8 Tips for A Smooth School Transition

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So we’re officially into Autumn, we’ve got our school stuff purchased, and it’s the last week before we go back to school. This last week is when the anxiety about the upcoming transition to new classrooms, new schools, new teachers and new friends really starts to kick in for our children. Hopefully your school (and ours for that matter) won’t be affected by the closures due to unsafe premises, and all will go according to plan.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a ramping up of behaviour in our house over the last week. I always do when there is an upcoming transition of any sort. Hello school, school holidays, Christmas, birthdays, holidays…the list goes on.

For the first time, this year they’re excited to go back to school. This is novel, but not unwelcome. It’s a sign that they’re getting older, but also a sign that all the work we’ve done over the years. Especially the last two years during which we have removed our daughter from her mainstream school, homeschooled her for 7 months, fought for an EHCP and finally got her into a placement at a small, specialist unit where she is flourishing.

Thats the TLDR version…but I doff my cap to anyone who homeschools, because we all loathed it.

Its not all good, though

However, despite the happiness at going back to see beloved teachers, great mates and favourite lessons, there is a tension and an edge in the air. Tempers are a little more easily provoked. Tears equally so. I’m struggling to get them to settle in the evening. Hugs are back on the menu (although I kinda like this one…huggy teenagers are a joy).

Whist it’s nowhere near the levels of stress, anxiety and downright unpleasant behaviour we have had in previous years, I can feel those bubbling below the surface.

So…I’m wheeling out my tried and trusted tactics for managing the back to school transition. These will also be really useful if you’ve got a small person starting at primary school, a year 7 going to high school for the first time, or seasoned returners like mine…who can still wobble now and again.

1. Do a drive by

I’ve done it for every school change we have ever made. I’ll be doing it this afternoon as number 2 child is starting a college programme this year and will need to know where to catch his bus. He’s already had a visit to the college and seen where he needs to go, so that transition box has been ticked.

The trick is to work out how you are going to get to school and replicate it over the weekend. Maybe both days if needed.


Say you’re walking to school. Have a stroll there this afternoon. Don’t make a big deal of it. Make it leisurely and relaxed. Talk about the stuff you’re seeing on the way. Make it just another Saturday stroll.

As you get nearer, or if they catch on soon enough, chat about how this is the way we’ll walk to and from school every day. What we’re trying to achieve is normalisation of something that is very new to them. Trying to ramp up the excitement could backfire. Calm and chilled is the order of the day.

By car or bus

This works with driving too. Just drive there and park up where you’re going to park on the day. If you can park somewhere away from the school and walk a little bit, so much the better. School carparks, for the uninitiated, are a war zone. More than once I’ve blocked in for parking in what some other parent considered to be “my space”. I’ve had abuse thrown at me because somebody doesn’t like the way I’ve parked in a bay (I was an inch to far forwards to enable her to swing her enormous car out of her space and she’d had to wait a couple of minutes because my kids class was late coming out). I’ve seen punches thrown. And this is just the women!

Once you child knows where you’re going to be….do the walk as above. Ditto if you catch a bus.

Managing questions

When you arrive at the gates, they’ll likely be locked. This could cause anxiety. Why are the gates locked? Who’s are they trying to keep out? Will they lock me in? Will I be able to come home? How will you be able to get to me if I need you?

My rule with question is to answer the question asked, nothing more, nothing less.

I also try to avoid saying “they’ve locked the gates to keep burglars out”, because I made that mistake once and it haunted me for weeks. Lets agree now that I made these mistakes over the years so you don’t have to! I now say things like “it’s to stop people walking their dogs on the field”…which is also true!

I would talk about how on the day there’ll be new people to meet but they’ll all be starting school with you, so they’ll all be in the same boat. Talk about pictures in the windows of the classrooms and how much fun it will be doing activities like that. If there is a field or a play area, get them to imagine playing football, or running races, or whatever outdoor fun they like to have.

Help them see themselves in that environment. But, importantly, help them see themselves as calm, safe and happy.

2. In case of emergency

Do have a plan in place for what will happen if you’re late for pick up on a school day. This was a massive stressor for mine when they started primary. You never know what’s going to happen and it’s always better to have a plan and for them to know what it is. If they have a bag and you can write it down on a card, that might help. Remind them that if you’re late its possibly traffic, like the time we were late for Granny’s party and nearly missed cake.

