Special-Education Transitions, From Pre-Kindergarten to Adulthood

Stepping Stones From Age 3 Through 21

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Like all other students in the school system, children with special needs go through major transitions as they enter preschool, kindergarten, middle school, high school, and graduation into adulthood.

For young people in special-education programs, however, these transitions aren't a simple step up to the next rung on the educational ladder. They involve a great deal of thought, planning, evaluating, researching, meeting, discussing, and sometimes arguing. Parents need to work with their school district's planning teams to make sure that these students have the services and supports required to make those transitions safe and successful.

Knowing what the issues are as you face each of these transitions with your child, and doing your own homework to be an informed and involved member of the team, will help you be a strong and effective advocate for your student.

Early Intervention to Special-Education Pre-K

Three is a big birthday for children with special needs. With that milestone comes a transfer of therapy responsibilities from Early Intervention providers to your local school district. While your EI provider may be able to give you information on what to do and help smooth the transition, you will need to be proactive and contact your school district well in advance of that age marker.

At least three months before your child hits the big 0-3, contact your school district's special education department and ask about services for three-year-olds. Explain that your child has been in Early Intervention. You will have to go through an evaluation by the school district's child study team to determine your child's eligibility for special-education preschool, and that can take several months. Since EI services will end whether your child's Pre-K placement is ready or not, you'll want to try to prevent a lengthy break.

The evaluations should be fun for your child. The results may be traumatic for you. It's never easy to hear that your child is delayed and needs services or to get a big fat report on just how much help is needed. But preschool should be a great opportunity for your child to both get therapy and socialize.

What that special-education preschool experience looks like for 3-year-olds will vary by district, and it's worth asking to take a look at the sort of classroom your child will be in. The setting will most likely be self-contained, and the school day a short one. Busing should be available; you may want to make sure that the plan for your child includes a car seat being provided, especially if your little one has low muscle tone.

There are special-education preschool classes for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, and after that, a decision will have to be made on whether to formally classify your child for special education and what sort of kindergarten class will be appropriate. Right now, though, at age 3, any labels applied in the evaluation process don't stick.

Many kids go through special-education preschool and wind up going on into regular education. Take this opportunity to give your child some extra help and support in these very young formative years, and see where you're at when it's over.

Special-Education Pre-K to Kindergarten

When your child nears the age your school district sets as the starting point for kindergarten—most likely at 5 years old—it's time again to think in terms of transition. For most children with special needs, this will mean a transition from a preschool program to a kindergarten program. It may also involve a transition from a partial day to a full day, from one school to another, or from one type of educational plan to another.

This transition can be as big as deciding that your child no longer requires special education services and is ready to move on to a mainstream class without classification. Or it can be as small as deciding that your child isn't quite ready for the big time yet, and will benefit from another year in the familiar setting of preschool.

You'll be helped in making this decision by an individual education plan (IEP) team that should include your child's teacher and therapists, a learning consultant, a social worker, and a school psychologist. Your child will likely receive another thorough evaluation, and a formal classification for special education if that's the route that seems appropriate.

Before you offer your opinion on that, make sure it's an informed one. Ask to see some of the options available to your child. Visit a mainstream kindergarten classroom and really think about how well your child would fit into that environment. Do the same for a self-contained kindergarten classroom, or one with inclusion teachers available. Ask how placements would differ for different possible classifications, and view those options. If an out-of-district placement is suggested or is something you would like to pursue, visit those classrooms as well.

If it's possible to talk to your child about what he or she likes and dislikes about preschool, find out if there are any preferences as to where or who he or she would like to be with. Have an honest conversation with your child's teacher, too, about the strengths and weaknesses of your child in various situations, and find out what the teacher recommends and why. The teacher is second only to you in time spent with your child, and probably has a good sense of what other classrooms are like and how they have worked out for other students.

This is a big, important transition, to be sure, but it's not a disaster if you don't get it exactly right the first time. It's not unheard of for students in regular education to delay kindergarten a year or take it over if a little extra maturity is needed.

Once you've made the decision as to where your child should go at age 5, stay on top of the situation. Be open to the possibility of changing things that aren't working or adjusting a placement that was either too ambitious or not ambitious enough.

