Going back to school makes many of us nervous. We tend to re-live the sore spots of the past – the rude classmate, the poor grade on a paper – and dwell on it. We tend to worry about the future – I bet I’ll be lonely, my professor won’t understand my questions, I won’t do well. Our worrying is understandable when you think about the challenges: meeting new people, adapting to new classes and schedules, dealing with unanticipated changes, even learning a new environment for those starting a new school all involve social anxiety, transitioning and flexibility.
The challenges are real but there are strategies that can significantly help. Parents can use these tips to help their children; older students can use these themselves.
- First, think about self care. Start now to have healthy habits of eating well, sleeping, exercising and ideally, reconnecting with friends from school. If you’ll need to get up early, transition to getting up early now.
- You don’t want to be worrying about the past or the future; one is over and the other hasn’t happened. A meditation practice is proven to help you tolerate stress better. Any kind of meditation works – mindfulness, repeating a phrase, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, guided meditations, even walking. There’s apps to help you with any of these. Headspace and Calm are two popular apps whether you’re a beginner or a practiced meditator. What’s critical is finding time to do it daily.
- Take a step back and look at the issues that came up before. Generally, to quote a mentor of mine, it’s not one thing after another, it’s the same thing over and over. Talk with someone you trust if you need to, but identify the problems that tend to recur. This lets you come up with proactive strategies to either avoid them or to handle them better.
- Understand your academic needs. Have you identified potential sources of help? Have you reached out before, and if not, what stopped you? If you have reached out, what helped? You can set up regular meetings with a teacher/professor, tutor or learning center ahead of time.
- Organization is a problem for many. Having trouble planning and organizing work and time aren’t unusual issues, but you can get in a hole if you fall behind. Line up an executive function tutor/coach to help you plan and importantly, to check in with you during the week to be sure you’re on track; this can often help you avoid procrastination.
- If you have a tutor, special education help or work in a learning center, be clear about what’s challenging you. If people don’t understand what works for you it can be frustrating. Many experience someone as condescending if they’re explaining what you already know. Most important: speak up and be clear about what you need or feel. Too often people give up on help, not realizing it takes time for someone to understand your learning style.
- Especially if you’re moving to a new school or college, go early to familiarize yourself with the layout and how to find the buildings or rooms you’ll need. (It might be good to revisit even a familiar school after being away for the summer.) It’s important to identify school staff who can facilitate finding space if you’re in elementary – high school. For those in college, identify spaces where you can go for quiet time when you need it.
- Figure out what social situations are most difficult. Do you feel you can’t be your authentic self because you’re afraid of making mistakes? Do you misinterpret others, or become confused by their behavior? Are you anxious about meeting new people, knowing what to say and how to initiate relationships? It can be very helpful to work with a counselor who “gets” your problems. Someone like that can help you be proactive in coming up with strategies and can help you understand social situations and learn ways to handle them more comfortably.
What’s critical is to think about what’s expected for“fitting in” so that you are not exhausted by the effort. It can be helpful to learn if a particular behavior annoys others. Parents or students can educate teachers or school staff about social differences. It’s hard work to be thinking of what you are supposed to be doing all the time. Schools should be able to understand and accommodate a wide variety of students, both neurotypical and neurodiverse.
- Look for people who are accepting – they are out there, in your school and online. If you have areas of interest or talent, join a club to meet others with a similar interest. In college, find a professor whose work interests you and meet with them, perhaps finding yourself a mentor. It’s easier to meet people by doing an activity rather than just having to talk.
- To the degree that you are comfortable, share that you have a hard time with small talk, get anxious socially, or don’t always realize it if you’ve been hurtful with a potential friend or roommate. Ask for clear feedback so you can better manage the relationship..
- Sometimes sensory issues are the challenge – the noise level in a class, cafeteria or dorm, the lighting, or some other sensory aspect of the environment. If you have strategies to deal with the problem, like noise canceling headphones, use them. If you disclose your diagnosis, accommodations should be made to make you comfortable. If you’re aware of the problem from previous experience, work out accommodations before school starts.
- Often teasing and rejection are an issue. Find someone supportive, whether a school professional or another student who is sympathetic and a friend. Look for ways to stand up for yourself, and most of all, remember that there will be jerks and they don’t define you. See them for what they are and see your own talents and strengths – you are probably loyal, original, insightful, responsible, have a deep sense of integrity and are bright. Be sure to take in anything or anyone that affirms you, even keep a journal. We all tend to focus on the negative and blow off the positive.
These ideas are not idealistic and unreal, actually, being proactive and planning strategies, finding activities and affirmation go a long way to making this new year a significantly better experience. Focus on what’s positive and going well rather than dwelling on problems. Address problems early when they’re small and they’re less likely to become big. Make sure to address sensory issues yourself and with the school if needed. Pay attention to taking care of yourself – eating, sleeping, exercise, and having a balance of work and what you enjoy. Remember, always, that having differences is OK. Being different just means you bring different strengths to the table.