How to prepare a child with communication difficulties for starting school

Teacher and child in the classroom
Maxine Burns, speech and language advisor at children's communication charity I CAN, shares her tips for helping your child settle in at school.

Starting primary school, or moving up to the next class, can be a big step for young children. And it can be particularly challenging for children who struggle with the most fundamental skill needed for learning: language.

More than 1.4 million children in the UK have some kind of speech, language and communication need (SLCN) meaning that they struggle with talking, understanding language and/or understanding the sometimes complex rules of communication.

Parents of children with SLCN often find that starting school or moving between classes can be tricky. You may be plagued with questions such as, ‘What if he can’t understand what’s going on?’ or ‘What happens if she’s on her own at playtime?’ and worry how your child will cope.

However, there's a range of strategies that can be used to ease the transition to the next stage of your child’s life.

1. Teach them to ask for help

Make sure your child knows how to ask for help. Teach them some useful phrases like, ‘I don’t understand,’ ‘Can you say that again?’ ‘I’ve got a problem,’ or even ‘I need help,’ so that if they are stuck they know how to get some support.

2. Introduce school-related words

When children start school they are likely to come across some new words that they haven’t encountered before. Words like register, assembly, bell or even playground might be unfamiliar.

See if you can come up with a list of school-based words and talk to your child about what they mean. Pictures can really help understanding.

3. Give them some ice breakers

Making friends is a big part of starting school, and children rely on their language skills to help them with this.

You can support them by talking about good ways to start conversations and making friends. Why not help them practise some good phrases they might want to try: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Can I play with you?’ or ‘Do you like Pokemon?’ If they’re confident using these phrases then they’ll find it much easier to form friendships.

Help them with turn-taking, too: another important social skill that they’ll need.

4. Play a game of schools

Role play can be a great way to get children used to new routines. Why not set up a school role play game at home so you can talk about school through play?

Using teddies, dolls or any of your child’s favourite toys you can take registers, run groups, have playtimes, set up a lunch table – just have fun learning through play.

5. Build useful vocabulary

The school curriculum relies on children knowing lots of words to support their learning and follow routines. However, these words will need to be specifically taught to children who struggle with language.

Teaching time-related words (things like before/after/today/tomorrow/early/late) and position words (up/down/in front/behind) will help prepare them for the words they will need for learning. Because they’re so common, you can reinforce these through sharing picture and story books with your child.

6. Teach songs and rhymes

Have fun practising some nursery rhymes and songs. Children with SLCN will find the early skills needed for learning to read tricky, but singing and rhymes will help them to learn some important pre-reading skills. If your child knows some popular songs they will be able to join in more easily at school.

7. Keep talking

Stay in close contact with the teacher and other adults in your child’s school. You might want to set up a contact book that lets you share news from home (particularly helpful if your child struggles with their expressive language), and school share news with you.

Sharing strategies and approaches will mean that your child benefits from everyone supporting them consistently. Regular meetings can also be helpful.

If you’re worried about how your child is getting on in their new school or class, I CAN’s friendly speech and language therapists are there to help. The I CAN Help service offers free advice and information via phone or email.