Many children find change difficult to cope with. Uncertainty creates a feeling of insecurity, which can be hard for a child to make sense of. Changes during education, whether it’s a new teacher, class or whole setting, are some of the most daunting experiences children go through. For children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), school transitions are particularly stressful.
Children with SEND may have neurological differences, where they experience and think about the world differently to their peers. Just getting through the front door can be a huge hurdle. Some children have difficulties with executive functioning, the brain systems that enable us to plan and be organised. They may also find it hard to make sense of how everything is spatially laid out, i.e. where rooms are in relation to each other. An expectation that they should independently plan what to do, and work out how to get to where they are going, can cause panic and worry. Children with physical disabilities may come across additional barriers when navigating their way around an unfamiliar class or building. A new learning environment will need adapting, for example if they use a wheelchair, guide dog or radio aids.
Once inside the classroom, children with learning difficulties may find their stress increases further. Perhaps they can’t understand the instructions or remember what they learned previously. Or maybe they feel overwhelmed because they never seem to know the answers to questions, but are not yet familiar with the new adults in school to feel comfortable to ask for help. They may mask frustrations or try to avoid tasks they find challenging with ‘silly’ behaviours. For children who struggle to maintain attention, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a new classroom environment provides an overpowering display of colour and movement, that their brains have to work hard to decifer what is relevant and what should be filtered out. Some children have low self-esteem and will constantly compare themselves to their peers. The worry of not knowing where they ‘fit’ within a new peer group can cause added anxiety.
Next comes the dreaded lunch hall. Often a nightmare for children with sensory processing conditions, the noise and chaos can be confusing and stressful. There may be uncertainty about who to sit next to, or the need to go somewhere quiet and have a bit of space to calm down. Some children with SEND have dietary or toileting needs that they may be embarrased about, and so the lunch hour can be a particularly worrying time for them. In 2018, research carried out by Essity found that “44% of children avoid using the toilet at school weekly.” It’s important to ensure toilets and health care facilities within schools are hygeinic, so children with medical needs feel comfortable using them.
Playtimes often do not receive enough attention when planning for a child’s transition, both within school or to a new setting. They are usually the least structured times and busiest environments. Children with autism or speech and language difficulties may find it hard to establish and keep new friendships. They may not know how to interpret social situations or manage disagreements, and so lash out verbally or physically because they feel misunderstood or that there has been an injustice. Despite wanting to be liked, making new friends can seem an impossible task. Children with ADHD typically have difficulty regulating their emotions. They know how to manage social situations but struggle to do so ‘in the moment’ when their feelings overwhelm them. They risk becoming labelled as ‘the naughty child’ in new settings, if their specific needs are not clearly understood, by teachers and other children.
Despite these potential stressors, if managed well, the negative impact of transitions can be hugely minimised. The key is in effective planning and communication. It is never too late to start thinking about strategies and talking with the adults who will support your child at school. Start by reading the school policies. What are their provisions for SEND pupils, particularly with regards to emotional wellbeing? Do they have any transition information? The SEN Code of Practice states that nurseries and schools should “plan and prepare” for transitions between different education phases, which includes sharing relevant information about your child with a new setting. Aim to find out what your child’s school state they will put in place, so you know that your expectations are reasonable and consistent with what the school offer.
Pick up the phone and have some introductory conversations with key adults who will be working with your child, letting them know you’re happy to answer any questions they may have. This includes school administrators, who children frequently speak with, especially at secondary school. They are well-placed to provide practical support to children during transitions, if they have a clear understanding of their needs… do not underestimate the impact a welcoming comment can have on reassuring your child, at the start of the school day. By building positive relationships with school staff, you will increase the number of people you feel comfortable discussing issues with, and help create a stronger, proactive support network around your child.
So how can you help prepare your child for a transition? Firstly, manage your own expectations. Your child needs to know that you don’t expect them to love the change in their education, and that it is okay for them to let you know if they need extra support. Secondly, plan ahead by creating a transition pack. This can be in any format that works well for your child, such as a folder or computer document. Try to include relevant comprehension aids to run alongside everything that is written, to make the pack accessible. For example, braille if your child is blind, videos with signing if your child is deaf, or pictures and symbols if your child has language, communication or learning difficulties.
Here are some suggestions for what information to include in your child’s transition pack:
- New environment – what school will look like
- New expectations – what break/lunchtimes will be like, and how to transition between classes
- Resources – where things are kept
- Quiet area – where there is a safe space they can go if feeling stressed
- New vocabulary – e.g. explaining the meaning of social distancing, hygiene, etc.
- Key people – who to go to for help in school, how to ask and what will happen (include photos); consider lessons, assemblies and break times
- New timetable – what your child will do, when and who with
- Friendship tips – what to say, ideas for play, and conversation starters for interacting with other children
- Hopes and worries – written or drawn by your child, or you can scribe for them; what they hope the transition will be like and things they are worried about
- Systems for being organised – e.g. checklists, personal diary and visual reminders
- Transition prompt sheet or keyring cards – reminders of key information and rules (school and social expectations), explaining new experiences step-by-step
- Personal Profile – written with your child and key staff; include the key information all school staff must know about your child’s transition needs, who will share this with them, how and when
Finally, it is alright to worry as a parent; it’s completely normal when you’re placing your child’s wellbeing in someone else’s hands. But try to view your own emotional experiences as an opportunity to model coping strategies to your child. Show how to recognise and manage feelings in a safe way. One of the biggest issues for children with SEND is regulating their emotions; understanding what they are feeling and knowing how to cope without losing control. This becomes so much harder during times of change. Listen to what your child’s behaviours are telling you they are feeling, provide frequent reassurance and include them in planning strategies to help them adapt. By making the unknown as visible and concrete as possible, you can reduce your child’s stress and help plan a smooth transition.