Many children on the spectrum can have huge anxieties about school, and if we think about it it’s no wonder really; the hustle and bustle of the playground, the unwritten rules and complex friendship groups, and the language and sensory demands that bombard our kid’s fragile nervous systems is bound to take its toll. And that’s before we even think about our kids sitting still in a chair and actually ‘learning’ anything formally.
I worked for many years within the Primary Education sector with Autistic children, so I have a good understanding of what daily life for many kids on the spectrum can be like. I also have an 11 year old son who went through Primary school as a very anxious child with High Functioning Autism and sensory issues. He would often cope at school and reflect all his anxiety inwards, only to explode once at home. Until finally during Year 6 it all just became too much and his mental health
deteriorated due to prolonged anxiety. He now attends a specialist school in Year 7.
So I kind of feel like I am positioned well to see things from the perspective of both school and home when it comes to school related stress and anxiety. Some parents can feel that their concerns aren’t really taken seriously, and that they can come across as paranoid, overprotective parents as they often see a different child that the one that school sees. And that can cause conflict and tension between home and school which is helpful for no one (especially the child in the middle of it all). And with the new SEN Code of Practice it’s even more important than ever that schools works collaboratively with parents as that will lead to the best outcome for children.
However I completely understand that it can be really confusing when presented at school with a child that seems to have multiple sides. A child that seems fine at school and yet mum reports that as soon as they get home their child goes into meltdown; crying about their school day, struggling with their homework and lashing out at their siblings. But hard as this can be to get our heads around....this is real thing as many kids have the ability to hold it together until in their safe place.... which is nearly always at home.
So if you find yourself in this position as a parent or a teacher what can we do to help?
Open communication and trust
I know this sounds obvious really, but relationships can break down so easily, and this is completely avoidable. Parents are usually exhausted after years of little sleep and incredible stress, and often have been left feeling that no one believes them. So when meeting to discuss issues about their child remember that it’s taken a lot for these parents to ask to meet you.
And parents remember that teachers often won’t have had specific training on Autism. So share information, share good practice, be open and honest with each other about what you know, and admit if it’s something you feel out of your depth with. I know as a mum I know my child best and my views will be vital in helping school deal with any issues my child may be having, as can teacher’s knowledge of the curriculum and school policies be vital in working together to support each child.
Look for subtle signs
Many children on the spectrum don’t like drawing attention to themselves as this means they will have to have a social interaction of some kind, which can make them really uncomfortable. So instead they sit quietly and can appear to be coping. It means that we are going to have to look for the subtle signs. Parents will be really useful helping school with this as they know their child’s signs.
Things to look out for may include-
Rocking back and forward on a chair
· Chewing sleeves/ fingers/ hair
· Difficulty concentrating
· Wanting lots of toilet breaks/ wandering/ avoiding the task
· Disruptive behaviour
· Low self esteem
· Never volunteering to answer questions
· Lack of appetite at lunchtime
· Following the crowd
· Humming/ vocal noises/ throat clearing
· Finger picking/ scratching
· Over compliant/ very quiet
· Wriggling / difficulty sitting still
· Needing things explaining lots
· Late/ incomplete homework
· Forgetting verbal information
Work out ways to release the build up of pressure if you see any signs of stress
The school day is very busy and there are lots of things teachers have to squeeze in. But there are lots of quick and easy things that can be done to help children release the stress, relax or cope with the day with less uncertainly. And many kids on the spectrum have sensory processing difficulties too which will be having an impact on their ability to learn and process information.
So here are a few ideas to try-
· Fiddle toys when sat listening ( could be as simple as blue- tack)
· Physical exercise- break times are vital part of kids day, never take this away
· Carpet square for own place on the carpet, or even better let the child sit on a chair as they often need the support
· Brain breaks as part of the lesson
· A busy box filled with things the child can do independently for periods of free choice or when there is a lot of sitting and listening involved in the lesson
· Task sheets breaking down the activity
· Timetables up in all the classrooms
· Can homework be done in a lunch club?
· Ensure information is written down , including messages for home
· Incorporate special interests where appropriate
· Be aware of the environment; seating positions/ lighting/ smells/ noises etc and how this can affect a child’s ability to learn
· Provide a chill out area ( could be some cushions under a desk, or a pop up tent)
· A worry book/ box can help a child leave their worries at school
· ‘2 stars and a wish’ can be done as a 5 minute debrief at the end of the day (2 things you have enjoyed today, one thing that didn’t go so well) it’s quite a nice way to get a child to open up. Or simply some quiet time at the end of the day to listen to an audio CD or read a book as this can help with the transition home
· Very clear expectations and no open ended questions
· ‘Choice without a choice’ as some kids struggle being put on the spot; so “you can do this, or this”rather than "what would you like to do?”
· Remember some kids can struggle with the pace of language so wherever possible back up with visual support
Give home a ‘heads up’ on any changes to the day ASAP
Sharing information is essential for keeping children prepared for any changes .This could be done in a home school book/ emails/ a little note home on a post it note or a phone call at the end of the day. And parents its really useful for school to know things like your child has had a bad night’s sleep, they are fretting about a test, or non uniform day etc. Keep those communication channels open in whichever way works best for you both.
There are many more ways in which children can be helped at school. But as each child is so unique and different, their needs will reflect that too. Sometimes all we need to do is think outside the box a bit with our kids. A collaborative approach always works best, in which we listen to each other and respect each other’s knowledge and experience. The key to helping our kids is to learn from them. Watch them and listen to what they’re body language and behaviour is telling you as they can’t always verbalise it. Their needs can usually be met with a few simple modifications and good communication between home and school.
(This blog has been published on http://www.kathybrodie.com/ as a Guest Post 24/11/2015)