What a couple of months it has been! If you had told me in December 2019, that in early 2020, schools would close for the majority of pupils and that our country would be in lockdown, I’d have said you were crazy! And yet here we are.

Nearly every student in the UK was sent home, transitioned to home-schooling in the majority of cases, and schools that could stay open have been suddenly transformed into Special Schools, catering only for children with SEN or those of key workers. The ‘norm’ of classroom teaching was upended, and replaced with virtual learning and homeschooling.

And now with June 1st looming ever closer, we begin to ask ourselves; how are we going to prepare pupils for returning to school? Their lives have been turned upside down over the past 50 days and now school leadership and teachers face the challenge of easing pupils back into some sense of normality. For SEND pupils, this time has been extremely difficult and many will have found it to be a time of heightened anxiety and change. We need to think about these pupils in particular when it comes to transitioning them back to school. Here are some of the areas we should think about along with some practical tips and resources.

Consider Their Lockdown Experience

Everyone’s lockdown experience has been different. Some children may have lovely big houses with outdoor space to play in, others may live in lower socio-economic areas in crowded accommodation with no outdoor space at all. Some children may have had a great homeschooling/virtual learning experience at home whereas others may not have been able to access much learning at all.

It’s important to understand what kind of lockdown experience every child has had before you start easing them back into academic activities.

  • Speak to the parents – they will have learned so much about their child during lockdown that could help you in supporting them in school.
  • Learn about their lockdown experience - use this worksheet to understand their likes, worries, significant events, how they learned best etc.

Transition Periods Are Necessary

As anyone who has worked with children with SEN will know, transition periods are necessary. Whether it is from one activity to another, or transitioning into a year group, changes are often daunting to children. Going back to school after weeks in lockdown will be a huge transition and it’s important to communicate clearly and start with the familiar.

When we do know how schools and classrooms will look from June 1st, it’s important to communicate the familiarities and changes to children in simple, easy to understand formats. So what are some of the familiarities that could be in place?

  • Same classroom
  • Same teacher
  • Same LSA or 1:1 support

The changes are going to be glaringly obvious. There will be social distancing, less children, different timetables and all of this will be incredibly difficult and confusing. We need to be able to explain to children what has changed, why it has changed and what the new rules/expectations are. This should be done in clear, simple language in small chunks so that children can process the information slowly – a social story works perfectly!

Another great way to ease children back into the familiarity of being in school is to take a video or photos of areas they will be in once they’re back; the classroom, the assembly hall, the cloakroom, the bathrooms etc. so that they remember those areas.

Communication & Adapting to Change

Communication is the most important aspect of helping children transition back to school. We have to be aware that children will have had different communication needs during lockdown; some may have had very minimal communication with family, others may have had the chance to speak, sign or use PECS considerably more often than usual. We’ve all had to adapt to using more virtual communication and some children may have found that this is their preferred method of communication moving forward, i.e. using an iPad or laptop.

Certainly for those children coming from quieter households, where they are perhaps an only child, coming back to school could be quite overwhelming in terms of noise and the pressure of needing to speak/sign/communicate more often. Allow for children to take regular “quiet time” breaks, where they can focus on relaxing or regulating their sensory needs.

A key thing to remember is that we should give children notice as early as possible, and certainly not the day before they go back to school! Pupils, especially those with SEN, will need as much notice as possible so they can prepare themselves to go back to school.

Sensory needs

During times of trauma, which lockdown certainly has been, there can be a significant shift in sensory processing and sensory responsiveness. Children may have entered a heightened state of awareness, meaning that they are overly-sensitive to external stimulus and situations. Over the last few months, they have become accustomed to being at home a majority of the time, and so re-entering the school building could be very overwhelming. You may see that children with SEN, especially Autism, start ‘stimming more’ and this is often a way to try and regulate their emotions, or for their brains to focus on one sensory input. Whilst ‘stimming’ is a common way children with ASD like to calm themselves down, children may have also learned other coping skills whilst at home – headphones, music, quiet spaces, sensory breaks – and it is important to learn about these from the family so you can incorporate them into the new school day.

Something else to consider when returning to school is just how overwhelming the class may look. In some photos I’ve seen of classrooms with social distancing, there has been black & yellow hazard tape on the floors which can be quite alarming, and the displays have also been quite busy. Here are some tips to make your classroom sensory friendly;

  • Use less-busy displays, calming colours, and display topics that promote communication – perhaps on wellbeing?
  • Have a designated “quiet space”
  • Seat children with SEN closer to the front of the class, preferably near the teacher.
  • Set clear, simple classroom rules and tape a mini version of these to children’s desks.
  • Visual timetables

It’s going to be a very difficult time for everyone and we’re all going to have to learn from one another. All that we can do as educators is try our best to make the transition back to school as easy and seamless as possible for pupils. Their wellbeing and safety comes first and it will be challenging, but it will also be an adventure for us all and certainly something to think about and look back on in the future!