Transition from primary to secondary school is considered a key milestone in children’s education. During the Covid-19 pandemic, children experienced additional changes in their lives (lockdowns, self-isolation, school closures and changes to school routines when open). Such changes disrupt the structure that children with neurodevelopmental conditions thrive on and can negatively affect their mental health (Sideropoulos et al., 2021; Sideropoulos et al., 2022). During transition from primary to secondary school, autistic children seem to experience high levels of anxiety and adjustment issues (Mandy et al., 2016), but little is known about the effect of transition for those with Down syndrome (Hargreaves et al., 2021) and those with Williams syndrome (Palikara et al., 2018; Van Herwegen et al., 2018). As a result, it is unclear how school transition can amplify anxiety levels and adjustment difficulties in these populations.
‘Our findings suggest that children with neurodevelopmental conditions require support when transitioning back into school.’
In our study, we examined changes in anxiety levels during transition from primary to secondary school and adjustment into school during the Covid-19 pandemic by following the same children over five time points using a longitudinal design (Sideropoulos et al., 2022). Two of the time points occurred before Covid-19 and measured the impact of school transition from primary to secondary school. The remaining three time points occurred after the second national lockdown (September–December 2020), during the third national lockdown (January–March 2021) and again post-lockdown when schools reopened in the UK (April–June 2021).
Figure 1 presents these changes over time. Our data suggests that average anxiety levels did not increase significantly over time. However, there were differences in the levels of anxiety based on the diagnosed condition of each child. Those with Williams syndrome scored higher in terms of anxiety compared to those with Down syndrome. However, there was no significant difference between autistic children and those with Williams syndrome or Down syndrome. In addition, for those with Williams syndrome, anxiety levels did increase as a result of Covid-19, as evidenced by the significant interaction between time and group. It is important to note, however, that in each group there was significant individual variation.
Figure 1: Anxiety over time (total vs per group)
Note: Scores above 30 indicate clinical levels of anxiety.
Taking into consideration the clinical anxiety levels of our three groups during pre- and post-school transition as well as during their settlement in their new provision during the Covid-19 pandemic, we can argue that the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has particularly impacted children with Williams syndrome, and it is important to note that anxiety levels in some children remained high when returning back to school in the spring of 2021. In addition to increased anxiety, we found that all groups experienced adjustment issues when moving back to school (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Adjustment over time (total vs per group)
In sum, experiencing one stressful event (school transition) on top of another one (Covid-19 pandemic) is likely to cause turbulences, especially for children with neurodevelopmental conditions. Our findings suggest that children with neurodevelopmental conditions require support when transitioning back into school: some pupils might find adjustment back in school difficult as they preferred to be at home; others may find it difficult to cope with how the school environment has changed. We also need to rethink how we can best support them to develop productive coping skills. These life skills are essential not only during the recovery phase from Covid-19 but also for dealing with any future crisis.
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Mandy, W., Murin, M., Baykaner, O., Staunton, S., Cobb, R., Hellriegel, J., Anderson, S., & Skuse, D. (2016). Easing the transition to secondary education for children with autism spectrum disorder: An evaluation of the systemic transition in education programme for autism spectrum disorder (STEP-ASD). Autism, 20(5), 580–590. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361315598892
Palikara, O., Ashworth, M., & van Herwegen, J. (2018). Addressing the educational needs of children with Williams syndrome: A rather neglected area of research? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(9), 3256–3259. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10803-018-3578-X
Sideropoulos, V., Dukes, D., Hanley, M., Palikara, O., Rhodes, S., Riby, D. M., Samson, A. C., & van Herwegen, J. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on anxiety and worries for families of individuals with special education needs and disabilities in the UK. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05168-5
Sideropoulos, V., Kye, H., Dukes, D., Samson, A. C., Palikara, O,. & van Herwegen, J. (2022). Anxiety and worries of individuals with Down syndrome during the COVID-19 pandemic: A comparative study in the UK. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10803-022-05450-0
Van Herwegen, J., Ashworth, M., & Palikara, O. (2018). Parental views on special educational needs provision: Cross-syndrome comparisons in Williams Syndrome, Down Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Research in developmental disabilities, 80, 102–111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2018.06.014
The authors would like to thank all families, children and professionals who participated in this project. They would also like to thank the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund (TRUST/VC/AC/SG/4770-7694) and the ESRC (ES/T502054/1) for funding this project.