Returning to school can be an exciting time, though also scary and overwhelming for many children. This is even more true for our children with disabilities, whether a physical disability, psychological or cognitive disability or neurodiversity.
Facing this challenge often results in them getting stuck within the limbic loop of fight, flight or freeze, and struggling to regulate emotions and move into their optimal band of arousal. This can often be perceived as the child being deregulated for extended periods and parents commenting that their child has regressed and seem to have “lost” skills.
Although we can not take away all of the stressors for our clients, we are able to assist our parents and little clients to make this transitioning period a bit easier.
Be positive about returning to school:
- Ask your child how they are feeling and validate their feelingsg feeling anxious about meeting their new teacher and classmates. Be calm, supportive and reassuring.
- Promote positive conversations surrounding school by asking what they like about school and what they look forward to in the new year. Where possible, create a visual board as a reminder of what they enjoy and a reference when they sart to feel overwhelmed. This can be a fun activity to involve your child in.
- If there are concerns regarding COVID, address these as soon as possible by referring to the school policy as well as the state Health advice.
Re-establish your routines:
- Routines help provide security and it will therefore be helpful to re-establish routines and plan for return to school routine.
- The week before school starts, bring back the usual sleep-wake routine as well as eating meals at specific times. Check school uniform and school supplies. Involve your child in choosing stationery, lunch boxes and school bags. Make buying or altering the school uniform a special occasion – e.g. make it a special parent-child date and go for a treat afterwards.
- Allow more time during the mornings for the first week of school or however long your child needs. This results in everyone being calm while getting ready and setting your child up for a good day by arriving at school calm and collected.
- Allow time for regulation during your morning routine. This help set up your child for success during the whole day. Discuss the best regulation activities targeted for your child’s specific needs with your ORS Occupational Therapist.
- Go onto the schools’ webpage and print the photo of your child’s teacher to familiarise them with their new teacher and make it easier to recognise their respective teacher on the first day of school.
- If possible take your child to school and fetch them in person until such time that they are settled.
- Inform the school of your child’s specific needs. This includes verbal feedback, but also email correspondence. Include all your child’s reports. This will enable the staff at school to create a file for your child and support them by taking into account their specific individual needs.
- Discuss a transition object with the school staff for the first few weeks of school. This may include a toy or specific object from home that helps them to feel safe. Once settled, the item is either placed in a specifically dedicated basket or your child’s bag. It is NOT to be played with during the whole day. The objective is to help your child transition from home to school and back again.
- Ensure your child’s sensory needs are met by either providing the sensory equipment your child will need in the class or ensuring beforehand that it is available in the class. g. noise-cancelling headphones, weighted lap blankets, wobbly cushions, vibrating pads and fidget toys to name a few. Your ORS Occupational Therapist can also liaise with your child’s teacher and complete school based sessions to assist to implement a school-appropriate sensory activity schedule.
- Discuss your child’s sensory needs with the teacher as well as the strategies recommended by your Therapist to support them within the classroom e.g. movement breaks or quiet time out.
Back at home:
- Prepare for a few difficult first few days or weeks. Our kids often hold it together at school and then have meltdowns at home. This is really hard to deal with, but a little easier once you understand that coming home is often the last sensory drop in the basket that then sends them over the edge. It also helps to understand that your child feels safe with you and therefore feel that they are allowed to express their feelings and emotions.
- Validate their emotions, but not their behaviour. g. you are allowed to feel angry and frustrated, but you are not allowed to hit your siblings.
- Prepare for coming home from school. If you are collecting your child from school, go home directly and do not see it as an opportunity to run errands. If you need to run errands try and do them before collecting your child, or later on in the day once they have had some time to regulate at home. Have strategies in place such as crunchy, chewy snacks, headphones or a Unless your child requests a specific song, ensure the radio is off as it is often overstimulating.
- Talk to your child about their day. Ask what went well, what was hard, and what they look forward to the next day. If your child struggles to verbalise their feelings, let them draw a picture.
- Ensure there is downtime once back at home. Time where your child can destress and relax. Allow them to have 30+ minutes of doing what they want to help them process the day. This can include watching a favourite show.
- Assist your child in getting back into their after-school routine. This includes after school activities, therapy, play and homework. Visual schedules help prepare kids for what is expected on any given day. If at all possible, hold off on any extra activities during first week of school.
- Have a dedicated area for homework. This is individual for each child and family. Some kids prefer a quiet space in their room, whereas others enjoy working at the kitchen counter. Experiment with what space and time work best for your child and ignore what is considered the “norm”. As part of setting up a homework station, ensure there is dedicated stationery available and that the seating is ergonomically set up.
Supporting your child:
- Settling back into school may take time, reassure your child that this is normal. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and ask for help.
- Send a communication book to school. This way you can stay up to date with what is happening in the classroom and support your child at home with what they found challenging. It also assists your child’s teacher to know what you find hard at home (e.g. homework, behaviour). Be realistic regarding the time your teacher has available so keep communication brief, and if you are really concerned, consider setting up a meeting.
- If your child finds specific activities challenging, encourage them to persevere or take a small break and then return to the activity at hand. Remind them of past experiences where they also found something challenging and by persevering and practising they ended up mastering the activity.
- Be flexible – what worked last year might not work this year. More often than not things do not go as planned. Although a good routine is vital for all kids, it does not happen overnight! Keep on communicating with your child and teacher until you find a rhythm that works for all of you. For your non-verbal child, be especially mindful of their non-verbal cues to assist them during this transitioning period.
Finally, be good to yourself. This is a difficult time for your child, but is equally stressful to you as a parent, as we all just want our kids to be happy and adjusting well to their new routine. Talk to your ORS Occupational Therapist to discuss how we can support both you and your child during this challenging time.
We at ORS wish you and your child a successful 2022!
Learning and Development Manager – Occupational Therapy Services
Marga is an Occupational therapist with over 20 years of clinical experience working with a diverse group of clients within the paediatric field. She has worked with diverse paediatric clients including syndromes, chronic conditions, physical disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. Her area of expertise lies within the paediatric field with a special interest in Cerebral Palsy, sensory integration and early intervention. She is passionate about helping children and their families reach their full potential by engaging in meaningful activities through intervention and education.
Marga has extensive experience in mentoring younger therapists within the paediatric clinical setting, Facilitating learning experiences and building practical skills. She is passionate to help therapists use the best practice principles through evidence-based interventions.
Marga brings an enthusiasm for learning and researching to her Learning and development role at ORS, ensuring she stays up to date with trending topics and new research. She is keen on attending courses, webinars and conferences to continually build on her own skills and build on her CPD portfolio.
Marga is AHPRA registered and a member of Occupational Therapy Australia.