child first day back to school
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Kids News Students Tips & Tricks Blog/Vlog

Remember the excitement of starting a new academic year every September? Even if you weren’t too fussed about school in general, it was usually thrilling to turn up on the first day and find out which of your classmates had had a terrible haircut over the summer and whether your new form tutor was really as bonkers as they were rumoured to be.

For children with special needs, however, returning to school after the long summer holiday can bring on immense anxiety. It all comes down to the ‘C’ word – change – which is nearly always difficult for kids with SEN.

But like it or not, a new school year is looming.

How can families prepare sensitive children to go back to the classroom so that it’s as stress-free as possible?

Physical Needs Come First

child waking up early for school

For Jane the mum of a teenage boy with Asperger’s and ADHD, gradually nudging her son’s body-clock back to early mornings is the first step. “During the holidays, he tends to stay up late playing on his computer and gets up at lunchtime the following day,” she explains. “As September approaches, I start mentioning that he’ll soon be getting up at 6.30 again. A few days before, I try and persuade him to go to bed a bit earlier to get used to the routine. It’s really important that he gets enough sleep before school because he gets more anxious and agitated when he’s tired.”

Visual Clues are Key

back to school calendar

Sharon, a retired special needs teacher and former local authority educational adviser, points out that all children are probably a little apprehensive about returning to school in September, especially after the Covid-based disruptions of the past year. “But neurotypical children may be more able to tell you what they’re specifically anxious about,” she says. “A child with special needs may find that more difficult, depending on their abilities.”

Even so, most parents, she says, will have at least some idea of what worries their child about school, though it may be more than one thing. “It might be the overall experience,” she continues. “It might be having a new classroom, being away from home or even the smell of school.”

Visual prompts can be very helpful in preparing a child with SEN for the new start in September, Sharon explains, as verbal explanations can be overwhelming. Giving children a folder over the summer with a picture of the school, their new teacher, teaching assistants and the playground, for example, allows them a sense of control as they can refer to it when they need reassurance. Likewise, a timetable or a calendar showing when they will be going back to school can also help children know what to expect.

Practical Strategies

child eating from her lunchbox

On the practical front, Sharon recommends:

  1. Buying a new school uniform well in advance so that the child can try it on and get used to wearing it. This also allows parents time to adjust uncomfortable seams or remove scratchy labels for kids with sensory issues. “Lay it out in their room so they can see it,” she prompts, “and whatever you do, don’t send them to school in a new pair of shoes on the first day! Give them time to wear them at home and get used to how they feel.”
  2. Eating from lunchboxes at home the week before – again, to reacquaint them with the old routine. And for kids who are nervous about seeing classmates again, a playdate in the park with one or two friends at the end of August can ease them back into social situations.
  3. Buy a notebook for them – “Once they’re back at school, older children might benefit from a notebook where they write down what went well and what bothered them about the school day,” Sharon offers. “It might be that they liked their new teacher but were upset that they didn’t know anyone’s names, for example. Writing it in the notebook enables them to express themselves and for parents and teachers to make changes to help them.”

Involve the School

parent talking to a teaher with pupil

If you can see that your son or daughter is overwhelmed with fear about going back to school, contact the school for help. “If it’s a new school, ask them if there’s a named person your child can go to and what help they can offer,” Sharon advises. “If it’s the school they already attend, staff will have some understanding of your child’s needs and you can hopefully work out a plan together. It may be that they can offer a gradual reintroduction to school, based over two or three days, for example.”

If you think your child would benefit from private tuition, why not browse through our listings and find your ideal SEN Tutor >>

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