Firstly, tell them to go back to school, and ask school to ring you and find out what’s happening. Put your number on the card to make it easier for school staff.

If the school staff can’t reach you, let your child know it’s not a problem, it’s because you’re out of signal or your battery has died. Not to worry…school has Nana and Uncle Pete’s number and they’ll ring them.

Oh, but what happens if Nana is in hospital having a new knee and Uncle Pete is in New York on business. Not to worry, school will wait with you until I get there.

The first year of school I had a list with every available person who could possibly collect my children and lived within 30 minutes of the premises on the list. I had to regularly run through that list (weekly at the very least) because one small child or other needed the reassurance. We never actually needed the list. I can count on one hand the times I needed to have someone else pick them up in all their time at primary school. And maybe once or twice was unexpected.

But they knew I had a plan. And that was enough.

As an aside

Within a month of them starting school I had started making friends with small group of mums (hi at the gates, the first couple of parties, possibly a play date). We all worked hard to nurture the friendships, (I know this because we talked about it over coffee) and we became each others “on the scene” collection person when the day went sideways for us. A quick phone call to the mum to see if she can help, followed by a quick phone call to school sorts it out. If this happened we arranged to meet at the park, or the nearby ice cream parlour, so it became a treat that you were being picked up by Emily’s mum.*

I’m still friends with these guys now. And this network was what kicked in my son was being bullied in Year 7 and wasn’t telling me, I we discussed bullying.

2. Start bringing back routines now

Over the holidays we’ve got a more relaxed routine, but during school time, our weeks are much more structured.

Obviously on school days everybody has to be up and out the door and in the gates on time, but bedtimes are set in stone on school nights.

And they are generally earlier than the perceived norms for children’s bedtimes. I wish I had a £1 for every time someone rent the air with the cry of “But everybody at school goes to bed at….whatever time is at least 1 or 2 hours later than ours”.

But neurodiverse children need more sleep. Their brains have to work twice as hard as a neurotypical child’s just to stand still and cope with the day. Add in lessons, and PE, moving around from class to class, plus playtimes, plus choosing what’s for lunch, plus….the myriad other things that we take in our stride, but they probably don’t.

It’s hard work. They need sleep. You’re not being the worst parent in the world if you insist on a bedtime earlier than their friends have or the standard parenting books suggest. You’re doing the right thing.

After the laxity of the holidays, we start with school bedtimes at least three days before their first day. And we start getting up a bit earlier too. Just easing them gently back into the rhythm.

3. Get everything ready…then put it to one side

Uniform labelled and pressed (or not)? Bag packed? Pencils sharpened? Shoes polished?

Yes? Excellent.

Now put them out of sight until the bedtime the night before. Your child will be thinking about school enough without the visual reminder.

If you can also stop everyone talking about this transition, so much the better. I’m sure they’re tired of being asked “are you looking forward to going up to big school” without being able to reply, “no, actually, I’m scared stiff and want to stay home with my mum and my xbox, thank you for asking”.

4. Practice social skills

I’m wrote most of this post last night whilst sat at the side of a dance lesson. Hi to all the others who were doing the same or similar.

On the way to his lesson, we were chatting about school, celebrating the lessons that have been dropped, swapped or added. One of the additions is an off school programme that will involve catching a bus home after the session, once a week.

School starts on Tuesday. This programme may or may not start on Wednesday afternoon. He may or may not need to wear uniform. He’ll need to catch a bus home.

We know the bus details and will have a drive over this afternoon him exactly where he needs to be to catch his bus. There is a note in his bag of the bus number, what time it will arrive and the cost. We know what time the next bus is in case he misses one.

But the other stuff he needs the clothing and start dates for himself. I think this is a simple task. But he has had struggles sometimes finding just the right word (and often doesn’t but we can translate) he worries about this stuff. And he’s a worrier, so this stuff gets blown out of all proportion. So we chatted about it. Role played what he could say to find out the information. Who he could speak to at college if there’s a problem.

He’s now not worried about it. And I’m confident that he’ll manage this transition really well.

Be proactive

There will be lots of little scenarios that your child has been thinking about but not voiced. How do I say hello to someone new. What if they won’t let me play. Or sit with them at break. What happens if I get lost. Or I forget my PE kit?

