children and staff with a variety of needs. Not surprisingly, transitions play a major role in their child's (or students) day.  As a mom, I can without question think of countless times when a transition has, for lack of better words, sunk my battleship before I set foot outside the front door.

 Cue my second born. Four other family members have successfully completed all of their "morning jobs" and are now waiting in the car.  My daughter cannot decide what shoes to wear.  As I am helping her find a pair, I notice she has not brushed her hair, and is wearing a dirty shirt that she clearly dug out of the bottom of her hamper.  We should have left 5 minutes ago.  Here's the breakdown:


  • Step 1:  I pick my battles.  We can't win 'em all.  In my mind I start prioritizing.  At this point, we can't accomplish everything and my number one priority is getting my kids to school on time. Being punctual is a life lesson I refuse to skimp on. Therefore, my daughters only job is to find shoes (and I'm sure this isn't the first time a child has arrived to school with bed head and a wrinkly shirt).


  • Step 2:  I save my breath.  I minimize my verbal (spoken) directions.  I refer to my visuals.  That’s right.  I have visual supports around my home.  They are age appropriate and paired with written words to help my kids become more independent in completing their morning, afterschool and bedtime routines.  My children are 7, 6 and 4.5. The visuals are printed from pics I googled.  They are created in list form, hung vertically, much like a schedule. Instead of repeatedly asking her to "put her shoes on" I ask her to check her schedule and see what jobs she has left. Verbal instructions are fleeting, meaning once they are said, they are gone and don't allow for processing time. Imagine your words as a train car coming into the station, but it doesn't pause to let passengers on, and another car comes in, then another and another.  Before you know it, all of the train cars (aka your words) are piling up on top of each other and falling off the tracks.  Not helpful.  Visuals, on the other hand, don't always require an adult (but do when they are first being introduced/explicitly taught) and remain in place to refer back to when needed. The end goal is that my children will be able to independently navigate through the list and then ultimately no longer need the list.  But, even when they have mastered the list, it will remain on the wall for days when they need a little more help. Today is one of those days.  I stand next to the schedule and point to #1.  We work through it together:


"#1.Backpack- Check!"

"#2. Lunch- Check!"

"#3. Water bottle- Check!"

"#4. Mail bag- Check!"

And so on…

"#8. Shoes- oh! This is your last job, you need to find shoes."


  • Step 3: Focus on the positive.  At this point, what good does it do anyone to keep telling her what she isn't doing.  "Why don't you have your shoes on? You know you need shoes, we do this EVERY DAY!! WHY DO WE ALWAYS HAVE TO WAIT FOR YOU?!"   We all have bad days.  Yes, she is capable of finding her own shoes. Yes, she is capable of completing the entire list on her own.  But today, she needs a little more help.  That's ok.  Like I said, we all have off days.  How many times have you forgotten something that you normally remember 99% of the time? Run back inside for your cell phone?  Double booked a meeting and not realized it until the last minute? So, instead of sticking it to her, I use this as an opportunity to build on her own problem solving skills and decision making process.  I meet her where she is at.  I model positive behaviour.  It's ok to have an off day.  I praise her for what she has already completed on her own.  "I love the way your backpack is packed up and ready to go! Great job, now we just need to find our shoes and we will be ready to go!" But on a day like today, I know she needs more than a recap of the schedule.  So, I offer help in the form of a choice. 


