Starting secondary school and managing the move up when your child has arthritis

A girl sat doing her schoolwork.

As we get closer to September, lots of families will be thinking about the big move from primary to secondary school. This can feel both exciting and a bit nerve wracking, especially if you’re also managing a condition like arthritis.

You can really help your child to feel as confident as possible when they start by planning ahead and talking to new teachers.

Here’s some top tips and advice for anyone with children about to make the move up.

Preparation is key

Most children will be feeling the same about starting secondary school – it’s a big change with lots of new things to consider. But preparing as much as possible before term starts can really help to make the transition easier.

Try to make the most of opportunities to look around the new school and meet your child’s teachers before they start. You can even ask the school if you could arrange an individual visit with your child to discuss their needs in a safe environment.

Your child’s teachers may not have met a young person with arthritis before so ensuring they talk to them early on about their condition and how it affects them is a good idea.

It can be helpful for your child to explain how arthritis might affect them differently on different days, whether they experience pain, tiredness and if they are taking medication, how this affects them. Your health care team may also be able to provide a letter which explains this.

Making friends

There will be lots of opportunities to meet new people when your child starts secondary school.

Reassure them that they don’t need to worry if it takes a bit of time to make new friends or if friendships change as you go through the year.

Try to help your child think about what they want other people to know about their condition. They might find that as they get friendlier with people, it will become easier to open up and tell them more.

Finding your way around

Secondary school is likely to be a lot bigger than your child’s first school, with more floors, more stairs, more people and more space to cover. It can be helpful for them to find people in the same classes so they can travel together.

Wearing comfortable footwear can also help with walking around – you can check that teachers are happy for your child to wear trainers at school when they are having a flare up, if preferred.

There might also be options for your child to have a pass allowing them to leave their lessons a little earlier or later to avoid busy corridors or have a friend with them for support.

It’s worth talking to teachers together with your child about all the options available and encourage them to decide what works best for them.

Getting the right bag

Secondary school can mean carrying around a lot more than at primary school. Simple things like picking the right bag can really help if your child experiences pain or tiredness.

For example, a bag that is light before you start packing it is a good idea and a backpack with padded shoulder straps is a great all-rounder. This will give them enough space to fit everything in, while also being good for their posture and joints.

Pacing is important

You might find your child is fitting a lot more into their day at secondary school – travelling to and from school, more walking around during the day and homework.

Try to look at your child’s schedule together each day and encourage them not to pack too much in, especially if they’re feeling particularly tired. For example, it might not be a good idea to go to an after-school club on the same day as PE.

Being organised about homework will also help – if your child has multiple deadlines in one week, try to encourage them to spread things out. Using a timetable can help them to plan their days.

Case study: Sarah and Abigail

“It’s important to make sure everyone is aware that you can be ok one minute and not the next”

Sarah

Sarah’s daughter Abigail has juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), here she shares their experience and advice on navigating the move up to secondary school.

Abigail’s arthritis started as she left primary school and the timing was really difficult. Her condition has caused her to become very unwell at times, she’s had septic infections in her joints and very severe flare ups, requiring seven sets of joint injections so far.

Despite this, Abigail is extremely upbeat. There are days she’s very upset and in a lot of pain, but she still goes to school and enjoys taking part in as much as she can.

There are lots of things I would recommend parents think about if their child is about to move to secondary school.

  • Sharing information about arthritis – I’d encourage parents to get all the leaflets and information they can and take this into the school to explain to head of year, form tutors and teachers. Starting a new school can be stressful and stress can bring on flare ups so it’s worthwhile being as be as prepared as you can be.
  • Taking time off for hospital appointments – I made sure to speak to attendance officers about the time Abigail would need off for hospital appointments or if she was having a really bad flare. End of year trips at school often depend on your attendance for the year so she wouldn’t have been able to go on trips or attend her prom if I hadn’t been able to explain the reason for her absence.
  • PE – PE is a big one. It’s not just the sports themselves, but there were days when Abigail couldn’t dress herself due to the pain, so being open and honest about how you feel on the day is important. There should always be alternative options if you’re not feeling up to it.
  • Helping with handwriting – When Abigail is having a flare up, she finds handwriting a lot harder, so we try to find equipment that is easier for her to use. I’d suggest going into somewhere like Rymans to try different pens so you can find the one that’s most comfortable for your child and gives them the right wrist support.
  • Getting a lift pass – We got Abigail a lift pass, so she didn’t have to keep asking to use the lift if she needed it. Initially she was embarrassed telling people about her condition, and if she went in limping, she used to say she had a sprained ankle and people would think she was just really accident prone. Now she’s grown in confidence and understands that she’s not alone, she speaks much more openly about it.

Get help

If your child has arthritis and is about to make the move to secondary school, our Young People and Families Service can offer support and advice. You can find out more about what's in your area or email ypf@versusarthritis.org.

Schools have a responsibility to make sure children with long term health conditions are properly supported through their education, but we know there can sometimes be challenges communicating with schools. For some ideas and guidance on speaking to school staff, you can visit Health Conditions in Schools Alliance website where you can find our Individual Healthcare Plan template for children with arthritis.

You’ll also find useful information in our dedicated resources for parents and living with arthritis for young people with the condition.