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Back-to-School or Starting School: Preparing the Sensory - Sensitive Child

Starting School : Preparing the Sensory-Sensitive Child

The sensory sensitive child needs special consideration when preparing to start school or to go back to school.

After all, one of his biggest challenges is dealing with change, and going to school or going back to back to school involves just SO much change.


The reasons for your child’s anxiety may be purely emotional, and in this case, understanding how you can assist your child emotionally, would be of value. For the purpose of this discussion, however, we will consider the child who has sensory processing challenges. A more complete discussion of the various types of sensory processing difficulties is available in the articles on Sensory Modulation elsewhere on this website.

The child with sensory modulation difficulties may over- or under-react to various types of sensory input. Typical difficulties which the child would experience could include a heightened sensitivity to touch, discomfort with certain noise or with loud noises and an avoidance of unfamiliar situations. They could also avoid situations in which they might be exposed to the types of sensory input which they find uncomfortable. They often exhibit poor behaviour in an effort to avoid uncomfortable sensory input, of they might display strange behaviour such as rocking or running on the spot, in an effort to try to manage their uncomfortable experience. This strange behaviour is often misinterpreted as an emotional difficulty rather than as a sensory difficulty.

All too often, the child displays huge separation anxiety, and parents and teachers find this very difficult to handle.

Understanding the underlying sensory processing difficulties which the child experiences, and dealing with the emotional expression of that difficulty can go a long way to assisting the situation.

Tackling your own anxiety

The first thing to tackle is your own anxiety, and your own perceptions, as a parent. Parents’ concerns are certainly often well founded, but allowing their anxiety and concern for their child to overwhelm them, further raising their own anxiety level, does not help the situation. The child in this situation also sees that his parent is not coping and is anxious and he finds it even more difficult to trust the situation. He will not respond positively to simply hearing that he should relax, - he needs to see his parents as trusting, calm and realxed themselves, if he is to begin to trust a new school situation. Parents should therefore take some time to get used to the idea that their little one is starting school, and to familiarise themselves with the new school, the school rules and what will be expected of their child, as this will raise their own confidence in the situation. Parents should deal with their own uncertainties about the situation so that they do not pass on their own anxiety to the child.

Are you relaxed and comfortable about the new situation your child will be going into? Are you at ease, and confident that the school is the right place for him and that it will meet his needs? If you have doubts about whether or not the school is right for your child, or if you are not comfortable with the new situations which your child will encounter, then you need to address your concerns in a practical way, if at all possible. Perhaps this involves arranging to meet with the school’s management to discuss the concerns which you have. Or you might want to arrange to meet your child’s new teacher before the first day of school, to discuss your concerns and to ascertain whether there are some solutions or strategies which could be put in place before your child starts at the school. (These considerations of course assume the fact that your child is in fact physically and emotionally ready to start school. In the event that this is not so, then the remainder of what follows below, will not necessarily apply).

Finding peace of mind for yourself first, is most important. Your child will otherwise pick up on your anxiety, and this will in turn unsettle him, since children usually trust us to set the emotional tone for many of their new experiences. In the event that you are not able to reach a situation in which you are in fact relaxed about your child starting school or changing to a new school, avoid discussing your concerns in front of your child. It is however true, that children pick up on unspoken emotions, so wherever possible, try to maintain a calm balanced frame of mind.

What can you do to assist your sensory sensitive child in the weeks before school resumes?

Making the “unknown” - “known”.

If the child is starting at a new school, make a point of visiting the school beforehand, and give your child opportunities to become familiar with the place. Walk about the school grounds, visit the classrooms, use the bathroom facilities and give him time to explore the school’s play facilities. Increasing the child’s familiarity with the buildings, and with the various facilities at the school, can be very helpful, to the sensitive child. This is particularly important for the child who has planning difficulties, and difficulties in organising himself. Children who have spatial and directional confusion will also become less confused by the new situation if they have had the opportunity to orient themselves while they are still relaxed and at ease.

