Back to school blues for children with learning difficulties

back to school blues

It’s that time again when parents are reminded by relentless advertising on TV that its is time to get their children ready to return to school. I meet many parents during the course of the year and I have noticed that most of them groan when you ask if they are looking forward to the beginning of the school term, but for very different reasons.

“TOO SOON” BACK TO SCHOOL BLUES

For some parents this is all too soon… the joys of the summer holidays are still evident and the beach is still calling. Not having to rush out the door first thing in the morning is a joy in itself, not to mention spending relaxing, quality time with children during the day without all the rush and hurry of the school terms.

“CAN’T WAIT TO SEND THEM BACK” BLUES

For other parents, the return to school cannot come soon enough. These are the families who struggle with a child with learning and behavioural difficulties. ADHD, Aspergers , anxious or oppositional children in particular frequently require constant monitoring, supervision and correction during the day which can be physically and emotionally draining. Sadly it is difficult for these parents to enjoy their children during the holidays and they prefer the more structured term times.

When out of their daily routines, many of these children feel insecure and can act out even more as a result. There are some things that can help minimise this school holiday fatigue. These apply not only to the summer holidays but to weekends and mid-term breaks as well.

REDUCING HOLIDAY BLUES

DAILY RHYTHM- THE KEY

The key to managing school holidays is to establish a daily rhythm and routine and stick to that as much as possible throughout the holiday season. Maintaining a daily rhythm is essential to avoiding meltdowns and oppositional behaviour for children who are prone to sensory overload. These children need to know what to expect and feel secure when their days are predictable.

BALANCE ACTIVITY WITH QUIET TIMES

Avoid loading up the day with too many different activities, and keep the day in balance so that the child has a chance to process each activity before being bombarded with another. For those children who do not cope with transitions well, advance warning of the up coming change in schedule is essential.

MAINTAIN BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS

Mealtimes and snack times should be kept the same times as usual during the term, so that blood sugar levels are maintained. A sudden drop in blood sugar can be the trigger for a tantrum.

For example, a child who has a retained Moro or startle reflex (left over from early childhood) is likely to have this reflex triggered many times a day, especially while on holiday in a new environment with sudden unfamiliar sights, sounds and activities he is not used to.

Holiday day care programmes can also backfire for these children as they are often quite noisy, high-energy affairs, with youthful staff determined to entertain the children and give them a good time. While this is fun and stimulating for most children, the child with a Moro reflex will be constantly in stress.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE

This reflex elicits the primitive “fight or fight” response when triggered. This can be by a sudden or unexpected noise, touch, movement in the peripheral visual field or a sudden drop of the child’s own head. The primitive brain, responsible for our survival, perceives this as a threat and creates a rush of adrenaline from the adrenals in response. Blood sugar is rushed to the muscles to aid the “fight” or “fight” needed apparently to survive, and then drops suddenly once the moment has passed. This sudden drop leads to loss of energy, fatigue and emotional meltdowns.

A MEAL OR SNACK EVERY 2 HOURS

A child or adult with a Moro reflex will need to eat every two hours to replenish blood sugar supplies and maintain even energy during the day. A combination of complex carbohydrates and protein offers the best nutritional support so that blood sugar is quickly restored by the carbohydrate but then maintained over a longer period of time by the protein, which metabolises more slowly. A natural, low sugar muesli bar with dried fruit and nuts is ideal and can be carried easily. (Look for one sweetened with honey rather than white sugar as white sugar also creates a sudden sugar rush which disappears as quickly as it appears, and can contribute to mood swings and hypoglycaemia.

REDUCING THE BACK TO SCHOOL BLUES

RESET THE BODY CLOCK

If your summer holiday schedule involved sleeping in and getting up later, you might need to return to the school day morning schedule a week before the child returns school so that their body clock is reset (and yours too).

REHEARSE

Another tip if your child is changing schools is to go for a visit before school opens. Ask to see your child’s new classroom and if possible meet the new teacher. Children who have spatial orientation difficulties can often get lost and confused when trying to find their classroom and may need several rehearsals before they feel confident. The bigger the school the more daunting this can be, especially in the larger intermediate and secondary schools.

PRE PLAN

If you child is in secondary school ask to see his timetable prior to the first day of school so that he will know what to expect each day. If your child is on the autistic spectrum or is very anxious and easily overwhelmed, plan some strategies in advance, including where to go if he becomes overwhelmed. Ask his form teacher to let you know if there is going to be a change in schedule, so that you can help prepare him for this.

ADDRESSING AUDITORY HYPERSENSITIVITY

Most school now have a quiet room, or learning support centre where children can go for support and time out from the classroom. One of my student’s parents organised a hall pass for her 13 year-old autistic son when he started secondary school. When he felt his anxiety levels rising he could quietly leave the room and go the learning centre without needing to have a meltdown or disturb the rest of the class.

REDUCE AUDITORY HYPERSENSITIVITY

I also worked with him in my centre during the last term of the year at intermediate, using bone conduction listening therapy to reduce his hypersensitivity to background noise and improve his processing of spoken language. The auditory retaining therapy also assisted him with his spoken language so that he felt much more comfortable answering people’s questions and entering into conversation with new people.

The result of all of this preparation was that he managed the first weeks of school without incident or meltdown, and began to make now friends at school for the first time in years.

IF YOUR CHILD HATES SCHOOL

Most of the children with learning difficulties dread returning to school and as the summer holidays draw to a close, the stress can be seen in their faces and in their behaviour at home.

If your child hates school then there is something wrong.

Schools are designed to meet the educational needs of our children, and most teachers are deeply committed professionals who love working with children.

FIND OUT WHAT IS CAUSING HIS DISTRESS

I have found over many years that there is always an underlying reason why a child is struggling at school. In fact there may be several, but until we stop putting on band aids and take a serious look at what lies beneath the specific learning or behavioural symptom to the cause we will not be able to help our children enjoy their education as they should.

Those who are doing well at school academically and socially can’t wait to get back, and that is how it should be. Learning should be easeful and enjoyable, and social interactions and sporting activities something to look forward to.

HELP FOR LEARNING DIFFICULTIES

Throughout New Zealand now there is a growing number of developmental specialists who have trained in assessment and diagnosis of the underlying, neuro developmental causes of learning and behavioural difficulties.

I suggest that if your child has ongoing and persistent learning and/or behavioural difficulties, it would be wise to seek an assessment. Many practitioners are also trained in auditory processing screening and have access to listening therapy which is invaluable for resolving auditory processing difficulties, or can refer you on to a practitioner who can help.

Children have right to enjoy their education if at all possible. After all they have to spend an awful lot of years in school, and that is a long time to suffer the blues.

You might also like to read about Goal setting for children with learning disabilities. Or for more advice from the experts, check out our Learning Difficulties section.

Rosemary Murphy

Rosemary Murphy is a trained teacher with a particular passion for helping children overcome learning difficulties. She is a graduate of the Extra Lesson™ post graduate training programme and is a Registered Extra Lesson Practitioner. She is also an Integrated Listening System Professional, a certified provider for The Listening Program®. Rosemary runs the Developmental Learning Centre

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