The first day back to school after a break can be a real cause of heightened anxiety for many children, including not only my son who has autism but also for his two sisters - who just worry a lot.
You know the feeling, you have had a lovely few weeks off work and the day of return is steaming at you like a train – you can’t escape it or ignore it because it’s going to happen. And no matter how much you actually may like work you still worry about it. But we can think ahead and realise that no matter how much we worry, after a couple of hours back in the saddle it will feel like we have never been away.
But for our kids this kind of reasoning is very hard to do, especially if you have autism and your brain processes things differently.
You see our kid’s nervous systems are on constant overdrive to process all the sensory information that bombards them on a daily basis, and schools are often places where they have to work even harder to keep themselves regulated. The pace of learning, the noises, the constant social interactions, following unwritten rules, fast language, and busy rooms can all increase their anxiety levels.
For many children on the autism spectrum this high level of anxiety is something they learn to live with every-day, but it can make them feel really confused, vulnerable and exhausted. These feelings can become overwhelming for many kids, and can ultimately lead to huge school related anxiety and in some cases, like with my son, school refusal.
So I know from experience that there will be many families out there today, with the end of the school holidays fast approaching, that feel like they are treading on egg shells at home because their children are on the edge. They are so anxious about returning to school that the slightest thing sets them off - a wrong word or a brush past them on the stairs and they are in full meltdown mode from what appears to be like out of nowhere!
Jekyll and Hyde I used to call my son.
But really it’s not out of nowhere if we think about it - it’s just we can’t see what’s going on inside their little minds, and often they can’t tell us.
Inside they are literally bubbling with stress chemicals so they are on the edge and only the slightest little push sends them to lash out or want to run a way and escape to the safety their bedrooms.
So what can we do to help our kids, and how can we best get through the days leading up to the return to school when our children have such high anxiety?
Here are some ideas you may like to try -
(Many of these ideas will be relevant for school to use too when a pupil is very anxious)
· Reduce demands – Wherever possible don’t get into direct confrontation, give your child choices as when children become really anxious they can become oppositional at even the smallest of tasks.
· Keep language slow, calm and positive.
· Let them spend some of the day doing their favourite activity if it helps keep them calm, some children may need to 'stim' more to self-regulate, while some may want to retreat and limit interaction – respect this and don’t force things too much when your child is like this. When they are doing something they like it releases the feel good chemical which helps relax their central nervous system.
· Relaxation can work for many children – calming music, dimming the light, a hand massage, aromatherapy etc. can have a really calming effect on anxious children.
· Being outside in nature helps my son – walking the dogs/ climbing a tree/ a walk could all help.
· Make sure the day is structured even if it’s a day in the house - break it up into chunks using a visual timetable.
· Ensure you have the relevant information from school about what is happening that first day back – it may mean contacting the teacher to get the information beforehand if necessary if they don’t volunteer the information without a little nudge.
· Use this information to map out their first day back in school, as when your child is anxious any uncertainty will increase their panic. Write down what they will be doing – use visuals if that helps, all this will drastically reduce your child’s anxiety. Of course you NEED this information from school in order to do this, and its vital schools help you by recognising the importance of giving home the relevant information beforehand.
· Keep your day low key and warn family that the day before school starts probably isn’t the best day to do an unannounced visit – as much as your child loves them he may just not be in the right frame of mind to deal with a house full when he is feeling so delicate.
· For some children it can help them label their feelings using a scale. http://www.autismempowerment.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Incredible-5-Point-Scale-Fact-Sheet-rev.pdf
· Keep any directions or instructions really simple and concrete using visuals to reinforce your language.
· Heavy muscle work can help calm children – so riding a bike, jumping on the trampoline or sofa/ swimming/ swinging etc..
· Have lots of sensory activities at the ready such as fiddle toys/ lights / messy play/ weighted blanket for your child to use whenever they want throughout day.
· A transition activity ready at school for your child that they are happy and prepared for can help some children settle better at the beginning of the day. It could be that they sharpen the pencils every day when they arrive, or that they arrive 5 minutes early and don’t have to queue in the playground with everyone else. School should be open to any ideas that can help the transition from home and school become easier for our children.
· It’s also vital that you have time to pass on any info they may need to know like poor sleep etc. (this could be written in a home school book). If your child knows you are going to ensure you let the teacher know of anything that has been an issue for them it can help them feel calmer. My son often used to worry that this teacher wouldn’t know something, so just by me having that quick handover with his TA in the morning really put his mind at rest. It doesn’t have to mean you will spend 10 minutes each morning with the teacher as we all know that it’s not possible - but it is SO vital that the communication is open between home and school.
AS WHAT HAPPENS AT HOME DIRECTLY IMPACTS WHAT HAPPENS AT SCHOOL, AND VISA VERSA.
· And finally maybe have a motivating activity for them timetabled for their first day when they get back home - it could be a treat tea or favourite movie to look forward to when they get back for doing so well at controlling their anxiety.
And most importantly please give yourself some time too.
It’s hard on everyone in the family when you have a child with high anxiety. Especially the one who is often on the receiving end of the meltdown. Just as your child needs to be given time to recharge once they have reached school and start their day, so do you!
I know from personal experience that when your child is so upset and anxious you feel every inch of the emotions with them - and it takes its toll. You too will have stress chemicals pumping through your body so don’t ignore it- look after yourself. Give your own body time to recover, even if it's just a walk around the block before you dash off to do the weekly shop.
Please - because you are important too!