You know the feeling when you come off a roller-coaster and your body thinks you’re still moving? Returning to the school routine after the long summer holiday, can feel a lot like this, so I’ve put together some back to school advice for SEND parents. Late morning lie-ins, strange meal times and all of the delicious experiences that make up the summer holiday, can play havoc with your childrens’ sleep routine [1]causing anxiety about the return to school.

High school can be high stress

The transition to high school can be an intense experience for children with disabilities. Children with hidden disabilities and social anxiety, in particular, find the onslaught of new friendship groups, teachers, extra-curricular activities and so on, tricky to navigate through a transition period. This is due to a number of reasons; including [2]executive functioning or working memory challenges, as well as a reluctance to change a [3]comfortable routine. Thankfully, some schools invite children to start a day earlier than the whole school, which provides an opportunity to experience the environment up close, without the added pressure of hundreds of other children and staff.

A visual tells a thousand words

If you and your child visited their new classroom or school, before the hustle and bustle of the first day, I’m sure that would have been really helpful. Some schools provide school maps, which are great for learners who benefit from visual cues to assist their memory processing. Ask your child if they’d like a map of the school either a physical or a digital copy, and also a list of teachers’ names.

Having a paper or digital reminder of all key information relating to lockers, lunch passes, computer logins, library cards, travel cards, etc., can be especially helpful, as these can be a big cause of stress. If your child will need to use assisted transport, getting a feel of the route before they start, is also helpful.  Meeting the key staff members either in person or online can be massively reassuring for some children, especially if they haven’t met their teacher before September!

Parents’ Grapevine

Check the school website or the parents’ WhatsApp group to make sure you’re clear about the basics: school start and finish times, rules about pick up and drop off, seating plans lunchtimes, homework, locations of classrooms, canteen, toilets, main hall, school rules, names of key staff members and their roles. Make time to share this information with your child in whatever format they can best access. Visuals are a clear winner here again. Here are seven important reminders:

#1. Refresh yourself with their transition plan.

This will remind you of the process for the first couple of days, you may need to organise an early pick up for example. Does your child know their teacher, learning support person or SENDCOs name? Have they got the right uniform, taking into account any adaptations for comfort? Waiting for online deliveries or trying to find the right equipment can be stressful, so try to look at these details early (I’ve been there).  If you need to get feet measured, give yourself plenty of time to avoid the crowds.

#2. Talk positively to your child about returning to school.

If you’re worried or angry about the decision, your mood will transfer to your kids. Try to keep your conversations about school matter of fact, they will start to model your confidence about this big change.

#3. Listen to your child’s fears

If they’ve been worried about leaving established friendships or are fearful about certain subjects or other aspects of school, you may wish to consider some [4]child-focused therapy. In the meantime, a little bit of reassurance goes a long way.

#3. Plan together – transition techniques: ‘First… & Then or Now.’

Switching brain activity between different tasks, can be challenging for autistic or ADHD kids. The “First and Then” technique helps you explain with pictures or simple words, what’s happening now and what is coming next. “First you were on holiday, now you need to go back to school to see your favourite teacher/friends again.”

#4. Review the paperwork – SEN support/EHCP

What supports used to be in place before the holiday? If your child had an LSA at playtime, will that happen when they’re back at school? Who supports your child if a member of staff is ill?  If your child managed mainstream school with a tight support plan in place, how will they manage if any link in their support chain is broken in their new school or class? Do your research, speak to the school, be ready.

 #5. Quiet Zone

If your child’s school has a Quiet Zone, calm down area or wherever it is that they can go if they feel unwell, overwhelmed or need extra help, remind them that they should use this space, remind them how to get there, how to ask for help and who to ask for help. Rehearse this with them and make sure your version of your child’s safety zone/opt out plan matches the school’s protocol. Chatting with other parents from your child’s school is a great idea, seek out the parent who knows everything!

 #6. Changing body clock

Sleeping and eating patterns have been disrupted during the holiday. They’re tired and wired. They may have missed key weekly activities and sports.  Kids with ADHD may have been on and off their meds as you’ve struggled to cope with their energy levels.  Just as their body clock is adjusting to holiday-time, the routine is changing again! Try creeping bedtime forward by fifteen minutes or encouraging them to wake up slightly earlier – it will make going back to school less of a shock.

 #7. Dealing with trauma

If your child has experienced any sort of trauma e.g. a bereavement, an accident or illness during the Summer holidays, makes sure that the school is aware, as your child may experience flashbacks, anxiety and need extra support at times. I urge you to share this in confidence, with a member of the teaching team, as this information will enable staff to support your child better.

Article by Suzy Rowland, ADHD & Autism Specialist, Mindful Cognitive Behaviour Therapist & Speaker and author of S.E.N.D. in the Clowns.

[1]  https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/healthy-sleep-habits-how-many-hours-does-your-child-need.aspx

[2] https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

[3] https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/dealing-with-change/all-audiences

[4] https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/

Article by Suzy Rowland, founder of the #happyinschool project, and author of S.E.N.D. In The Clowns is now available from Hashtag Press, suzyrowland.com/shop and all other good bookstores.

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