Young girl writing in book

Supporting special needs children settle into school

Going back to school after the holidays or a period of time off can be exciting and daunting, especially if you're a child with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND), but there are things you can do to support your child with their worries.

Your child’s individual needs might have mean that they face some unique challenges - particularly around settling into school. We know and recognise that the process of children returning to school or starting a new school is just that - a process of transition over a period of time, instead of a one off event we tick off the calendar, and requires that families are supported through that journey. This journey for some may take days, for others weeks or months - totally normal given how much change there has been to our everyday lives.

Throughout the pandemic, many families across the country have told us they experienced:

  • A change or disruption to accessing professional support services for their children with SEND needs
  • Limited access to support networks such as family, friends, and community or faith groups
  • Worry for family, loved ones, or perhaps even the loss of a loved one
  • Feelings of uncertainty about the future

We know that all of the above will have lasting effects on family life, including on a child's emotional well-being and how they have or do feel about going to school. You may, for example, have a child or young person who has preferred not being at school at all. This could be because school makes them feel worried, upset or unsafe, and therefore school might be a source of anxiety. 

Coping with change as a child with additional needs

For children with additional needs, we know that coping with change isn’t always easy. 

Having regular contact with your school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (or SENCO) to discuss a plan for helping your child with adapting to the processes of the school can really help. SENCO’s can provide practical advice on strategies for supporting your child with their school life, and can help you to take some of these strategies home with you, so your child feels a sense of consistency. 

Questions to ask your SENCO about going back to school:

  • How can I support my child to cope with the changes that the pandemic has brought about?
  • What strategies have you used, that I can adapt at home to make my child feel calmer about going to school? 
  • What strategies have you been using at the school to help other children with SEND?

You might also wish to share some of the techniques you have used with your child to help the SENCO or school as a whole better support your child. For example, if your child has found the sensation or the act of hand-washing difficult during the pandemic, you may have come up with a strategy that encourages or assists them with this, and sharing this can help them to support your child better. Alternatively, your school’s SENCO could help you develop a plan for this.

Using social stories to help children cope with change

Social stories or comic-strip storybooks can help children with additional needs understand particular situations and can be really helpful in the discussion of change and transition. They are designed to help children prepare for new experiences or (un)expected changes. Social stories usually consist of a story describing what is going to happen with pictures alongside as a visual aid. 

You might find social stories online such as those in the back to school section. You can read through these stories exactly as they are, or you might even want to get creative and develop your own. 

Tips on using social stories with your child:

  • You may want to create or adapt stories to include a special interest that your child has. This can make the story more appealing to them and help the ideas be understood. If you are unsure where to start, you can always reach out to your child's special educational needs co-ordinator (or SENCO) at school. 

You could ask them questions like: 

  • Are there any social stories you have been using at school to support children with additional needs that I could use with my child?
  • Can you email or post me pictures of the changes at school so I can incorporate them into social stories I develop for my child?

You may wish to collect together a series of images of your family, your child, objects, the school or your child’s teachers. You can then use these images as a starting point for creating new stories. You can tell your child a story verbally and use the images at different points to demonstrate what you are saying. This will allow you to be flexible in making a new story each time there is something you need to prepare your child for.

Support for parents with children who have Autism

If you have a child with autism, settling back into school may have been a challenge both for them and you as their parent or carer. Here are our top 3 tips which could help you with this:

  • You may be familiar with, and use scheduling and timetables. If not, they could be something you might want to consider adapting into your family life. Visual timetables are a set of pictures, symbols or photographs representing key parts of a particular day. You can find some free templates via the National Autistic Society. It can be helpful to share any timetables you create with your child’s school so they are better informed. 
  • Building in time for discussing worries about school (or anything else) in your daily routine (or even in a visual timetable) can help. An approach frequently used in therapy, it can develop a sense of control over the frequency and timing of a child (or adults) worries - over time freeing the mind from worrying during other parts of the day. You can use the ‘worry time’ to answer questions they might have, or simply to sit or lay with them, give a cuddle, and reassure them.
  • The use of sensory activities can be an effective way for children with additional needs to feel a sense of relaxation, allowing them to be creative and use their imaginations while engaging their senses. Sensory bags, or even boxes, can include any objects your child wishes to put inside. You could also speak with the school to ask what sensory items they might use and try to ask for help in using the same items at home to be consistent. Whilst your child is using the bag, you could ask questions like ‘what can you feel/see?’ ‘does it remind you of anything?’ whilst encouraging them to think with their imaginations. The more often the items are used, the more likely they will associate the bag with feeling calm and relaxed. 

Support for parents with children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

We know that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can also struggle with change, and therefore might find returning to school after a long period away challenging. Some of the strategies below may help:

  • Adopting a scheduling system, even visual timetables like the one described above, can also be helpful for children with ADHD in creating structure during uncertainty.
  • Using a sensory bag such as the one described above may help to create a sense of relaxation for your child as well as provide stimulation for them. 
  • Play is a great way to relieve stress and burn off any excess energy. You could create simple games to play with your child that don’t take a long time to set up. This could be something like a scavenger hunt around your home (eg: ‘go find me something grey’).

Find out more

More support for SEND children

Read more helpful information and advice for supporting your child who has Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

Children's mental health

Read more about children's mental health and how you can support them

Support our work

Your donation will help us reach more young people