How to help a highly sensitive child go back to school - we asked the experts

Expert tips to help highly sensitive and neurodiverse children settle into school

Photo of a schoolboy and his mother in the schoolyard
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As back-to-school season looms you may feel like the only parent not counting down the days, but you're not alone.

You’ve bought the best school shoes and the back-to-school supplies are ready to go, but for many children, and their parents, going back to school is no walk in the park. If your child has additional needs or is just not keen on the idea of school, getting them prepared can be a challenge. So as part of our Back to School Month, we’ve spoken to education experts and parents about how to help make the transition as smooth as possible. 

From taking the time to talk through your child’s feelings to discussing potential triggers with their new teacher, there are lots of steps you can take. Sometimes something as simple as sharing some inspirational quotes for kids each morning can make a real difference. 

Plus, back-to-school season can be an emotional time for parents too. So don’t forget to give yourself a break and take some time to rest.

 How to help a neurodiverse child settle into school  

Neurodiverse children, including those with autism, ADHD, tics and Tourette’s syndrome, dyspraxia or dyslexia, may find back to school season difficult. This is because big changes or unknown experiences can be tricky for them to deal with.

Here’s five ways to help a neurodiverse child to settle into school:

1. Be prepared for big emotions

Starting or returning to school can be an overwhelming experience for many children, but especially those who are neurodiverse. 

Lucy Murray, is mum to Ella, 8 and Jake, 5, who have additional needs. She explains: “To be honest I am really nervous about my children going back to school. It always brings unexpected challenges and I feel like when I am not with them there is nothing I can do to help them. 

“I can see a huge change in my children during the holidays and from experience we can have very intense emotions during the school term.”

Start the new term being prepared for big emotions as your child gets used to their routine. Plan in lots of down time in the evening and weekends for the first few weeks and always be prepared to talk through anything your child has found challenging that day.

2. Communicate with staff

If your child is neurodiverse, it is important that you work with staff before the term begins to ensure that your child’s needs will be met. Make sure you speak with their teacher to discuss things that may trigger your child, as well as what helps them to regulate their emotions. You should also be in contact with the school’s SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) to ensure that your child has adequate support.

Emma Pinnock, director of the Essential Education Group, which works with schools and families with children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), explains: “If you have information of any potential sensory differences, social differences or emotional regulation needs ensure that this is fully shared with staff.”  

Emma also recommends sharing an update with your child’s teacher at the start of the new school term, including information like new skills they have developed and any concerns they have about school.

Emma Pinnock
Emma Pinnock

Emma has been a teacher for over 20 years, working in a range of environments including pupil referral units, hospital schools, special schools and mainstream education. As the founder of Essential Education Group, Emma seeks to inspire people and organisations to make room for neurodiverse people to uniquely take their place.

3. Create opportunities for your child to regulate their emotions

You know your child better than anyone and understand what they need in order to help them to regulate their emotions. If your child requires alone time, noise-cancelling headphones or one-to-one support when they are feeling overwhelmed, convey this to the school.  

Once the school day is over, ensure that they have plenty of time and space to decompress. 

Emma says: “Support them with a steady start. Create opportunities for them to regulate and communicate about their experiences and any concerns.”  

4. Start preparations early

Many neurodiverse children will find it helpful to talk about starting or returning to school in the weeks leading up to it. Depending on the way your child processes information you can do this in a number of ways. 

Emma suggests: “At home you can start a countdown to school and a list of all the things you may do on a weekend for the first month to motivate your children and ease the attachment transition that can happen for many children at this point of the year.    

“Create lots of opportunities to talk or connect depending on your child’s communication style, this will establish feelings of security.”    

Lucy adds: “Over the holidays, we talk through worries as they pop up and play out scenarios of things that might happen and how to deal with them.” 

5. Find ways to connect with your child

One of the most important things for neurodiverse children is to ensure you find ways to connect with them, whether this is during the time you spend together before and after school, or ways to remind them you are thinking about them during the school day.

