September heralds the end of the long summer holidays and the return to school and college for many children and teenagers. Many children go back to school full of enthusiasm about the new academic year, returning happily to their friends in the playground with shining new shoes and pencil cases full of sharp new pencils!
But what about the many children for whom the start of the school year brings anxiety and fear? It is estimated nationally that one in every 100 children has an autism spectrum condition. In Surrey the figure is estimated to be nearer on in 60. For children with autism the start of a new school year means a period of transition and change, and this is something that individuals with autism can find very difficult to cope with. September doesn’t just mean shiny new shoes and stationary, it also usually means a new classroom with different sights and smells, a new teacher and often new children too. For those transitioning into Secondary school the change is even bigger as children leave the relative security of the primary system and enter an environment that is huge in comparison with many transitions happening throughout the day.
It’s not just children with autism who may cope with the new term. Sadly around 10% of children will be suffering from a mental health problem at any one time, with nearly half of this number made up of children who have anxiety disorders.
So as a parent or carer of a child or teen for whom the start of the academic year fills them with dread not excitement what can you do to help?
Firstly, and most importantly – talk about it! Don’t try and brush your child’s fears aside with a “it will be fine!” The best way to deal with fears is to bring them out into the open.
Remind your child that it is NORMAL for them to feel anxious and worried about going back to school. Everyone will be feeling really nervous about their first day back, even their teacher!
Give your child some really simple breathing exercises to do if they begin to feel anxious. I teach the children I work with to imagine that they are breathing in the petals of a flower, so breathing in slowly through the nose, then blowing the petals off, by breathing out through the mouth. Counting backwards from 10 or 20 can also be a great distraction technique.
Preparation and planning can help everyone feel calmer. Arrange for a visit to the school when it is quiet before the start of term, look at photo’s of the building and the staff on the website to try and make everything a bit more familiar. Make sure your child is familiar with things such as where the toilets are, what time lunch will be etc as this will help lower anxiety.
It is also really important to make sure you communicate with your child’s school and tell them how your child is feeling. Your child may need a named adult, an exit card of a safe-place to help them until they feel settled into the new term. You could also ask for a copy of your child’s timetable in advance so that you can help them prepare for lessons and give them extra reminders for equipment etc in those unsettling first few days and weeks.
As a parent it is really important to be a good role model, so be positive, calm and organised about the start of the new term yourself. Start talking about the new term a couple of weeks before the end of the holidays, talk about the new routine, new teachers etc. You could also start trying on uniform and getting things ready a couple of weeks before too to help prepare for the change in routine.
I wish you all a happy and successful new academic year!!
(For more tips and advice on how to cope with the transition back into school email me at firstname.lastname@example.org