Preempting these things not only normalises them, because households across the land will be having the same conversations, but it gives them a chance to practice. It’s like learning a completely new language. They won’t be fluent at first, but lets give them a few key phrases that they can wheel out when needed.

At the very least it will enable them to sleep a little better over the next few nights. At best they’ll make a friend for life on the first day because they were confident enough to ask a question.

5. Work out routes

This is another easy way to bring down anxiety for children moving to a new school. Especially if they have to move around from class to class. Check out the school website and see if they have a floor plan. Your high school might have provided one before the holidays. If they have, print it off and mark things like loos, assembly hall, reception, cafeteria. Help them understand what the classroom numbers mean if there’s an obvious schematic. And if you know that they have to report to reception then head to the hall, or the canteen or a specific classroom on the first day, map that route out for them.

It’s a little thing and seems like a bit of overkill. They might not need it. But just having the information available to them should help reduce some anxiety.

6. Wonder out loud

So far so good. You can preempt a lot of the anxiety triggers for the next few days with the tips above. But there is a good chance that there is something random and obscure rattling round in a little head that they can feel but not speak.

Oftentimes that is not because they don’t want to talk, just that they can’t. They can’t vocalise the emotions…they are alien and too big. They know this transition is big, but they may know know why. Sometimes its just that they don’t know what’s wrong…it’s just big feelings and that covers it.

I find that wondering out loud is a good way to dig down and excavate worries. “Dad was wondering if you’re worried whether your new teacher will be nice”. I wonder if you’re concerned that Sam from primary school will be going into your year 7”. “I wonder if you’re in need of a hug”.

This is the tactic I use whenever I can see that something is wrong but I’m repeatedly being told “nothing”. It invariably works. Except for the one occasion when he was being bullied and shame won that time. Some times take long than others. Sometimes there are tears. But it works for us.

We always have something nice on hand. A snack. A blanket. Hot chocolate. All of the above. None of us like to face our big feelings. And we’re the adults. It’s really hard for our young people to process these anxieties and by helping them to do so is a great gift. They are learning the skills in a safe environment that will help them negotiate the world not only at primary school, but through into adulthood.

7. Recognise the small clues

Obviously if they’re having big anxieties about any school transition but can’t, or won’t talk to you, you need to be the one to instigate the wondering. Oftentimes its the smallest clues that give them away. Kicking and slamming doors is a fairly good indicator that all is not well. But sometimes you have to play detective.

Being randomly asked for hugs is a great indicator in our house. We are huggers…but sometimes it’s the random hug, out of the blue, that gives the clue. Or going to bed then finding 23 things to wander around addressing. None of which can’t wait till the morning. Or been done 3 hours earlier. Always a sign that someone needs to talk.

When my were younger, they would pull out old toys they hadn’t played with for ages. They felt security and safety and connection to a time when they weren’t worried about the world.

Seemingly small and simple actions, that are just slightly outside the norm for your child can often be the most important channels to conversations and the reduction of anxiety.

8. Top transition tip

This is last on the list, but it’s really very important. It’s also the most fun!

Have some fun this weekend. It’s the last weekend of the summer holidays. Make it count. And take everyone’s mind of the upcoming transition for at last a little while.

Now I’m not suggesting you whiz to wherever for a last minute trip. Or bankrupt yourself with activities and eating out. But do the things your family love to do. Go for a walk. Have a carpet picnic. Watch a film. Do some crafts. Whatever it takes to have a lovely, relaxing, happy time.

We are doing errands today with an ice cream pitstop. We usually do errands on a Saturday. Sunday is end of holiday pancakes at our favourite pancake spot, followed by a walk and hot chocolates. Home to pizza and a film, piled up on the sofa with blankets and the dog. Its a very normal weekend for us with a couple of treats thrown in. Nothing too extravagant.

And bear in mind that whatever you plan, there is every chance that something will go wrong, someone will lose it, and/or someone will end end up in tears. But that’s ok. You can always hug it out. It’ll all be fine.

And good look for next week. You’ve all got this.

* this can be problematic if you child has challenges with change. There are tactics to use and if you need support with any of the challenges discussed in this post, I can help. I offer impartial, non-judgmental advice about anything related to neurodiversity in your family. Book your free call here

I’d really love to help.

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