Mum Lucy runs Olive & Pip, a small business specialising in clothing and items to help kids feel confident and connected when they're apart from caregivers. Inspired by her experience with her daughter, she began creating Love Note Heart Patches, which can be sewn into a child’s school uniform. 

She says: “The kids each have Love Heart Patches inside their school uniform with a message from me on them. This is to help them with the transition back to school and for when they are missing me or need comfort or confidence during the day. We iron these on together in the school holidays and they really help.”

How to help a child who is highly sensitive go back to school 

Children who are highly sensitive often struggle with change and may experience separation anxiety as they start or return to school. Some of these concerns may have already surfaced in the summer holidays, while others may come up on the first day or week back at school.

Psychotherapist Navit Schechter works with highly sensitive children and their families and is the founder of Conscious & Calm which specialises in supporting parents and strengthening family connections.

She says: “The unknown can be especially hard for highly sensitive children. For example, what the school, teacher, and other children will be like, as well as what will be expected of them.

“Your highly sensitive child may also feel anxious about leaving you, their safe space.”

Here are five ways to help a highly sensitive child to settle into school:

1. Validate their feelings

The most important thing you can do for highly sensitive children is validate their feelings. It can feel easy to brush aside their concerns with comments such as “you’ll be fine once you get there” or “you’re going to have so much fun”. However, what is more helpful is to say something like: “I know it is hard when things are new, but you will be safe at school with your teacher.” 

Navit says: “Let them know it's normal to feel anxious about starting school or going back to school and remind them how they can manage their feelings when they need to.”

Navit Schechter
Navit Schechter

Navit is an experienced CBT therapist and the founder of Conscious & Calm. She specialises in supporting parents to improve the way they feel and to strengthen connection and co-operation within families. 

2. Prepare them for the unknown

Highly sensitive children often like to talk things through. So knowing what to expect from their daily routine can be helpful. If you have been given information prior to your child starting school, take time to talk it through with them. Also ask about whether they have any concerns.

Navit explains: “If your highly sensitive child will be starting school for the first time, you can help them get to know what to expect. Visits to the classroom, meeting their new teacher, making a photo book of their new school and talking through what they can expect on their first day can all help.”

3. Think about potential hot spots for nerves

Children who are highly sensitive often have particular hot spots which can make them feel anxious. If you aware of these with your child, try to think of ways these can be mitigated in advance.

Artist Cat Regi, who has an eight-year-old son who is anxious and sensory-sensitive, has been planning for the return to school.

She says: “One of the things we have done is to think through potential hot spots for nerves. For him, the bus would be a time of noise and bustle, so we’ve made sure he’s got audio books and noise-cancelling headphones to use. Plus some favourite magazines, as when he’s sunk into a story it helps him build a safe bubble.”

Cat, who runs art classes supporting anti-perfection and celebrating neurodiversity, adds that they have also been reading fun books about some of the topics he will be studying next term, so that he is prepared for the new syllabus. They have also chosen some favourite Lego figures to go in his pocket, so he can show them all the new things he sees. 

4. Talk to them about ways to manage their feelings

As a parent, it can be hard to hear your child explaining their anxiety. But try to stay calm and confident for your child. The best way you can support them is by helping them to manage their feelings.

Navit explains: “Your child may feel apprehensive about returning to school if they find the routine of the school day and being around more people again difficult. Talk to them about how they can manage this and let them know that you will support them to manage their feelings at school and at home to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.” 

After school pick-up, do not bombard your sensitive child with lots of questions about their day. But let them know you are ready to listen if they want to tell you anything. Make sure you plan in lots of rest time for the first few weeks too, as a new classroom and routine is sure to be tiring for them.

5. Look after your own mental health

Highly sensitive children are very attuned to the feelings of those around them. So one of the most helpful things you can do for your child is to stay calm. If you are a highly sensitive person yourself, this can sometimes be a challenge. So make sure you tap into the ways you know work to regulate your own nervous system.

Navit says: “How you look after your own mental health is one the most supportive things you can do for your highly sensitive child. Their nervous system is finely attuned to yours, so they will be highly influenced by how you're feeling. 

