Reception is the first year of primary school in England and Wales. It is considered the final segment of EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage). It comes after nursery and before Year 1. Pupils in reception are aged four to five years old. Your child must attend school from the beginning of the school year following their fifth birthday. Regardless of the month they were born, they will start in the September. Therefore, some pupils will be nearly a year behind others. A year at this age is quite noticeable! It is not like 30 and 31, it is a massive gap! This is why teaching children in the Early Years can be so hard. And why teaching children with ADHD in EYFS can go unnoticed.
Firstly, coming from home, nursery or pre-school into reception is a massive leap! There is often a uniform, more routine, more expectations and more formal learning, not just via play. There is a smaller adult to child ratio, which means less 1:1 time with an adult, and far more independence. It can be exceedingly difficult for a child to adapt at first. It can often mean a far longer day, which is tiring and draining for the children. The children come to realise that they will not see mummy or daddy, or whoever is their full-time carer, for an extended period of time. This can be a huge adjustment for them.
Leaving them can be a massive pull on us parents. Even when we know five minutes after we leave, they will be fine, in class and mixing with their friends. But what if they are not fine. What if it truly is too overwhelming for them and they do not/cannot settle. When is it noticed that your child is more than struggling with the adjustments and that they won’t necessarily be fine?
Like I say, it is very normal that children find the transition hard from nursery to primary school. Nursery is not as rigid in its expectation. Reception is preparing your child for Year 1 and so must start the move over to formal education. This can be hard for children who just want to play. It may take a bit of time for them to realise this. However, as we know, our children with ADHD find change particularly hard. They do not like the unexpected, something out of their routine. They want to play with what they enjoy and prefer flexibility, all on their terms.
This is not out of character for many four- and five-year-olds! They are ‘ego-centric’ at this stage. The world revolves around them! I am sure most of us would agree with this. Piaget (Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development) looked at the stages of a child’s development and named this the ego-centric stage. It starts at about the age of two and ends at about seven. During this time, children can only see things from their perspective, no one else’s. Piaget has authored numerous interesting books on this subject. If you get a chance watch the three-mountain task on youtube. It shows this stage so clearly.
So, this is a typical transition into reception for an NT (Neuro Typical) mainstream child. But what is it like for our ADHD children? As we know, children with ADHD are a third less mature than their peers so naturally, this will also impact their behaviour also. At first, they will appear to have normal separation anxiety when away from their parents at the start of the day. This can be so heartbreaking to see, but normally a child can be calmed and distracted and soon join in with his fellow classmates.
A child with ADHD is difficult to soothe and calm in the same way. They are unable to self-regulate so they will require a lot of time to help with this. Remember they are used to a nursery situation with a higher adult to child ratio and a lot more time and attention can be spared. An NT child can often be cuddled, distracted, or sometimes even left alone to watch the rest of the class, joining in when they are ready. A child with ADHD left alone will feel rejected and unloved.
What I have noticed is, the separation anxiety for a child with ADHD can be quite severe and does not leave or dissipate after you leave. The child remains quite traumatised, anxious and wants to go home. They cannot sit on their spot on the carpet, as most reception classes do. This could be because they are hyperactive and need to move, or it could be because of their sensory issues, and it is too ‘loud and noisy’ to sit there. Reception lessons are very short too, as this age group cannot stay focused and lose interest quite quickly! Therefore, there are lots of stops/starts and changes throughout the day. This can be a real challenge for children with ADHD.
No two children with ADHD are the same. My son and my daughter are so different, you would hardly think it was the same thing. Plus, ADHD has so many comorbidities, such as ODD, OCD, dyslexia to name a few that it is difficult to always spot a child who is struggling with this and not just the settling in the adjustment phase.
Assemblies with the whole school can be distressing, Way too much noise, too many people, and an unusual setting i.e.in the hall. PE can be stressful, again the sensory issues of changing and the noise from this physically active session. Lunchtime can be nerve-wracking if they are sitting in a large hall with many other children, where the noise levels can get quite high, to say the least. The length of the day can just be too demanding for a child with ADHD. They have difficulty with executive functioning, which is so challenging and draining, more so than NT children, that they are simply exhausted after lunch.
What can the school do?
Display Class Rules
In reception, these rules should be extremely basic and accompanied by a visual picture as the children’s reading will be limited at this age. They should be stuck near the board and at an appropriate eye level for the children. Maybe just three basic rules such as ‘Raise hand before talking’, and gently reminded throughout the day. Children with ADHD can be very impulsive so remembering to raise their hands may take time. They are not deliberately breaking rules, they just cannot hold it in! However, even when children raise their hands, a few seconds should be given so that the child can prepare their thoughts before answering.
Visual Daily Timetables
These should be displayed and discussed for all children, every day, at the start of the day and altered accordingly. Reception classes have many small chunks throughout their day so there may be as many as twenty visuals across the board. After each session, the teacher should tell the children that that lesson is finished and turn it over so the children can see quickly where they are at. Children with ADHD like clear ‘Now and Then’ so they know what to expect next. They like a warning that change is imminent.
A small, individual ‘now and then’ chart could be stuck next to them with just two lessons on so they can see what is expected, e.g., Phonics and snack time. Getting the child to stick these on their chart and prepare the next visual really gets them involved.
Ensure the child with ADHD is near the teacher at the front of the class where they can hear and see clearly. Sometimes they can find it too difficult to sit on a mat in the middle of all the other children, so sit them near the front on the edge. If necessary, get them their own little mat so they do not feel so overwhelmed. Many children with ADHD are not good in group situations.
Children with ADHD react far better to reward than punishment, which can often close the child down completely. Make their targets achievable so they can have lots of stars to feel good about themselves. As they get more use to this, the targets can gradually become a little more difficult to achieve.
