Starting a new school is a big deal for all children, but for children with special needs - and their parents - it can be more frightening than exciting.
So what can be done to ease the stress and calm the nerves? As always, it all boils down to good planning.
Ask your child what they need to know about the new school. Make a list together of questions that you can ask when you visit the school. Where do I go for help? Who can I speak to if I’m worried about something? What can I do at breaks or lunchtime? Where do I go for lunch? What do I do if I’m late?
Visiting a new school
Visits to a new school are vital. It’s important to familiarise your child with the environment and the people. All schools run transition days but do ask for more visits if necessary. Spend some time there doing something fun like painting or listening to a story. Gather as much information as possible. Ask for a map of the school. Get a weekly timetable (or an example) and ask for the school rules. Take a camera and take photos of teachers, playgrounds, classrooms and sports halls.
Go by the book
Buy a scrapbook and add photos from your visit, timetables, pictures or any information from the school website. Add in photos of your child dressed up in the new uniform. Create a morning routine page using pictures. Plot the journey to school in pictures - perhaps the front of and inside of the bus, the landmarks you pass on the way, the pedestrian crossing to use.
You can then go through this scrapbook with your child repeatedly during the holidays.
Making friends at a new school
Find out who else is starting at the school and try to arrange play dates. Ask if there is a buddy system and if you can contact any ‘buddies’ in advance.
Prepare your child for starting school
- Keep a calendar to help with time scale. ‘How many sleeps until school starts?’ But don't let it become a countdown, it will feel like a sentence. Try the 4KidCal app – it makes planning fun and interactive.
- Find out what they need to take in their school bag. Let them choose a pencil case, pens, pencils, calculator etc. Add a familiar toy or something comforting to hold when they’re feeling anxious – just make sure it’s something small.
- Buy the new uniform, and lots of it. Second hand spares are always a good back up when things get messy or lost. And make sure it’s comfy. If it’s not, give yourself plenty of time to investigate alternatives. Let your child choose their own shoes or a new bag; make sure they are involved in some way.
- Consider sensory issues. Would sunglasses or earplugs help? Or something with a familiar smell that they can pop in their bag?
- Make prompt cards to keep in their bag. ‘If I can’t find my class - I will ask a teacher or go to the secretary’s office.’; ‘People who can help me are...’; ‘If I arrive late I will…’ etc.
- Use social stories to explain situations so they can understand what to expect at school. Stories (with your child as the main character), using photos and drawings can help all children with special needs, not just those on the autism spectrum.
- Do the ‘Autism Sound Walk’, an interactive tool that lets you make your way around a school map listening to the sounds and getting used to the noises.
- Take a look at the Talking About Secondary School app. It shows different scenarios of situations at school along with response pictures. This is a good way to chat about what’s the right or wrong thing to do.
- See this article on transition from the National Autistic Society.
Do dummy runs
- Rehearse the journey now and then. And time it.
- Practise choosing and buying food in cafes to make lunchtime less daunting.
- Go to a library regularly and spend time there; it’s a good place to get used to and a welcome retreat at school.
- Practise putting on new uniform, including any PE kit.
- Encourage your child to pack up their school bag. Then do a school role-play with them.
- Encourage them to start using a diary to help remind them of things like homework or what they need to take to school the next day.
- Join a new club or activity and practise talking to new people and making friends.
The greatest anxiety is a fear of the unknown so making things as relaxed and familiar as possible is the key. Never use school as a threat; keep it positive. Talk to your child so you know what’s worrying them. Keep in regular contact with school staff. And finally, be flexible, be patient, and go at your child’s pace.