“Regulating your own nervous system, for example using breathing exercises, meditation or visualisations can help your general stress levels. As can physical exercise, getting out into nature, having a bath, pacing yourself, and taking time out for yourself.

“If your child's distress brings up difficult thoughts and feelings for you, make sure you take the time to re-frame any unhelpful thoughts and process all difficult feelings that come up for you that will otherwise be taking up space in your emotional cup. Seek support from a therapist that specialises in support for parents if this isn't something you feel able to do alone.”

 How to help a child who is not keen on starting school 

Starting school is often sold as an exciting moment in a child’s life, but the reality is that not all children look forward to it (even if social media seems to suggest otherwise!) 

It is normal for children to have mixed feelings about joining reception and this is often common for little ones who haven’t been to nursery full-time.

Here’s five ways to help a child who is not keen on starting school:

1. Chat to them about some of the things they can expect to find

For children who have never been in a classroom before, the idea of starting school may seem a little scary. In order to reassure your child you can help them to get an idea of what school may be like.

Read books to them about starting school and talk to them about some of the activities they may enjoy doing there. 

If your school has provided a settling-in booklet about your child’s teacher, classroom or school day, read through it with your child. This will help them to create an idea of the school routine. Often little children do not have a concept of time. So rather than say: “I will collect you at 3pm” try saying something like: “I will collect you after the afternoon freeplay.”

Gill Baldemor, head of teaching and school relationships at Bright Little Stars Nursery, says: ”When children are getting ready for school, they often worry about the everyday things. They might wonder about using the school's bathroom, the type of food they'll get for lunch, or what they should do if they aren’t feeling well. Giving them a bit of guidance, or some tips on how to handle these situations can make them feel more prepared and confident.” 

Gill Baldemor
Gill Baldemor

Gill is a qualified teacher, with more than 10 years of experience. She has been the head of teaching and school relationships at Bright Little Stars Nursery for over five years. Her work includes training staff in phonics, maths, planning, behaviour intervention and observations. She is particularly attuned to guiding parents and children through the leap from the cosy environment of nurseries and homes to the bustling world of primary school.

2. Talk about school in a positive, yet realistic way

If your child is a bit reluctant about starting school, don’t worry about trying to promote it as something super exciting. Instead keep things balanced, so that they don’t go in with too much expectation. Also, even if you have private worries yourself, don’t let your child overhear you discussing them with others.  

Gill says: “It's pretty common for children to feel a mix of excitement and nerves about school. One way to help is by talking about school in a positive, yet realistic way. Share some fun things they might experience but keep it balanced.” 

3. Aim for a quick, cheerful send-off

Often drop-off can be the hardest part of the day for children who are not keen on starting school. If they do get emotional at the school gate, ensure that they are with a member of staff and reassure them that they will be safe. Remind them when you will pick them up and say a cheerful goodbye. Even if you are feeling emotional, try not to show it to your child. 

Gill explains: “Separation anxiety can be tough. When it comes to saying goodbye in the morning, keep it consistent, aiming for a quick, cheerful send-off. Long, emotional goodbyes can sometimes make things harder for them.”

If you are still feeling worried after drop-off, call the school a little later to check that they have settled into class.

4. Help your child to understand their emotions

If your child does talk to you about things they are worried about, help them to understand their emotions. Reassure them that it is normal to feel nervous about the unknown and perhaps give them examples of times where you have felt unsure about new places.

Gill says: “Sometimes, children need a little extra time to get used to school, and that's okay. Start by listening to how they feel and reassuring them that it's normal to have these feelings. If your child isn't sure which emotion they are feeling, you can take the time to run through and explain, even helping to label the emotions for them if they are unsure.”

If the same problems continue to persist, speak to your child’s teacher to ensure that a plan can be put in place to help them.

5. Stay connected

If your child needs a way to feel connected to you, you could sew a patch like those available from Olive & Pip into their school uniform. Alternatively, draw a small love heart on their wrist and a matching one on your own. Tell them that when they are missing you to touch the heart and say that you will do the same.

