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Back to school anxiety

Updated: Mar 21

It would be a cause for concern if every day when you collected your child from school, they were hysterical, that they were clinging onto their teachers, refusing to go home with you.

However, in so many instances when a child is having separation anxiety or school anxiety and they are clinging onto a parent going to school we are made to think that that it is acceptable and we just need to get on with it, they will be okay once we have left, usually sending a photograph ten minutes later, see they are fine.

But are they though?!

It is not normal or acceptable for the parent-school transition to involve tears.

Education should be accessible for all, adapted for all, it should be fun and it should feel safe.

Under no circumstances, should we neutralise the impact and trauma it causes our children to force them into school or any environment when they are distressed.

For my youngest autistic children separating from us and attending any formal setting caused huge distress. Now three years on from nursery with support, educating ourselves, trial and error, bespoke curriculum, reduced timetables and the bravest and kindest of efforts from SENco and teachers. We have created a system that works, for now anyway.

Rarely do we have tears at drop-off, this is because we’ve simplified the uniform by removing school trousers, adding bamboo soft seamless socks, plain T-shirts with no buttons, character coats and shoes and bags as positive incentives and probably most importantly a later drop-off point, the boys start at 9:15 beating the crowds and not having to queue. There are fewer parents and less chance of anxiety, more one-to-one time with safe adults that they trust, their one-to-one’s in school, understand them, can spot triggers and cues before it escalates and have a sensory toolbox and qualifications in order to make school as manageable as possible.

The curriculum is bespoke to their needs, especially their learning needs and their sensory processing difficulties. The teachers work closely with our family, communicating several times a day at drop-off, and pick-up, in person, via the telephone and email. The support network the school has put in place to support, my young children has been phenomenal. The post-school meltdowns can still erupt but nearly not as often as when we hadn’t tweaked so much.

The back-to-school routine for us started on the first day for 30 minutes increased to 45 and then an hour. It will slowly increase to two-hour morning slots. This format is crucial to easing the children gently into school. It creates a positive school experience with the first day only being a snippet of time to slow increases almost unnoticeable.

Although we are waiting for a place in a specialist setting with a majority autistic child ratio, this mainstream school is able to understand autism, sensory needs, learning difficulties, separation and school anxiety and the many other layers that comes with neurodiverse children.

If there is any point your child is refusing to attend school, complaining of sore legs (fight or flight) or tummy ache (anxiety), is tearful at drop-off, is clinging onto your body and refusing to go into school, there needs to be a point where you and school realise conforming to the school day is having a detrimental impact on your child’s mental well-being.

Because what trauma is being caused to your child, to be pulled off you in the mornings before school or to bribe them not to cry and be submissive to an environment where they clearly feel unsafe.

These are huge red flags and it is so important that education is safe and fun. If a child does not feel safe, they will not be able to learn.

I’m not saying that every day, my children attend school (on a reduced timetable of two hours a day) and there are no tears. We do have rough days. Actually, some days are really really tough but on the whole with everything in place it is manageable, they do feel safe and they are beginning to access education on their terms, in their way, in a neuro diverse way.

Today for instance, Dexter was tearful, begging me not to leave, crying that he wanted to go home.

So I consoled and cuddled him.

Reassured him that everything was okay.

We went to his class, played Lego and when he was ready I told him I was going to pop home and be back in a bit.

We as parents have every right to stay in school with our child till they are happy, till they are comfortable, the tears have stopped and they feel secure and safe.

As parents, we can assertively request what level of care our child needs, with or without a diagnosis. Anxiety is of course a strong factor within autism, but so many children without autism have immense social/school anxiety that still need a high level of care, through routine and reassurance, especially during transition periods.

The school system is old-fashioned and designed with the ‘average’ child in mind, but between us, we can start to put in place amendments to safeguard our children.

The bad drop-offs haunt me still, even now, I left feeling deflated, overwhelmed, guilty, with a tense body, and sick in the stomach, sometimes I cried, screamed, swore or shouted on my way home from leaving them.

It would take me hours to feel calm again. Flashbacks of having to physically carry him out the house, as they clung onto the door frame begging me to let them stay home. All traditional methods had failed and it was just horrendous.

I am so thankful to the unconditional care at their current school, who make me feel seen and always go above and beyond to accommodate the boys’ needs.

Feels so important that we now as parents help direct schooling for the future to make it more inclusive.

It was less than one hundred years ago that students were hit with a cane for misbehaving. The education system has changed so much since then, however, it is still formed for the masses and not the individual. In time, between parents and teachers, we can help create an education for all, the neurotypical and the neurodiverse.

You can follow Zoë here.

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