Life is full of transitions, and for most of us, we bumble through relatively unscathed, but transitions can be especially hard for students with disabilities and their families. Educational transitions are no exception. Right about the time a student and his or her family get one school – take elementary school, for instance – figured out, it’s time to move on to middle school. While these types of educational transitions can challenge even the most capable students, they can be particularly difficult for students with special educational needs.
Our family is on the cusp of making such a transition for our son with autism. He is in his final year of elementary school this year and will be expected to transition to middle school next year. I am not eager for this to happen and have decided to request that he repeat fourth grade, but it remains to be seen whether that request will be granted or not. In any event, it would just be delaying the inevitable of him having to move on to middle school at some point.
Part of the challenge of academic transitions for students with disabilities relates to the fact that it often takes school teams (teachers, therapists, counselors, etc.) years to figure out how to best serve the student. The wheels turn slowly in public schools, and services and supports that should take days to have in place often take years. By the time that a student has been in one academic environment for five or six years, things often (but not always) are moving along fairly smoothly. Then, BAM! The student is shipped off to a new building with a new administrator, new teachers, new therapists, new peers, and a whole new set of expectations. And often the student and his or her family find themselves right back at square one.
It doesn’t have to be this way; there are things that teams and families could do to make transitions less abrupt. In a perfect world, teams from both of the schools could and should work together, including meeting to discuss the student and his or her needs. Sadly, however, and for a myriad of complex and mind-boggling reasons, this rarely happens, and the new team is left to start from scratch and figure things out on their own. Consequently, the student suffers and, more often than not, experiences academic and social regression.
So what can a parent like me do to prepare for such a transition? As with all things in the wonderful world of special education, parents must be proactive and assertive. They should start by visiting the school to which their child will be transitioning and meeting with the principal and teachers at the new school. Then they should ask for a joint IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting with representatives from both schools in the spring of the year prior to the transition, and they should take an advocate or a friend (if no advocate is available) with them to the meeting. They should arrive at the meeting with ideas about goals and objectives for their child’s educational plan for the following year as well with specific requests and/or ideas related to the transition.
Once the child is in the new school, parents must be vigilant about monitoring their child’s progress and the implementation of their child’s educational plan. This means visiting the school as often as possible which may include some unannounced visits. Of course, parents must walk the fine line between being an ardent advocate for their child and being a nuisance to the school, but an occasional visit shows the student’s team that the parent is involved and aware of what is or isn’t happening at school.
Finally, it is critical that parents work at building good relationships with their child’s teachers, therapists and administrators. After all, these are the people who care for their children day in and day out and who are responsible for putting the educational plan into action. While differences may arise between parents and the school team, it is always in the student’s best interest for everyone to try to work together toward the common goal of educating and supporting the student and his or her unique needs.