inourplace | Solihull Approach


Parenting a sensitive child and how to ensure a smooth transition to secondary school:

Things to look out for and why it’s OK to seek additional needs support

Dr Rebecca Johnson, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Has your child been ‘just about coping’ with the last few terms, or even years, of primary school having had a few ups and downs socially? Maybe they had a bit of a bumpy ride with certain teachers, or school trips have thrown up unexpected challenges? Perhaps they struggle to identify feelings? Do they have an exceptionally good memory or a fantastic capacity for holding a grudge?

Maybe you’ve been hoping that secondary school will be the answer to all these problems. You may be thinking they need a bigger pool in which to find ‘their people’ they’ve outgrown primary and just need a new challenge. Maybe you’re worried about how they are going to cope without their trusted teacher relationships looking out for them, making sure they’re ok and letting you know at pick-up.

If your child is about to transition to secondary school, then you may well be having thoughts along these lines. This is an exciting and potentially anxiety-provoking time in any child’s life. Some children are naturally more sensitive, and some might be more sensitive due to their circumstances (perhaps other disruptions or changes are affecting their wellbeing), and, for these children, additional support and consideration can make a big difference. You might, understandably, avoid specialist support or content labelled as being for additional needs, but while the bracket may not be accurate, you might still find them really helpful.

Even if you don’t feel that neurodivergence is a relevant concept for your child, it might be worth looking at some of the support and advice for that group anyway, especially if they are a bit more sensitive or have had a difficult experience, through perhaps loss or trauma.

What are additional needs anyway? And what is meant by ‘neurodivergence’?

The word ‘diversity’ describes variations between everyone, by definition, so in some ways, there isn’t a hard line between those with and those without ‘additional needs’. Some children do just need a bit of additional consideration.  

In addition, some children who do quite well in primary school, where their needs are accommodated more easily and subtly, later go on to be identified as having additional needs. Since the move to secondary school will mean leaving that favourite teacher, for example, who ‘gets’ them and gives them enough of a sense of security to feel safe and seen.  

Maybe you think of your child as a bit more sensitive than others. You may even have told a few people they are sensitive to certain physical sensations or sounds. Maybe you noticed a different pain threshold than your own. Perhaps you think of them as having the odd quirk. You may have even considered whether they could be described as neurodiverse but dismissed the idea because they don’t seem to fit the profile entirely.  

The understanding of autism and other patterns of neurodivergence has rapidly evolved in recent years, so just because the stereotypes don’t fit (not all autistic children line up their toys!) doesn’t mean this might not be a helpful way of understanding your loved one’s skillset and way of experiencing the world. Girls especially (and some boys), for example, may have a more internal presentation of autism, which is worth being aware of.  

There are as many variations in the human brain (‘neuro’-diversity) as there are in the wider natural world (‘bio-diversity). Neurodivergence, on the other hand, describes patterns which diverge from the majority. It typically encompasses ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and so on. A ‘neurodivergent’ person, for example, may be disabled by a society organised around neurotypical needs and ways of functioning, which is why a diagnosis can be helpful; it can validate and help make sense of the person’s experience, as well as guide those around them on how to offer appropriate support.

Beardon and others have said ‘autism + environment = outcome’. Moving up means a big change to the environment and therefore can lead to a different outcome.

Diversity is to be valued and environments adjusted to support emotional wellbeing and development. Neurodivergence, of course, varies a great deal from person to person and can also be more or less recognisable at different times from early years through to adulthood, depending on the environment. This goes some way to explaining why diagnoses are often made later in life, particularly for girls and women. 

Challenges in later primary school years and secondary education:

Many neurodiverse people describe ‘masking’ as consciously or unconsciously mimicking neurotypical behaviours to fit in and cope with social expectations. This becomes more difficult (and draining) as children grow, their environment changes and the nature of peer relationships inevitably develops, too. The increased social demands and academic pressures of schools are naturally then more challenging and may lead to overt signs that they are overwhelmed or struggling, such as meltdowns, shutdowns, and ‘burn-out’ and may lead to other mental health crises.

I went through my primary school years knowing that my mind worked very differently to those that surrounded me, knowing that I was experiencing life on a much more viscerally confusing level than my peers and yet – I could find no explanation or term for this. I was the child playing with the younger children/years because my classmates could not understand me, I was the child laughed at and mocked by a few of my teachers, I was the child who was so much more deeply affected by matters such as insults intended as humorous remarks. Most importantly I was the child with such a strong sense of justice and equality – and I could not for the life of me understand why those I was growing up around didn’t see things the same way.

Imogen, 14 

Supporting your child through transitions

Understanding your child’s individual communication style and emotional needs, however, their brain and body are wired, can help you develop the right approach and support for them and hopefully prevent things from deteriorating into a crisis later on. So, when your child is a bit more sensitive, and you find yourself wanting to give additional consideration to their ‘moving up’ transition, trust your instincts and don’t be put off by labels on resources for additional needs. 

inourplace has been created to provide a reflective space for parents to do just this. We’ve designed e-learning to introduce some ideas around relationships and emotional wellbeing. We won’t tell you what to do, but we provide useful research, theory ideas and insights from experienced professionals as well as from parents so that you can work out the best approaches for you and your family. 

And for you

Parental self-care is really important. Looking after your own wellbeing will ensure you’re best equipped to be proactive in seeking the right support, advocating for your child’s needs, and continuing your own learning journey. inourplace is your place for reflecting on yourself too!