Published on November 28, 2023

What are the challenges for young children going back to school? As our children head back to school and extra- curricular activities, they are facing a lot, including daily separation from those they are deeply attached to. This can bring alarm to their bodies and subsequent displays of sometimes challenging behaviour. For those of you that have experienced the regular ‘big’ feelings that are released ‘after-school’ you will know too well what I am referring to. 

This will of course be different for every child, it might look like crying, anger, whining, defiance or even stubborn silence.

Navigating the school day takes effort from every child. Hours spent sitting still, listening carefully, learning new things, managing relationships, facing discipline – it all takes mental, physical and emotional work.

While school and the separation it requires can affect any child, for children with additional needs, sensory difficulties, anxiety and other challenges, it can become even harder.

There is so much that you are most likely already doing that you can tweak and maybe do more of that will help reduce the difficulties your child is facing during their school day. Here are some key strategies.

The Three R’s:

The rhythm of our days, weeks and months and the rituals that punctuate them are incredibly powerful in giving our children a sense of safety, security and predictability as they go about the school routine.

The predictability of daily rituals can be an anchor for your children offering them an incredible sense of comfort especially at times when their routine may be unpredictable such as a new teacher at school or recently separated parents meaning two different homes and routines to settle into.

Children actually find ‘physical and psychological rest’ in these rhythms and rituals. Research has shown that the simple act of taking part in daily rituals will activate the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous systems, a real antidote to the alarm response of the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for “fight and flight” and some of those after school behaviours mentioned earlier.

The same goes for having a consistent rhythm to the day where possible. Displaying your children’s daily rhythm at home can be very helpful, especially if you can put up some images or photos to go alongside the events in the day. Younger children especially benefit from this but it can be reassuring to all ages.

Can you see if there is any room for more consistent rhythm to your days or some ‘micro’ rituals that can easily be put in place? Here’s a few examples from parents I have worked with…

 A new song at bedtime/morning/brush teeth time?

A little hand massage at bedtime with lavender cream?

Light a candle at dinnertime?

The Story of Tomorrow – Previewing the Day:

Have you noticed that your child often asks, “what are we doing today/ tomorrow”?

Sometimes we are so busy making sure our daily plans and responsibilities are sorted that we can forget to take time to explain it to our children. The reality is that sometimes plans change and we can’t always prevent that but wherever possible helping our children to preview their days is so helpful to them, it is really soothing to their nervous systems and is a great strategy for helping them prepare for their school days.

You can use ‘The Story of Tomorrow’ with younger children right up to age 9/10 they really benefit from you describing the key steps in their day pictorially a little like describing a scene from a film. Mention things they can conjure in their minds for example “we will all sit and have breakfast together and you will have your blue egg cup and your juice”, “We will go to school in my car tomorrow and we will listen to your favourite song”.

If your routine is going to be different you can describe those differences, again using images much like a reel of a movie scene e.g., “you are going to be picked up by Tom’s Mum, that’s right she wears that red coat, and they have a green car”. You can involve them in the story by asking one or two questions like “what do you like to do when you first get in the classroom?” and have them describe where they may go/sit etc.

Just describing a few key points in the story of tomorrow is enough, they may become overwhelmed if you go into too much detail or too far ahead, you will soon see what works best for your child.

Bridging Separation:

If you know the rhythm of the days at school, it can be helpful to mention to your child some key moments during the ‘story of tomorrow’ and let them know you will be thinking of them at a particular time i.e., lunch time as it really helps them feel their attachment with you despite the temporary separation of the school day. This is referred to as ‘bridging’ separation and there are further simple things you can do to ‘bridge’, for example putting a note in their school lunch or giving them a photo or possession of yours to keep in their school bag.

Bridging in the morning before school to the time when you will see them again is always well received; try and be specific about something you will do together after school and then when you pick them up you can remind them “remember I said we would do this together? I have been looking forward to it all day!”. There is absolutely no need for grand gestures here it can be as simple as sitting and having a snack together and doing some colouring or reading.

The author of this article is founder of the Invisible Thread Parent Coaching.

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Schools can play a key role when it comes to supporting children through parental separation. When you separate, it is really important that you let the school know, that you ensure the school hold contact details for both parents, and the order in which parents should be contacted if there is an emergency. They may also need to know contact plans (days of the week that the child is with each parent). This allows schools to identify any patterns and changes in behaviour, and also to make sure they hand the children over to the correct person at the end of the day. It also helps schools to know which parent to contact if a child is late for school or does not arrive.

How Schools Can Support Your Child?

Many schools have support workers. They do all they can to ensure both parents take an extra interest in their child’s education, alongside Parents Evening and Parent/Teacher discussions. It’s not unusual for them to arrange for mum or dad to come into school for lunch with their child and have some special non-rushed private time for the child to show their work to their parent. It is worth asking the headteacher/leadership team in your child's school to see what extra support they can put in place. Schools should provide copies of all correspondence to both parents, including copies of school reports and all details about parents’ evenings, concerts etc. It is always worth checking with the teachers and school leadership team that this is being done.

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