Obtain the class list before the holidays, if this is already available. If at all possible, try to arrange some play dates with other children at the new school even before school begins. Meeting up with other parents of children who will be in your child’s class can also increase the child’s familiarity and have him in a situation where he is known to more people in the new situation.

Role play the situation

It can be most helpful to role-play the various potentially anxiety-provoking situations which may arise. By role-playing, we can increase the predictability of the situation for the child.

Parents can play out various typical school situations with the child, such as arriving at school, meeting other friends and going out to play, settling to snack time, acting out what happens at ring time, for the younger child, or in formal settings for the older child, etc. if your child will be wearing a school uniform, it is a good idea to let him put it on while you act out typical school situations. This will also give you an opportunity to see how easily he wears the uniform. In the case of the tactile sensitive child, ensure that the uniform has been washed and that it does not have any starched bits, nor any unusual or uncomfortable “shop” smell.

You can also use role play time as a time to talk about how it will be when you say goodbye. You can discuss where you child will be able to play, and what you and he will do before you leave.

You can also role play situations in which he sometimes plays alone and sometimes plays with a friend or with friends. It is important that your child understands that he will not always have a friend to play with. In fact, creating an expectation that he should always have a friend is just such a bad idea. Similarly, creating an expectation that he will always be happy and will always have fun, is not a good idea. At school, just as in life, you will sometimes have a friend, and there will be good days and bad days. Avoid setting your child up for disappointment by creating a false expectation that things will always be great. This is a most positive step in assisting your child to develop emotional maturity and strong emotional intelligence.

For younger children, or for those children who have difficulty with social skills, it may also be useful to have pictures of his teacher and of fellow classmates. These could be taken during the orientation party the previous year, or even right at the start of the year.

Write the name of each child on their respective photo cards, and assist your child in getting to know the names of his classmates before he even begins at school. This can instil a sense of familiarity for the child even before he begins in his new school. This approach is particularly helpful for children who are on the autism spectrum and who also have such difficulties with social skills. Smart phones are great for being able to quickly record a series of pictures. Whilst we are really cautious about the use of screen media for young children, this is certainly one instance where seeing pictures of teachers and new friends on phones and tablets, and becoming familiar with new situations can be a real bonus!

Getting into Healthy Routines

During the long holidays, routines become more relaxed, and children end up going to bed later, and waking later in the mornings. It is important to re-set your child’s sleep-wake cycles so that he will easily cope with the early morning waking once he is back at school. At least a week before school resumes, start waking your child earlier and more particularly, getting him to sleep earlier.

It is also very important that your child’s nutrition supports him optimally. A child who eats a limited variety of carbohydrate foods is not going to have sustained energy to see him through a full day at school. He is likely to have fluctuating blood sugar levels which result in poor concentration and in even in mood swings and emotional difficulties, including raised levels of anxiety. We sometimes overlook the fact the refined breads and pastries, fruit and fruit juice make up the preferred diet for many children, and these foods, along with biscuits (even “health” biscuits, and sweets, do not provide optimal sustenance for our children. It is important to ensure that children’s diets offer a balance of all the food groups and include a good quantity of fresh vegetables and fruit, and that all artificial additives are avoided. Ensure that your child enjoys a balanced and nutritious diet at least a before starting school. (Ideally, diet should be this way all the time!)

Learning to say goodbye and to separate

Getting your child used to separating from you in a relaxed comfortable way is one of the biggest challenges faced by the child who is generally anxious or who experiences separation anxiety.

The reason the child has such difficulty, is that he has formed a close attachment to you as his parent. Attachment is a bond with a special person. It is the quality of the interaction which is important, rather than the amount of time spent together. The child learns to love and trust through her relationship with her attachment figure.

The primary attachment figures and his attachment to them, lay the foundation for all future attachments. With this foundation for all future attachments in place, as the infant grows up to become a toddler and then a child, and more people come into her life, - he will continue to develop this capacity to have healthy and strong emotional relationships.

Attachment in infancy and early childhood plays an important part in a person’s ability to form relationships later in life. The importance of attachment and bonding cannot be over-emphasised.

