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Transitions for Young People with Additional Needs can be Traumatic..

Times of Transition are crucial for those with additional needs

I write this blog as we are approaching the Autumn term. This time of year is always difficult within our family because historically, every year since our son, who is now 17, has entered this time in the academic year, things have spiralled in a dramatic way. The mere thought of change causes him to feel unsafe and under threat. His anxiety rises to an unmanageable level and this exacerbates his Autism and ADHD. Some of his inability to cope with change is due his Attachment Disorder but who actually knows what is attributable to which ‘label’ he wears & does it matter which triggers what? All I know is that change and this time of year fills me with a feeling of dread and a nagging sense of bad things to come and my family are not alone in this phenomenon.


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Why is the Autumn Term so Fraught?

Individuals with complex needs generally feel safer when their environment is known to them. They are comfortable in the structure and predictability. Usually after 1 academic year, they have found a rhythm with their peers, their teachers and with the timetable. This can have taken possibly 2 terms to establish, coupled with many emails of discourse between home and school and often many hours of meetings! This leaves just 1 term to actually be able to learn anything educationally. If a child is anxiety ridden or fearful they cannot learn as well, their bodies and mind are too busy being in survival mode and then we wonder why children with attachment issues, Autism etc so often fail to achieve academically as well as they should!

Then the summer break comes, lack of structure and routine can be difficult for them and their families to cope with. The nights begin ( marginally) to draw in and the focus becomes about school once again. The classroom usually changes, the timetable, the teachers and sometimes the peers. 

For young people who need continuity, this is sensory overload. Hyper-vigilance kicks in, anxiety rises, the primitive brain takes over dominance. A simple change of the colour of a sweatshirt can start these fragile structures to wobble. The fallout of the destabilisation can be minimal for some, catastrophic for others resulting in major behavioural issues, withdrawal, self harm and in certain cases feelings that they no longer wish to be here. I can sense this spiral beginning, as I am sure most parents/carers can, but am rarely listened to until the spiral has taken hold and is dragging my child and all those who stand too close, down into a murky depth that we wish not to descend into again. Prevention is better than cure. Prevention is free, cure is a lengthy, painful and sometimes costly process.


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What can be done to keep them ok?

Transitions must be planned and then the next most important thing is to follow the plan. Sounds obvious, but all too often time is spent on transition planning, especially for primary to high school, strategies are agreed but then fail to be adhered to. For example, the 1st two weeks of the new school can be ‘off timetable’, great for children without additional needs but a nightmare for those who need continuity. Thus the destabilisation begins and once the spiral starts it is like a wildly spinning merry-go-round, really hard to jump off.

Handover is essential

One of the most simple approaches after planning and implementing said plan is to seek advice if things are not going smoothly. Past teachers will have gained the sweatshirt of knowledge about how best to handle the young person, it is essential to pass on this knowledge and seek it out if it is not readily available. Speak to past staff, speak to parents, learn about the young person. What do they like, what do they need, what is their behaviour communicating – because all behaviour is a form of communication. Don’t be proud, seek advice from everyone available because in the long term, this saves time and makes school & hope life a better place.  

Laura Morrissey Counselling: Photo by Anurag Harishchandrakar on Unsplash

Nurture Based Environment

A school/college that is based upon the principles of creating a nurture based, attachment focused environment is ahead of the game. No child will be harmed by a nurture based focus in education and all will benefit. There are certain key things that need to be considered by the school and by parents/carers when looking at future educational environments. 

  • Is the school Attachment aware?
  • Are they knowledgeable about additional needs?
  • What are their strategies when behavioural issues arise?
  • Do they have good pastoral support?
  • Do the staff have sufficient training in childhood development?
  • Do the staff have support?
  • How do the parents/carers get involved?
  • How large are the class sizes?

I have developed a sheet with reminders of what a parent can look for and what a school can aim to implement to help with changes and transitions.

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Laura Morrissey Counselling


1. Loving Eric: A personal story of Adoption, Attachment; Autism &     ADHD.

2. Anxiety Workbook