Many of us can remember that feeling of the endless summer holidays stretched out in front of us on the last day of the academic year. Then, feelings such as excitement, nervousness and anticipation as the first day back to school approaches.
It is common for children to experience a wide range of emotions at the prospect of returning to school after the long break, but for children who have an acquired brain injury, feelings of stress and anxiety can be amplified.
At this time of year, we at the Child Brain Injury Trust receive many calls from parents who have concerns about how their child will cope with returning to school. We hear of increased anxiety levels in children and parents who can foresee challenging times ahead. In part, this can be due to a perceived lack of understanding of the child’s condition on the school’s part. However, even in cases where thorough preparations have been made by the school, some children with ABI will still struggle with the change in routine and environment that an education setting brings.
In this blog, I will talk about how anxiety can affect the transition back to school and provide some advice and tips that can assist with this transition.
A few words on stress & anxiety
In 2011, Bath University carried out a very interesting study which looked at the physical stress response in children before, during and after starting school. By looking at the stress hormone (cortisol) in saliva samples, they identified that the highest stress levels were experienced not only upon the return to school, but also in the run up to that transition. For children, the anticipation of an event can be as stressful as the event itself.
When we are feeling anxious:
it can be harder to remember things
we are more easily distracted
we can be more likely to act on impulse.
These are all areas that we know can be challenging for children with an ABI, so when we add stress into the mix, it isn’t hard to see why some children with an ABI have a particularly challenging time when returning to school.
Top tips to help you plan and prepare for going back to school
Communicate. For those going back to their same school, it is important to try and keep communication open where possible. Liaise virtually with your key worker/key personnel to share concerns and begin to discuss what the transition will look like for your child. Most importantly – share your concerns.
New schools. For those going to new schools we can plan and prepare by getting to know the new school team – ask for staff photos of key personnel. Some already have pictures on their website (where permissible). Ask what support staff work in the school and how support is arranged.
A phased return. For a child with a brain injury that has not yet gone back to school following their injury, we may think about having a graded/phased return to school. Discuss this with the school team and think how this would practically work for your family at this time.
Additional support for learning (ASL). All schools will have a member of staff who is responsible for additional support for learning – introduce yourself and your child and make initial contact – share your story and talk about your concerns and ask them how they can help.
Talk it through. Talk to your child about returning to school, discuss any fears and concerns that they may have – make a list/draw a picture and ask how they would like this to work for them.
Get into a routine. Start making small changes to your daily and bedtime routine the week before returning to school. Get up and go to bed earlier each day so you return to ‘school-day timings’, go for a walk in the mornings, try to eat at the same times the children will at school.
Rehearse the school routine in their minds. Talk about the first week of school. Discuss what the new routine will look like. For some children mapping out the day and writing down the times they will be doing things can be really helpful.
Conversation rehearsals. Practise topics of conversation with your child such as ‘what did you do this summer?’. Reminisce about the fun things you have done together. This can help avoid children feeling ’on the spot’ when talking to Teachers and peers on their first week back.
Get organised. Print equipment lists and create checklists. Do a uniform, shoes and school supplies check. Get the school bag and lunch boxes packed and PE kit organised. Being prepared can really help to calm feelings of anxiety.
Map it out. Use technology and apps to map the routes to and from school. Practise/rehearse the journey with your child.
Support. Ask about the school’s buddy system or mentoring procedure for social support, interaction and participation.
Lesson time. Reinstate good learning habits and promote strength-based activities. For example, if your child likes art or maths, start introducing some of these activities over the holidays and reinforce how good they are at them to maintain their confidence.
Support for schools. Share information about the Child Brain Injury Trust and let the professionals know that we are able to provide awareness sessions and support for Teachers too.
Check in with yourself. Are you feeling anxious about the change in routine? Children can be so good at picking up on parent’s stress and mirroring it or reacting in another way. Don’t forget about your own sleep routine and wellbeing.
While anxiety regarding returning to school is common, it's also not something that should be ignored. For this reason, if you feel that anxiety is interfering with your child’s daily life, speak to your child’s Doctor about your concerns.
Above all, encourage your child to talk to you about what is troubling them. Listen without judgment and validate their feelings. Sometimes, expressing their feelings is the first step towards feeling better.
For more information and further advice for parents/carers and professionals on topics such as the transition from Primary to Secondary school, please see our factsheets via this link: https://childbraininjurytrust.org.uk/factsheets/
For further information on additional support for learning if your child attends school in Scotland, Enquire have a very informative website and helpline: https://enquire.org.uk/
Deputy Service Manager
Child Brain Injury Trust
Beth Strachan is the Deputy Service Manager of Brain Injury Services at the Child Brain Injury Trust. The Child Brain Injury Trust provides emotional and practical support, information and learning opportunities for families and professionals affected by childhood acquired brain injury across the UK.