Transition periods are always tricky regardless of who or what is involved but school transition comes with a whole host of extra emotions particularly when your child has additional needs and / or is unable to talk to you about their experience.
I found myself in this position three years ago when Harry visited his current school with his old teaching assistant. I met them there but was told that parents ‘didn’t have to stay’, a polite way of saying ‘thanks mum but take your worry elsewhere for an hour and let us get to know your child without you hovering and panicking’. As a teacher myself I know only too well that the best way of getting to know a child and build a relationship with them is through spending time with them and that parents, despite their great intentions, can often get in the way of that. So, with an understanding but heavy heart I left my boy for an hour and returned later to find that not only had he survived (of course he had) but he’d had quite a good time. Yes, he’d been quiet and clinging to the one person he knew. Granted he looked lost on the enormous playground with other children much older and bigger than himself. But knowing the terrain would come in time and I loved the energy of the school.
Last week, as I called to collect Harry early from school, I saw the anxious mother I had once been as she reluctantly waved her non verbal daughter off for an hour with staff who had never met her, into a building she’d never been to before. I knew the anxiety she wore like make up, I felt the conflict of knowing that her daughter needed this but being terrified of the unknown, I remembered the questions ‘is this the right place?’ ‘but they don’t know him yet, how will they and he cope if he gets upset?’, I recalled the feeling of wanting to sweep Harry into my arms and not let him go. But they were all my own worries and, as usual, Harrys transition was a fairly smooth one. Most of the indicators that he was unhappy were in his primary school as he noticed new children coming into ‘his’ room and couldn’t cope. From September, he wasn’t distressed much at all. I touched the mums arm and told her that I rememered everything she was feeling right now but that my son was happy and thriving in the school I am only too happy to recommend. She seemed grateful but I knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable for at least another 59 minutes.
Today, I want to share 7 of the things that I did that really helped both Harry and myself as he prepared to leave the school he had called home since he was 3 years old and go the ‘big school’. There are also elements here that we have returned to when he has moved to a new room or staffing team.
Prepare in advance
Its absolutely fine (and often expected) that you will have questions about things such as timetables, policies and procedures etc of a new setting. Write them all down before your visit so that you remember to ask them all. You may add to the list or find that many of your questions are answered as you are shown around but don’t worry. It’s much better to be prepared than lie in bed wishing you’d asked something. Also, don’t be afraid to take a tip sheet in for your child as well. You know them the best. For example, I wanted to remind staff not to approach Harry from his left as he has a false eye and no ear on that side. It can hurt your head to think of all the little things you do which you take for granted and need to explain to somebody else and actually they are probably things that staff will figure out anyway but if it makes you feel more comfortable to have staff aware of extra details then go for it!
Be mindful of permissions but I took photographs of the entrance to Harrys drive and school building. I also requested photographs of the staff who would be working with him and the rooms he would be in. Even now, if he moves to a different class I will ask for photos of staff and the classroom. In the UK we have a 6 week summer holiday and it’s easy for children to forget details that they learned in July ready for September. Photographs are a really useful tool to help keep those memories fresh.
Run the route
I found it helpful to drive to his new school and home again a few times as his new start date approached to get him used to the route. Of course, if your child is being collected as one of a number of children sharing the same transport then it may be tricky to know the exact route but there are definitely land marks to point out particularly for the route home if your child is struggling on the journey.
Chase up transport
On the subject of transport, this is one of the hardest aspects of special education. Finding, and securing the best drive and chaperone is no easy task and I have had to stand my ground on more than one occasion when the transport hasn’t been suitable. One driver once turned up without a chaperone so I refused to send Harry to school (who would stop him from opening the back doors?). Another driver turned up with a chaperone who couldn’t speak any English. As much as I am accepting of other cultures, my son with very limited communication skills needs someone who can at least understand him and chat with him particularly if he is distressed. Good transport is worth their weight in gold. Harrys current driver and chaperone are absolutely incredible. They know he hates waiting at traffic lights and so will take a different route and if I am going to be late for the drop off I have known them to explain there will be diversion and take him for an ice cream. They are amazing. Your local council will look at prices, so be prepared to fight for the transport that makes a difference to your child if they are not the cheapest.
A visual timetable for the six weeks holiday can help not only to show the days where there are things going on but also the ‘chill at home’ days. It also acts as a visual count down to gong to the new school. Using the photographs of the staff and / or school building it can be a great aid in preparing your child for the change.
Without doubt, school transition is a worrying time full of questions and anxiety but my advice is to be mindful of the times you express it. Children are all ears. Non-verbal does not mean no understanding so when friends pop around, be discreet about your concerns and over the top about your excitement. Model the ways in which you hope your child will approach their new setting.
Try not to worry
Ok so this is easier said than done. There are a thousand reasons to worry but the thing about worry is that its very much like a rocking chair – it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere. Issues WILL crop up because thats life but you’ll deal with them as they happen and you’ll be surprised how infrequently you need to panic. Take one day at a time and do not stress about what may or may not happen.
These are just a few ideas and of course, may not work for every child but they are the things that helped us and I hope that one or two may help another family as they face a new chapter in their journey and help in some part with a smooth transition. I look back now and wonder why on earth I worried but thats what we do best, followed by fight passionately for the rights of our children and followed for me, in third place with drinking copious amounts of gin and eating my body weight in cheese!
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