Unstructured school holiday time can be particularly difficult for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). The impending six weeks of summer ‘holiday’ can fill children, and their families alike, with fear.
The majority of pupils with SLCN, especially those with neuro-developmental conditions such as autism and ADHD – but let’s face it, most of us - benefit from a routine and a clear understanding of what’s happening when. Many will also find comfort in familiar places, people and activities in addition to minimal sensory stimulation. Any kind of break from home may therefore be out of the question.
For those prepared and able to afford to go away, the summer break is far from ideal. A recent article in The i Newspaper reported that parents are even campaigning to take their children away outside of ‘the holidays’, arguing it’s an overstimulating time (busy, noisy, stressful, hot) for those with SLCN.
Unfamiliar holiday clubs run by unfamiliar others, providing unfamiliar, over-stimulating activities won’t be suitable for all either and don’t come cheap. A recent survey by Coram Family and Childcare calculated that the average kid’s summer holiday club costs £157 per week and that only 24% of local authorities in England have sufficient availability. Local councils’ ‘local offer’ webpages flag-up holiday clubs tailored to children with SLCN, but services can be limited. Families might find it better to check charity websites such as the National Autistic Society and Mencap for suitable activities. The National Trust’s 50 Things to do Before you're 11 3/4 might also provide inspiration and opportunities for those able to tolerate days out.
So, what should families not going on holiday or able to check their children into clubs, do to entertain and keep a routine for their little troops this summer?
- Firstly, try to stick to your regular routine as much as possible (for example, in the mornings and at bedtime) to reduce anxiety and uncertainty.
- For in-between times, diarise regular weekly events such as visiting grandparents on Wednesdays and swimming on Fridays. Don’t forget to schedule in some all-important quiet time and even give schoolwork a slot. Regular, low-pressure reading, writing and number activities will not only keep up essential literacy and numeracy skills, but school will come as less of a shock in September. Make them fun and maybe record them in a book or folder so that they can proudly show their new teacher. If your child likes books, even simple or picture-based books, sign them up to your library’s Summer Reading Challenge complete with sticker rewards and accompanying activities.
- Encourage the whole family to get together and brainstorm their preferred activities – some for wet and some for sunny days, using magazines and leaflets for inspiration, and work together to make a visual calendar – this will encourage creativity and teamwork as well as giving children a sense of autonomy.
- Each evening, to minimise anxiety, look at the calendar together and talk about the plans for the next day so that there are no surprises. Be prepared to be flexible if the weather or child’s mood does not fit what’s scheduled.
- Children can also be supported in keeping a diary or scrapbook of their summer – a great way to develop creativity, fine motor skills, language and vocabulary. It could be as simple as a series of leaflets, postcards and photos or images cut from magazines. A favourite toy could feature in the photos if the child is camera shy. Alternatively, a talking book could be used to develop expressive language and speech by recording a sentence about each photo on a page.
- Sometimes simple activities are the least stressful and most enjoyable; a short train ride, a walk to the park, making a den or having a picnic in the garden. Free, or inexpensive activities that tick the exercise box but don’t have to be ‘sold’ as such, include nature hunts in the woods, football in your local park or green, kite flying and even geocaching (where seekers use GPS to find treasure hidden by fellow geocachers).
- Having a clear out of unused toys and outgrown clothes can be fun as well as helpful and can help to develop negotiation and decision-making skills. A trip to the charity shop could be included with the chance to buy a few items to replace those lost (and support money skills).
- Children love to make food that has the reward of a delicious treat to enjoy soon after – let them make decisions on fruit or yogurt ice lollies, simple cakes and savoury muffins and use their language skills to follow recipes and give instructions to their designated helper.
- Get ready for the new school term. Have a dress-up day – what fits, what doesn’t – and help them to make a list of all the stationery they might need – before going to the shops to hunt for the items and tick them off as they add them to the basket.
- Sensory play activities such as playing with slime, sand, or water beads can be both fun (though not always for the adults) and improve focus and help children develop their senses. Music and dancing can improve mood and storytelling and acting can develop communication skills and imagination.
General tips to avoid overstimulation and emotional dysregulation include:
- Breaking longer activities into short sections or sticking to short ones in the first place and including regular activity breaks throughout the day.
- To help children to regulate their sensory systems and reduce anxiety use deep pressure such as weighted blankets or firm cuddles, and movement – try jumping, skipping or yoga moves.
- Reduce distractions around the home - for example, don’t have the TV on in the background, keep the lights natural and ensure the child has safe, cosy spots to retreat to for some quiet time.
Remember it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Try not to overload your summer with back-to-back days out, it’s often the simple, special family moments at home that will be most fondly remembered.