I am working with a little boy now who gets a star simply for coming in nicely, another for saying his name clearly for the register, and then doing the first task which is always only 10 minutes long. After three stars he gets to pick a game to play. Because these stars are achievable to him, he then knows that when we are playing his chosen game and I say, ‘it’s nearly time to earn more stars!’ he is willing to stop and do so because he knows he can earn stars and will be able to play another game later.
As he hopefully becomes more accustomed to being in a classroom, I will combine the coming in and speaking for the register into one star and so on. Some of our children with ADHD find it so overwhelming to be in a class, we must find ways to make them feel good about themselves for what they have achieved, even if it is with the tiniest of steps.
If a child does do something wrong that requires a consequence it should be done as soon after the event as possible. Obviously, this cannot happen if the child has become so heightened, they cannot hear, then there would be no point. But punishing a child on a Monday for something they did on a Friday only tarnishes the following week. For me consequences that involve taking a child with ADHD’s break times is crazy.
At this age, if for example, a child has hit another child, I would take them aside and simply talk to them and tell them that was unkind and hurt that child. Once they understand that they should say sorry. I do not believe in many consequences for actions in a classroom at this age unless it is very severe It’ is more about trying to get them to understand what they have done. ‘You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel WORSE. When children feel better, they behave better’ (Pam Leo).
Absolutely love this mindfulness idea that is creeping into classes. About time. We all know how boisterous children can be when they have been playing with their friends so what better time to use this quiet time than straight after the lunch break. Get all the children involved so that everyone calms ready for the afternoon. Nice music or a mindfulness app for this age group is an amazing idea. Placing coloured feathers on the children’s tummy’s so they can watch them rise and fall is a lovely idea too.
Children in this age group find it difficult to verbalise their emotions and feelings. A child with ADHD will need help expressing the varied emotions they are feeling throughout the day. Get them used to this by using emotion charts with lots of different expressions on them. Show them how you are feeling too! This not only helps the adult know where the child is at, but it also starts the child thinking about their emotions.
Consistency and Positivity
Whoever is working with your child on that day needs to ensure consistency is maintained. They need to be fully briefed on what that child expects in his/her day; how reward systems work; expectations from both sides; and what they are capable and not capable of. The adult should remain calm, positive, and consistent. A child with ADHD displaying bad behaviour is telling you they are struggling; you cannot take this to heart or react to it in a negative way. It just does not help. The child needs to feel safe. If the adult becomes heightened and angry the child will feel unsafe and lose trust in them.
A cosy corner in a classroom of noisy, energetic children is a great idea. A few cushions, some nice storybooks, and a few soft toys are a lovely way to do this. If the child takes themselves off here, then great! They know what they want and need. Of course, the child needs to be monitored to see that they are not getting just a little too comfortable there. Sometimes they just need some ‘time out’ on their own when they are feeling overwhelmed and by them learning to acknowledge this, is a great step.
Have positive and realistic expectations of the child
There is no point in anyone expecting a child in reception with ADHD to be able to complete the exact same day as an NT child. Great if they can on some days but in general unrealistic. Luckily in reception, the ‘lessons’ are short, and this often stops the need for movement breaks as there are already breaks in the day. But, if the child needs one, they should be given one.
If a child can’t cope with assemblies, don’t make them go. They may in the future be able to cope with them but why traumatise a child for something that is not worth it? Likewise, if a child is unable to sit on the mat, someone could sit at the back of the class with them, or in the quiet area of the room. That way they can still listen to the lesson, even if they cannot participate in it. It is amazing how much children will still absorb.
If a child comes in and is having a difficult day in reception, then let them have a day off if they are unable to turn it around. Not as in they go home. But they can play and just be there. They are still adapting to this unfamiliar environment and being away from home. They will not be missing something that will potentially affect their career prospects that day, I promise.
If your child struggles with noise, then lunchtimes may be far too overwhelming for them in a dining hall with the whole school. See if there is any way that they can sit in a quiet classroom whilst they eat their lunch to take away this stress. Again, this may not be forever, just till they adjust to their unique environment. Perhaps they can pick a friend to join them which would also help with their socialisation.
If you feel your child is struggling, ask for a reduced day until they can cope. It may only be a matter of weeks? They may go till lunch initially; then have lunch at school once this is achievable; then move to a full day. By doing this gradually your child can cope. As they get used to school and the longer days, they will adjust. For some children, the day is initially just too long. Also, like I said, for children with ADHD executive function is under a lot of strain. Using this all day is simply too much and will lead to an inevitable meltdown if they are put under too much pressure.
What can you do?
Firstly, if you know your child has learning difficulties already at this age, and a lot of us do (ADHD affects 3-5% of school-aged children in the UK), please go and check out some schools first. Check out class size, and seating, and watch the class. Look at how the teachers, TA’s, SENCO are with the children. Think about it from your child with ADHDs’ perspective. In my experience, some schools are more equipped to deal with children with hidden disabilities and learning difficulties than others.
Make sure you have regular meetings with the school and your child’s teacher. Tell them everything that could help them understand your child. I know it feels really personal sometimes, but it will help them empathize if something has happened at home as the child’s behaviour will show this. Give them that heads up so they are ready to help.
Give your child all the praise in the world for going and staying in school. Small treats after school for getting great feedback from the teacher. Build them up so they are bursting with pride that they did it, it will work wonders for their self-esteem.
Everything in this post is so achievable for reception class, sometimes you just might need to make the suggestion. It is also beneficial for all children, not just those with ADHD so there should not be any problem implementing the ideas. All children deserve to feel happy in school. Reception is their first real taste of it so make sure they have a wonderful experience.