Its nearly the end of term and things are winding down for Summer. Work is getting less and fun is getting more. Children are more excited, louder. Special days are arranged such as non uniform days, sports days, fun days, school plays, school trips and summer fairs. It’s been sunny so everyone has to wear sun cream and bring hats to wear at playtime. There are short visits to new classrooms to meet new teachers and promises of all things different in September.
For a child who struggles with change and needs routine and structure to make sense of the world, this time of year can be very difficult. Suddenly school isn’t how it’s meant to be, it becomes unpredictable and anxiety inducing. It can almost be unbearable.
When new and exciting events are introduced to the school day, autistic children can become unsure of what is going on and what they are doing. What is happening next is a constant worry for them because everything they are used to has changed. Their normal routine has gone out of the window and these children that need to know what is happening next are suddenly thrown into chaos.
School plays and special assemblies can be really hard for children who don’t like crowds or being looked at. Year six leavers plays can be scary if they don’t understand where year six are going. Children with Sensory Processing Difficulties may struggle with the noise of excited children or crowded Summer fairs. Non Uniform days and sports days can be a nightmare for some children. To understand this more you can read this account written from the perspective of an autistic child. If school has toy day at the end of term then this can also be anxiety provoking.
The whole idea of moving classroom and changing teacher in September can be extremely daunting for autistic children, almost as if you are taking everything they know and changing it completely with hardly any warning or preparation.
So what can schools do to ease the stress on children who find the end of the school year difficult, whilst keeping the fun for other children?
Whilst the anxiety and stress probably won’t be completely gone, it can be reduced by caring teachers who understand.
Preparation is key. Before changing the timetable or doing an unexpected activity, warn the children. Explain what is going to happen in detail.
Consider making a new end of term timetable for the child’s parents. Put on it all the different activities and when they are happening so they can help prepare the child each evening and morning before they come to school. Don’t make changes to this timetable on the day.
Make a visual timetable for the classroom for each day and talk the children through what is going to happen, making sure they understand. Remind them of activities that are coming up next.
Consider giving the child a short social story to take home each day about what will be happening the next day. This can be either in picture or written form depending on their level of understanding. This would be especially good for unusual days such as trips or sports days.
For big events such as school plays, end of term trips, special assemblies and summer fairs, make sure the child knows exactly what will be happening before the time.
You will need to spend a lot longer preparing autistic children for their new teacher and class than other children may need. Understand that for an autistic child this is a major life change and not just a new class. Everything will be different for them and this is hard for them to deal with and get used to. Take it slowly and start months before the end of term. Introduce the child to the idea of changing class through social stories and talking to them. If you can find out who their new teacher will be then arrange regular visits to see them or activities where they get to know them. If you know which classroom they will be in then slowly but regularly introduce them to it. Take pictures of the new classroom and teacher to send home with the child at the end of term so they have something to look at with their parents to help them understand where they will be in September. Show them the way in if its different to the entrance they use and also if they are changing playground or tables at lunch time, show them these. Prepare the child as much as you possibly can to make the transition easier for them.
Similarly if you are a teacher who knows you will have an autistic child coming into your class in September, maybe make them a social story or information sheet with photos of your classroom. There are certain things that it is useful to know if you are looking after or teaching an autistic child. Just knowing that they are autistic is not enough because every autistic child is different. Knowing the child’s sensory needs, their triggers and signs that they are getting stressed is invaluable information, as is knowing how to calm a child in the best way, how best to communicate with them and how to make them feel happy and safe at school. With this in mind, arrange to meet their parents and ask their child’s needs. Ask for their triggers, their calm down methods and how you can best help their child to settle into your class. Make sure your teaching assistant is aware of all the information you gather.
What can parents do to help their child at the end of the school year?
As parents it can be really hard to get our heads round our children not finding the fun times at school very enjoyable but if we sit back and look at the reasons why, it is a lot easier to realise they may need our help dealing with school at this time of year. Here are some practical ideas to help.
Ask the class teacher for a timetable so you know what is happening each day and talk to your child about it frequently to prepare them.
Talk to your child’s teacher about ways to make school easier at this time. Could they take ear defenders if they might need them or do alternative activities, sit with you for assemblies etc.
For some children, this time of year can be so bad that children might start to refuse school. Some days are just too different and can be too much for them. Whilst some schools may put in place measures to help your child cope, others may not and it may may be worth considering talking to your child’s teacher about taking them home for the worst times.
Do you need to attend the summer fair, will your child cope? Can they stay with someone else or could school arrange for you to take your child in first before it starts so it is quieter and allow your child a queue pass for stalls or bouncy castles?
Arrange to meet your child’s new teacher as soon as you know who they will be and explain your child’s needs to them. Don’t just assume the message will be passed on, it may not.
Consider writing information down for the new teacher so they have something to refer to in September. Information about your child including things that make them feel secure, their sensory needs, their triggers, how to tell if they are feeling stressed, how to help calm them, and anything else you feel is important.
Consider planning calmer times for your child after school to help them destress if they need it more than normal.
How is your child coping in the run up to summer and what do you do? Do you have any other ideas? Share them in the comments, they might just help someone else in the next week!
If you are dreading the long summer holidays then you may find my post on surviving the school holidays with an autistic child useful!
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