  • Step 4:  Offering choice.  One of the best tools in our toolkit.  We get the desired outcome from our perspective and we teach our children to be fluent (fast) and decisive.  Again, skills that will better equip them for the real world.  Choice offers our children a chance to be the decision maker, and feel in control. What 3 year old doesn't want to be the boss? On the flip side, choice gives us a way to offer this control, while not having to compromise on the desired outcome.  It's a win-win.  "Do you want to take a bath or a shower?" Either way, they are getting clean.  Here’s the trick.  You have to offer appropriate and accessible options.  No bribing (i.e. "You can have this cookie if you put your shoes on!") and no begging/pleading or guilting "If you ever loved me, you would pick a pair of shoes! Why do you do this to mommy?!"  So I offer choice.  "Do you want to wear your brown boots, or your sneakers?" Holding both pairs in my hands, so she can visually see her choices.  This helps narrow her field of possibilities, as she looks at the front hall lined with multiple pairs of shoes for everyone in our family ( which is easily 20 pairs of unorganized shoes in sight).  I redirect her request to wear sandals (it's too cold for sandals), but again, focus on what is available. "You can wear brown boots or sneakers".  I may give her a timer to make a decision if she is still hesitant.  "You have 10 seconds to make a choice".  Shout out to Alexa for being my go-to timer, "Alexa, set a 10 second timer" (we actually have multiple echo dots around the house and one of our go to requests is a timer…and in all honesty, my kids respond much better to Alexa than me).  Disclaimer, initially you want to ensure you set your child up for success when using a timer.  This means you may need to give them extra time (e.g. 1 minute to pick a pair of shoes) the first few times you introduce a timer, to ensure they can complete the task (with help as needed) and earn a reward. This will motivate them to complete the task again in the future (more on this in step 6).  Ideally, you want to teach your child to follow through with your first request.  Not the tenth.  Have you ever wondered why they ignore you the first 3 times, when you call them down for dinner?  Hate to break it to you, but they have figured out that they only need to respond when they hear you stomping up the stairs while making threats. Enter step 5.  The importance of follow through. 


  • Step 5: Follow through.  Establishing what the behaviour analytic fields refers to as instructional control, meaning you have created a positive relationship with your child, in which the adult (aka you) has established a leadership role.  In other words,  your child follows through with a request when asked. You can think of this strategy as short term pain, for long term gain.  Like I mentioned above, you want your child to comply with your first request.  One of the best ways to establish instructional control, is by giving the instruction once, and then ensuring you and your child follow through.  Follow through looks different for every one and every task.  It often means, pairing your request with a prompt aka extra help.  Like I said, we gotta meet our kids where they are at.  It may require you to pick up the shoes and show them their choices, or putting their head and arms into their shirt, it may mean calling them down for dinner and then walking all the way upstairs and prompting them back down to the dinner table.  It may mean you physically turning the tv off after your first request for your child to do so.  It may mean you have to stand in the kitchen and hover over them (silently of course) while they put their dishes into the dishwasher.  You get the idea, you gotta put the work in.  Once your child sees that you always (or almost always, let's be realistic) follow through, they will understand the contingency and essentially learn to listen.  Your child will also be more likely to generalize this skill across environments and people, meaning they will listen to grandparents (ha!), teachers, babysitters and at swimming lessons etc. and you will inadvertently make everyone's lives easier! All around win.
  • Step 6:  The most important step.  Without this step, you may as well forget steps 1 through 5.  The most widely used and most effective strategy in the world of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).  Positive Reinforcement.  Rewarding the good.  This is not to be confused with bribery, which is the equivalent of dangling a carrot in front of a bunny.  Positive reinforcement comes after successfully completing a task and increases the likelihood of seeing that behaviour in the future.  We often use first and then language (the contingency I mentioned above) to let the child know what is expected and when the reward will be given. "First, you need to finish your morning routine, then you can be the first to pick your seat in the car". "First you need to hang up your backpack, then you can have a snack".  "First you need to put away your blocks, then you can rock in your swing".  You get the idea.  And don't get me started on it not being fair.  That one child gets more than another.  We all use positive reinforcement.  That coffee that started your morning, that glass of wine after a long day, the paycheck you get on Thursday.  The list goes on and on. Fair is not that we all get the same, fair is that we all get what we need.   We are more likely to do something again if we are recognized and praised/rewarded for our good work.  Ignore the negative, focus on the positive.  "Thank you so much for coming right inside! Why don't you go and watch some TV while I get dinner ready".  "I love how you didn't get angry when you tried to take your shoes off and asked Mama for help!"  "Wow! You are a such a great big sister, helping your little brother put his dishes away".  The more specific, the better.  The more immediate the better. The more often (at first but then faded/delayed) the better.  Catch them when they are good.  Social praise, like the examples above, can be paired with a tangible reward for getter impact.  For example, "You got your homework done before dinner, just like I asked…you can stay up for an extra 15 mins tonight".  For our early learners, you may need to pair your praise with an immediate tangible item.  "Good job sitting on your bum" paired with a tickle.  And finally, the reward is chosen by the child, not by us.  It has to be motivating to your child in that moment to be most effective.  And we all know how quicky kids can change their mind…the favourite dinner for the past 6 months is now the grossest thing you have ever put on their plate.  How could you?! Oh and another thing, so what if they change their mind?  Again, we all do this.  Ordered a glass of white at a restaurant only to flag the server down and switch to a glass of red.  The item is no longer reinforcing when it is forced upon you, or assumed to be what you would have chosen. And hey, look at it as another great opportunity to offer choice.  "Great job finishing your homework, do you want to play Lego or go to the park?"  (Don't forget, that like choice, the items must be readily accessible and appropriate at that time. e.g. while a sugary snack may be the #1 choice of your child, you probably aren’t going to offer one as a reward right before bed or right after they have eaten, as the child is likely already full and therefore food may no longer be motivating).  That being said, don't fall into the "change my mind to be a monkey" trap.  You may need to practice follow through on what you have identified as options for rewards as well.  Changing our mind on occasion is within reason.  Changing our mind to delay or avoid a task is another story.