When we force a child to separate from their attachment figure before they are ready to do so, we raise their anxiety levels hugely and they could experience a sense of being abandoned.

It is therefore vital that we teach the child to separate from his parent in a loving caring and understanding manner. Simply forcing the separation may result in considerable emotional damage to the child.

It is important that you do not leave this important aspect until the child starts school. Rather, begin some weeks before, and give your child lots of opportunity to manage separating from you. Ensure that this is done calmly and easily, and never let your child feel in any way abandoned or deserted, as this will not assist the process in any way.

In the case of babies and toddlers, they will need to first form some relationship with the person who will be caring for them. You would therefore ideally do well to take time to let the baby or toddler get to know that person in your presence for several visits first. Let that caregiver begin to take on tasks to assist and care for your child while you are still around. Once they are comfortable with the other person, you can begin to leave them with that person for a short time. Before you leave, make sure that you have everything you need with you, as you do not wish to return to collect anything and to upset the child. You should also ensure that the caregiver has everything that they will need to care for your infant or toddler, and that they are aware of his general preferences. It is also most important that the caregiver is relaxed and confident in the situation. Always say goodbye, and then move off without any hesitation, and do not look back nor give the infant any indication that you are uncertain about the fact that you will leave, or that you are unhappy to leave him. it is important that he senses that you trust the situation and the person with whom you are leaving him. As your infant or toddler manages to settle you can gradually lengthen the time for which you are absent. Never leave your child for a whole day, without first having allowed your child to begin to develop a trusting relationship with the caregiver.

In the case of pre-schoolers and older children, you can expose them to being left with other people whom you trust. As the child gains confidence is his ability to cope without you, you could gradually introduce him to more and more people and situations in which he feels comfortable, without you being there. Make sure that the child knows that you are leaving, and always say good bye. Never just sneak away as this is likely to betray the child’s trust in you, and does not teach him to separate from you in a healthy manner.

On the Day

Orient your child to his new school environment.

Show him where all the important things are – classroom, teacher, toilets etc.

It may also be helpful to him to know which toys he may and may not play with, and to orient him to the general classroom / school rules or approaches.

On the very first day, his teacher is likely to direct him to the activities in the classroom, but in the event that the teacher does not do this, see if you can settle your child to some activity which he enjoys, and ensure that he is happily settled in play or activity, before you leave him.

When the time comes to say goodbye, stick to a simple routine of perhaps just a kiss and a hug goodbye. Avoid getting caught up into giving six hugs and however many kisses. These delaying tactics only serve to raise the child’s anxiety. Ensure that your child has a task or activity to return to, if you do not hand him over to the teacher as you say goodbye. Once you have said goodbye and kissed and hugged, turn around and leave, trusting fully that those to whom you have entrusted your child will do what is necessary. If you have managed to practice the separating prior to starting school, this should not be a bid deal for either of you, and your child should not cry. Do not come back and check on the child, nor try to settle him in the event that he begins to cry. This will simply confirm for him that you do not trust the situation and that you return when he cries. The crying behaviour will then have succeeded in making you return, and it is completely likely that he will cry every time, because it works. Most schools will be happy to take your call a few minutes after you have left, and will likely be able to reassure you that your child has settled and is playing happily. You could also discuss with the teacher, before starting school that they can contact you in the event that they feel that your child is unduly distressed. This discussion should never take place in front of the child. In the event that you are asked to come to collect your child before the closing time, do not let on to him that he has been collected early. Simply get him from school on the pretext that YOU needed to get him then on account of YOUR schedule.

Be sure to collect him on time. If there is any chance of your not being on time, have an alternative plan in place. Never risk being late as this will unsettle him. As your child settles into school and becomes accustomed to being there, you could let him go to the waiting class, or to aftercare, or have him collected by someone else in your place, just to get him accustomed to the fact that there may sometimes be different arrangements. In this way, he will learn to accommodate changes in plan and to become more flexible with the various possible arrangements.