Suzy Rowland, founder of the #happyinschool project, and author of SEND In The Clowns (due for release on 1 Sept 2020), explores the challenges and emotions facing children with SEND as they prepare to go back to school.

We’ve all experienced such seismic change in the last few months, some of us will emerge from this extreme threat, shell-shocked and fragile, others will re-enter the world feeling energised and ready to grab life by the throat. Everyone’s response to potentially life-endangering events is entirely personal and depends on an almost infinite number of external and personal factors.

Like all political decisions, the government guidance on the pace of easing lockdown and getting kids back to school, has created tensions. Emotions are high but as far as possible, parents and professionals need to approach the transition as calmly and safely as we know how. Neurodivergent children tend to be highly sensitive to mood, they need us to be their beacon in the storm.

Online questionnaires conducted by academic institutions and SEND charities have shown wide disparity of lockdown experiences of special educational needs children and their families. Some have been bereaved or known a family member who has been ill with COVID-19. Others have fared better. Time won’t allow for teachers to conduct detailed read outs of every child on their return to education. Some children will run through the school gates excited about seeing their friends and teachers again, others will be so anxious or phobic about returning to school that they may only last a few days before they start refusing to go. The abrupt nature of the school closures – especially for those in key transition years, who have missed key ‘rites of passage’ rituals – may trigger a range of emotions that children with sensory or social communication difficulties common in children with autistic spectrum condition, will find difficult to express. Some will have attachment disorder, feeling terrified about leaving their parents, some will be depressed unable to explain why. All of this, on top of the challenges of their special educational needs, and possibly an additional physical condition.

Sleeping and eating patterns have been disrupted, and due to social distancing measures, some children with SEND have been deprived of vital health and wellbeing support networks. Big, isn’t it? It’s so big that their transition must be broken into digestible pieces; to which I have developed the CALM model to assist in delivery:

C – collaborative
A – adjustments
L – low stimulus
M – monitoring

Collaboration is the only way we can get through this: gathering the ideas, thoughts and opinions of everyone involved in the child’s learning, development and care, especially the young person themselves. Discussing objectives, looking at barriers to learning and discussing how they can be addressed. A trusted team around the child, with parents and professionals playing supporting roles, with the child’s needs front and centre, creates a strong scaffold for successful re-introduction to school. Understanding that resistant or oppositional behaviours may be the child’s way of communicating their fear or discomfort to another change. Using the communication tool that’s right for the individual is key; whether it’s play therapy, social stories or another system such as PECS (picture exchange communication system) or assistive technology. Parents and professionals need to allow plenty of time to explain and reassure along the way, because children won’t learn a thing if they don’t feel they’re in the ‘safe zone’.

Adjustments or reasonable adjustments to the school day, are an adaptation that children with special educational needs are legally entitled,  as outlined in the Equality Act 2010. Close attention to any SEND support plan or Education and Health Care plan is a good place to start to examine the specifics on what those adjustments could be. Movement breaks, extra time between lessons, lessons in a room away from peers, extra time for hand-washing or supervised access to hand-sanitiser are all examples of COVID-19 era adjustments. A worrying bi-product of the COVID-19, is the temporary legislative changes in special educational needs provision for children. In brief, the local authority’s duty in relation to the delivery of provision set out in the child’s education, health and care plan remains for them to use ‘reasonable endeavours’ to secure or arrange support, rather than a legal imperative. This guidance is in place until 31 May 2020 and will be reviewed before 1 June 2020.

Low Stimulus – School will be where COVID-era children will display a variety of anxiety disorders. Schools may need to consider a ‘transition zone’ where anxious, or over-stimulated children can acclimatise to the school environment in a calm, quiet, soothing space, check in with a member of staff, before entering the technicolour experience of school. Children with ADHD may need time to settle back into the school routine, after a significant period of freedom of activity and the ability to disperse energy more freely than would be allowed in the more rigid environment of school.

Monitor – Transition activities can be done before, during and after change, large or small, hopefully teachers are already in regular dialogue with their pupils ahead of their return. Parents should endeavour to talk positively to their children about going back to school. Once children are back, probably in a staggered format, teachers and parents will need to monitor children’s’ progress closely as they get used to the new ‘normal’ it may not be plain sailing, a drop of CALM is an ingredient we will all need.


Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay 

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