Is it normal to miss your child when they start school?

Missing your child when they start school is a totally normal feeling. This may feel particularly difficult if you have been at home with your little one for the last few years. It’s easy to feel like a spare part or a bit lost as they move on to the next phase of their lives.

Here’s five tips for if you miss your child when they start school:

1. Allow yourself to have the feelings

It’s very normal to feel a bit lost when your child starts school. The days can suddenly seem very long when they’re not filled with fun and games or constant demands for snacks!

Navit says: “It can be very normal to miss your child when they start school, especially if you're used to spending a lot of time with them. Allowing yourself to feel any difficult feelings that arise will help these feelings to pass and allow you to adjust to your new situation.”

2. Think about new things you might like to explore

Although it may be a big change for you when your child starts school, this is actually a perfect time to think about new things you might like to do.

If you’re already working, you may feel like you are able to take on extra responsibilities or go for a promotion. Or if you have been at home for the last few years, you may decide to go back to work or train for a new career.

Mum Becky admits that she felt very lost when her five-year-old daughter Lottie started school last year.

She says: “It kind of hit me out of the blue, as we were both so excited about it. But then Lottie took to it really quickly and I realised that I suddenly felt a bit lost, as the last four years of my life had been all about her.

“What helped was being honest with other mum friends and hearing that some of them felt the same. Also, I took some time to think about what I’d like to do now and I enrolled to start a hairdressing college course in September which I’m really looking forward to.”

Likewise, if you don’t feel like doing any of these things, that’s okay too. You’ve been working hard for the last few years, so you can also choose to take a breather.

3. Trust the school

It can sometimes feel difficult to leave your child at school, especially if they have additional needs or they were upset at drop off. However, it’s important to try and have confidence in the staff. Trust that they will look after your child and if any issues arise, address them as you go along. 

Emma says: “As long as you have developed trust with the setting, trust them to support your child while you’re not there. In the meantime, try to engage with your everyday activities so that you are not overly worried and overly focused on how they are getting on.”    

4. Find your support group

Finding a group of supportive people is important whether you are sending your child off to school for the first time or if you have a child with additional needs.

The easiest way to do this is to speak to other parents at the school gate. It may feel nerve-wracking at first, but chances are they are just as desperate to speak to somebody. 

If your child has additional needs, it may help to join Facebook groups with other parents who are facing the same challenges. 

Lucy explains: “Looking after myself is something I really struggle with as so much of my time and focus is on trying to support my children. 

“Some of the things that help though are speaking to other parents in similar situations, trying to give myself some space (and screen-free time) when I need it, even if it's just to have a long bath or sit in the garden. Also, I remind myself that I am doing my best and it's not always going to be perfect.”

5. Make sure you connect with your child after school

The start of a new term is a tiring time for both children and parents. You may experience some big feelings from your child, especially if they have additional needs. Try to be patient during this time and understand that changes take time to adapt to.

Find ways to stay connected with your child, whether that’s having a chat on the walk home from school or a simple cuddle on the sofa.

Lucy says: “I make sure I have moments of real connection with the kids, such as silly dancing in the kitchen.”

However you’re feeling about back to school season, know that you are not alone. There’s a whole community of support out there ready to help.

For lots more back-to-school features, including how to tackle back-to-school shopping without buying everything brand new and how to navigate packed lunches and school healthy eating policies with a fussy eater, check out our Back to School Month hub.

Emily-Ann Elliott
Health and family writer

Emily-Ann Elliott is an experienced online and print journalist, with a focus on health, travel, and parenting. After beginning her career as a health journalist at The Basingstoke Gazette, she worked at a number of regional newspapers before moving to BBC News online. She later worked as a journalist for Comic Relief, covering stories about health and international development, as well as The Independent, The i, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. Following the birth of her son with neonatal meningitis, Emily-Ann has a particular interest in neonatal health and parental support. Emily-Ann has a degree in English literature from the University of Newcastle and has NCTJ and NCE qualifications in newspaper journalism.