Change can be scary for anyone, but it is often particularly stressful for children with autism, intellectual disability or other learning difficulties. They tend to be more reliant on the security of routines and less able to adjust their thinking or approach when encountering a new situation. That means that any adult working in schools for children with special needs should understand the importance of routine and how to manage it.
Why is routine important for children with special needs?
Children with special needs are often slower to learn new things and may not be able to adapt to strange situations easily. A routine allows them to practice important skills while providing the comfort of familiarity. Having a structured day provides reassurance, meaning they can feel confident in where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do, without needing to worry about what will happen next. Less stress means a reduced chance of meltdowns or shutdowns, allowing not just the child but also their family, friends and teachers to be calmer and happier.
How schools for kids with disabilities can manage children’s routines
Routines need to be established right from the beginning of the day. A good start will put everyone in the right frame of mind for whatever lies ahead. This means there should be a strong before-school routine at home to help the child prepare for school, which should be reinforced on arrival. Simple acts such as removing a coat, gathering materials such as pencils and paper, then taking a seat can all signal that it is time to pay attention to the class. It may be helpful to coordinate with parents to ensure routines are consistent both in and out of school.
Throughout the day, breaks should be at regular times, so the child knows when they will be able to stop work. Meals in schools for kids with disabilities should be planned in advance, including snacks, so there are no unexpected and unwelcome surprises on the plate. Many people with autism have sensory issues that can limit their diet.
Then, at the end of the day, a goodbye routine can help manage the transition from school to home again. If the child is excited or engrossed in their work, this is when they can be calmed down and shift into the right mindset for home.
If a change to the routine is necessary, such as when a guest visits the school, or a trip is necessary outside, the child needs to be prepared well in advance. The reason for the change needs to be explained clearly (with consideration for their preferred methods of communication) and any likely sources of extra stress identified, with plans for mitigation.
Schools for children with special needs should provide a stable, structured environment where their students can feel safe. Part of this means establishing schedules for students, just as they have regular routines at home. This means children will have the opportunity to practice new skills in a comfortable environment where any changes can be managed slowly and with careful planning, reducing the stress for everyone involved.