As your child starts formally on the long road of schooling, you start on the long road of school advocacy. Those are both scary things but filled with opportunities as well. Prepare to make the most of it.

Elementary School to Secondary School

When your child leaves the cozy confines of elementary school for larger middle and high schools, it's a big transition—both for your young student and for you. As a parent, you may be leaving behind special educators and team members who you've built a relationship with. In your child's years in elementary school, you may have learned your way around the system and figured out what works in that environment, and now the environment will be completely new.

As your child makes these transitions into the higher grades, he or she may be brought into meetings more often and given the opportunity to have input on future plans.

The school year your teen turns 14, the IEP must contain plans for a transition to high school, including what courses will be taken and what post-secondary education or employment may follow.

At that age, you may not be thinking much beyond school survival the next day, but it's worth thinking about what you want in that plan, and what your child should say when asked.

Since the IEP will be planned by the team at the school your child is leaving, you may find that the personnel doing the planning do not know much about what is available there, or what accommodations your child will need. Make that your area of expertise by meeting with teachers or administrators at the next school up. See if your high school has a transition coordinator who can meet with you at the new school, discuss issues that you may want to have addressed in the IEP, and perhaps even come to the IEP meeting and provide a knowledgeable voice.

Make sure, too, that elements of the IEP that have already been established—such as busing, one-on-one paraprofessionals, textbooks at home, passing to classes at off-times, or behavior plans—get carried forward into the new IEP. Make sure that therapy continues at the level previously provided, or, if a decrease is recommended, get a good explanation of why that is and how it will be managed. Include a parent statement so that all those new teachers who don't know you or your child get an introduction right away.

Finally, work with your child to increase his comfort level with the big scary new school. Ask if you can bring your child in for a tour before school begins. If the school offers a summer program, find out if there's a way to include your student in that so that she becomes familiar with the new building. Even if that program is not appropriate, if the school is open and occupied, you may be able to arrange to bring your child in to walk around a little every day.

You may not be able to find out the identity of your case manager at the new school until after the school year has started, but do make that inquiry and introduce yourself as soon as you can. If possible, schedule a meeting to get acquainted and share some information about your child. Whether you've left a good relationship at the old school or fled a bad one, this is an opportunity to start anew as a proactive and interested parent. 

High School to Adulthood

Starting at age 16, your child's IEP should include plans for the transition from high school to college or work. Your child will be asked what he hopes to do with his future, and it will be a good idea for you to have had some conversations about that ahead of time. If your child isn't able to think that far or make those plans, start doing some research yourself about what programs might be appropriate. If your high school has a transition coordinator, that individual can be a big help in hooking you up with information and services.

Whether your child will leave high school with a diploma or just a certificate of completion may depend on the laws in your state at the time. With the rise of standardized-test requirements for high-school graduation, some hard-working special-education students may find themselves unable to do what's needed to get that all-important piece of paper. It may be possible to get an exemption from the test, and that's something you'll want to consult with your special-education caseworker about.

U.S. special-education law specifies that your child is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education through the school year in which he or she turns 21, or until graduation. (Summer birthdays are counted with the previous school year.)

Your young person may well stay in high school while age peers graduate and move on. She may get a certificate at the age-appropriate graduation time and then remain for classes to reinforce life or work skills. Discuss these issues with your caseworker and transition coordinator, too.

While your child has the right to stay in high school until that legal age, it may not always be in his or her best interests. That's a decision that should be made based on your child's individual needs, not on what programs the school feels like providing or the space the school wants to save. Kids with developmental delays may benefit from extra time in the familiar and sheltered environment of high school, and those extra years may help with some academic catch-up. On the other hand, as colleges become more friendly to students with disabilities and work programs become more community-based, there may be real benefits to branching out.

If your child will need significant services after graduation, you'll need to be sure to be registered with the agencies in your state that provide those well before graduation time. Again, your high-school transition coordinator should be able to provide that information.

Though the transition out of school can be a scary one, look on the bright side: No more IEP meetings!

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  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Section 1412 (a) (1).