This year has been full of change, new information, and adaptation for all of us. As a country, as businesses, as communities, as families - we have all had to become flexible, adaptable, and to continuously change as the pandemic forced new obstacles upon us.
For most, this was hard.
But for children with special needs, children dealing with sensory processing disorder, children battling anxiety, children with Autism, and children with learning disabilities...this was even harder.
Sometimes change is abrupt and sudden, and there’s not much we can do about it. But mostly we can anticipate the changes ahead - and that’s a great thing. It means we can plan ahead, we can prepare, and we can arm ourselves with the tools we need to be successful. And it means that we can help our children to do the same.
As our communities begin to open up again, and life begins to unfold into a more normal version of itself, we find ourselves suddenly making plans. Preparing for the future. Going back to work, to school, to social events. We find ourselves in the middle of change. Lots of it.
So what can we do to prepare our children, especially those who are struggling, for the many changes ahead?
Talk. One of the simplest and most obvious ways to guide children through change is to talk about what’s ahead. This can help them to feel in control, which in turn helps them act in control. Feeling in charge of our lives can be empowering during times of uncertainty.
Here’s a great script (by Dr. Becky Kennedy) that is so helpful in breaking the ice and opening up with children about change.
There’s so much going on right now!
The school year is ending, the summer is beginning, lots of other changes as well.
You know what I like to do when things change?
Name what is changing, and say what is staying the same.
Let’s do that together, let’s make a list!
According to Dr. Kennedy, when we approach our children’s feelings with a goal of understanding them, rather than changing them, things begin to stabilize and feel better for all of us. So beyond talking about how things are changing, or what changes lie ahead, you can take pen to paper and take this strategy a step further. By making a list of all the things that are changing, as well as all the things that are staying the same, we turn big feelings and thoughts into concrete words. This process can be very grounding for both children and adults. Your child might not necessarily feel better when finishing this list, but you are providing them with a space to make sense of uncomfortable things, and do feel safe doing so. And when a child feels safe, they are more likely to display regulated behavior.
In addition to talking or writing about change, our OC Speech Services therapists have some great tricks up their sleeves for preparing children for change in a developmentally appropriate and engaging way.
Sensory and social stories are wonderful for children who need a simple visual story, tailored to their specific experiences. These stories can be customized to each child’s needs or situation. When we tell a story with simple terms and simple pictures, the child can hear about the changes, see pictures of what things might look like, and see concrete strategies for coping with overwhelming feelings that accompany change.
Games are another great way to turn something uncomfortable into something fun! For example, for those preparing to head back to school, “Back to School I Spy” can be a fun way to talk about what to expect from a new environment and a new schedule.
In our clinic, we utilize many transition strategies that we have found to be helpful. We use visual timers, sensory breaks, consistency/structure/organization during our sessions, practicing through social stories, using a transition object or toy, and visual schedules and planners. We follow the lead of each child and their specific needs, create a space where they feel safe to explore and discuss changes ahead, and provide them with the tools they need to cope in new situations.
We cannot fix a child’s fear of change. But what we can do is listen, understand their concerns, and give them the tools they need to process life’s big changes...so that they can feel empowered to venture out into the unknown.