These 6 steps can be applied to all transitions (and don’t need to be done in order to be successful)  Keeping in mind, that you may need to recognize which transitions are more difficult for your child and up your game at that time.  For example, the arrival home at the end of a school day.  How many of us hear from our teachers on a regular basis, that our child yet again "had a great day", only to fall to pieces the moment they arrive home?  On the flip side, we may have gotten the "didn’t have a great day report" from the teacher, knowing that things are even more likely to spiral when our munchkin gets home. They held it together all day at school and now they are in a safe space, where they can let it all out and decompress. This decompression so to speak, can take many forms.  Especially for a younger child, who is still learning social norms and understanding their own feelings and emotions.  Even more so for a child with a diagnosis such as ASD, SPD, Anxiety etc.  Reach into your toolkit and remember, pick your battlessave your breathoffer choicefocus on the positivefollow through and most importantly, your not so secret weapon, positive reinforcement.  Put yourself in your child's shoes.  Meet them where they are at.  The demand of getting on the school bus (with 20 plus other loud children) may have been the final straw that broke the camel's back.  Therefore, expecting your child to come in and immediately complete their "when I get home from school checklist" may just be setting them up for failure.  Do you scrap the list? Nope. But you may want to consider having #1 on the list be "Break Time".  Or you may want to be proactive (if possible) and show them a visual on the way home in the car, or on the bus (work with your school team to assist in the creation of a visual that can be placed on the back of the seat in front of them on the bus) that shows "First drive home, then break" or something similar.  Some of you may be thinking, if I give them a reward as soon as they get home, isn't this bribery? It's not.  Remember the demand is getting on the bus/or in the car and driving home.  First get home, then reward.  Wouldn't you rather your child come home and have an opportunity to engage in a preferred task/activity etc. instead of fighting with them for 15 mins and inevitably pushing them to a full blown end of day meltdown?  Every mothers 3:30 p.m. dream? Again it's a win-win.  Break time= extra time for you to get on with your day, or for you to have a break yourself.  "First home and then swing". Ahhh, something to look forward to. How many of us arrive home after a long day at work and immediately start working again?  As a busy mom of 3, there are many days in which I do arrive home to immediately begin working again (by switching gears and putting on my mom hat) prepping dinner, emptying the dishwasher etc.  On days where I had enough time to prep dinner and throw it in the crockpot (ha!) before leaving, I might get a few minutes to myself when I get home.  But more often than not, I reward myself in the car ride on the way home.  For me, that usually means, loading a favorite playlist and singing my heart out, or on especially draining days, driving home in complete silence, windows down. Basking in the glory of my own thoughts. Not a single "Mommmm!" for the next 20 mins. We all need a break.  The break allows us to reset, refocus and get ourselves ready for what is next. 

 Children thrive in structure and routine.  Children need to know what is expected, what is next and for how long. Children ask questions.  Lots of questions.  Children test boundaries.  Children need to know "what's in it for them?"  Children will make mistakes.  It’s all part of the learning process.  As they learn and grow, they will build on their own tool kit.  They will develop flexibility, empathy, compassion, independence.  They will understand that sometimes, there isn't anything in it for them, but they will learn to do it anyway. Just like adults. It's our job to foster their independence and lead by example.

 And now more than ever, we all need to work together for the greater good.

About the Author:

Tee Battistella, BCBA, M.Ed.

Tee has experience in both clinical and educational settings. She is currently working in the public education sector.

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