6 Steps to Help Your Child with Special Needs Adjust to Middle School

Changing from elementary to middle school can be a scary transition for any student, but if you have a child with special needs, there are additional factors to take into account.

A new building, unfamiliar staff, a strange transportation route, the addition of lockers, and the eventual necessity of changing classes will bring particular challenges — but they’re all manageable with some advanced planning. Follow these six steps to help your child adjust as seamlessly as possible when she starts the new school year.

1. Talk to a special needs advocate before meeting with the new school-based team.

By this stage in your child’s education, you may have already worked with a special needs advocate. But if you aren’t familiar with this role, an advocate can serve as an objective third party to help you understand your education rights and the legal requirements that a school must meet. Moreover, this professional can help you to consider potential challenges your child may face as she transitions to a new middle school setting. Ideally, your advocate will have experience with the particular school your child is going to attend and will be able to provide valuable insight into what it will be like to work with the staff there.

It’s also helpful if your representative has a background working with other families whose children have similar challenges to your own so that she can address your child’s specific needs and concerns. As a support person, she should be well-versed in least restrictive environment requirements (LRE) so she can guide you effectively (a special note on LRE below).

To find a special needs advocate, begin by researching local organizations that specialize in your child's special needs. In my community, for example, we have an autism resource for our county, a local Down syndrome support group chapter, and a support center for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We found our advocate through our local autism resource hub, though she works with children who have a variety of learning disabilities. If you're unsure where to find these services in your vicinity, contact your county's mental/behavioral health assistance chapter or the nearest wraparound service provider for learning disabilities.

As you identify candidates, be sure they have experience in your child's age range (preschool, elementary, middle, high). If you meet someone who has worked in your district before — even if not at your child's school — she may still have insights about the district staff you’ll be working with, such as the school psychologist or particular disability specialists. You also want an advocate who has time to attend meetings with you at the school and to be available for phone conversations from time to time. Advocates in our area are very busy, and there aren’t many of them — but ours has never missed a meeting. In my experience, reliability is among the most important qualifications for an advocate.

2. Communicate the changes to your child.

Your child may be more aware of graduation and leaving her elementary school than you realize, but does she know what lies ahead in middle school? You can work with her current teachers to craft a story or project about the transition to middle school. If you’ve already toured the school, you can take photos and create a picture board to show her what she can expect at the new building — the school’s exterior, the grounds, the classrooms, cafeteria, even the lockers and bathrooms.

If your child uses assistive technology, work with her on sentences like, “I’m graduating to middle school this year.” By starting these activities early in the current school year, you’ll give her sufficient time to adjust, as well as to communicate any questions or fears. If possible, bring these projects or stories home during school breaks to continue this preparation.

3. Schedule a tour and meet with the school's special education team.

Before you bring your child to the new school, visit the classrooms and locations where she’ll be during the school year, and become familiar with the paths she’ll need to follow to traverse the school. This is especially helpful if her new school is much bigger than her current one. You’ll get an idea of where certain problems may arise and which facilities will challenge your child’s needs, such as distant bathrooms or sensory triggers. I once visited a school where the smell from the cafeteria was so bad that I knew my child would not be able to sit there.

Bringing along your special needs advocate can be helpful, too, as you work together to develop effective solutions to potential problems you identify. For example, you may not be able to ensure that your child is placed in a classroom closer to the bathroom, but you can schedule regular break times throughout the day to enable her to make visits as often as she needs. These types of issues can be addressed in the first meeting you have to discuss your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) with the school’s special needs team.

4. Prepare for the IEP meeting with your new team.

Before meeting for a formal middle school IEP, consult with your child’s elementary teachers and staff to ask for recommendations for middle school support. Among other suggestions, they can advise you on designing a behavior support plan to prevent, manage, and replace behaviors that will not be suitable for middle school.

Becoming thoroughly familiar with the middle school's rules, regulations, and handbook will help you navigate many of these differences. The team can also advise you whether your child should take certain middle school classes like foreign language, which accommodations she is permitted to transfer into middle school, and which assistive technologies have benefited her the most in recent months.

While it may be new terrain for you, it’s helpful to research the staff's background and philosophies so that you are prepared for what to expect. Often, special education or administrative staff from the district can be only committed for a short time or on an interim basis. In this case, you want to make sure that the team is on board with your school's philosophy and your concept of inclusion for your child.

Look into the background of the different team members. Recent graduates may not have extensive resumes, but you can ask which university they attended to get a sense of their training. (Your advocate may be helpful here, too.) You can learn about more experienced staff members on LinkedIn or by searching their names and school district online. You should be able to find out where they have worked, where they were educated, and other noteworthy information such as whether they have won awards or made dramatic changes within a school.

Finally, if you feel that your input isn’t being valued by your special education team, you may want to ask for a private meeting with the administrator in charge. This worked well for us early in our daughter's education; I sat with the principal, and we each shared our vision of inclusion to arrive at a learning approach that was well-suited to our needs.

5. Tour the school with your child and introduce her to members of her special needs team.

If it makes you more comfortable, bring your child’s advocate to this informal meeting. She may think of ideas and questions that you haven’t yet considered or were too nervous to think of during the initial tour. Ask the staff to walk your child along the path she will most likely take during her school day — from drop-off to pick up — to give her a sense of what this new experience will be like.

Set up a meeting with the middle school guidance counselor and introduce your child. You can discuss whether there are special opportunities or activities the counselor can suggest to foster peer relationships and community building with other students.

6. Prepare for the first day of school early on.

Your child needs to be at her best on the first day in her new middle school. There will be enough stresses and anxieties, so begin early (ideally over the summer months) with a consistent routine that matches her new school schedule, especially for sleep and wake-up times. When the new year begins, if she has transitional or stress-reducing toys and objects, send those with her in hand so she can use them on the bus. And at the end of that first day, plan a relaxing, low-stress evening so she can unwind and recharge for the week ahead.

A Note on Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

I happen to believe strongly in the effectiveness of inclusive education. According to WrightsLaw, a website focused on special education law and advocacy for children, research strongly supports the benefits of classroom inclusion for children with disabilities as well as for their non-disabled peers. I also believe that academics is only one component of a public education. Suitable behavior, relationship skills, and communication develop through interaction with peers who can model age-appropriate conduct.

Assistive technology, sensory toys, headphones, supportive seating, weighted clothing, and frequent breaks for movement are all strategies we've used to help our children be included as much as possible, and at present, their inclusion level is nearly 80 percent of the school day. They are pulled out for therapies and short intensive sessions from time to time. That said, at certain times (such as early in the school year), they may spend less time in the classroom to enable them to adjust to the many transitions they’re experiencing.

It’s important to gauge the best path for your child; if she is throwing tantrums in a higher grade level, for instance, the other students may be more prone to reject her. Evaluating whether an inclusive classroom is the right setting for your child involves a delicate balance that may change from year to year as she matures or regresses.

If your child with special needs has just entered her last year of elementary school, it’s time to start thinking about her next educational experience. Middle school may present new challenges, but by looking ahead, you’ll be able to create a smooth path for her next stage of development — and feel confident that you and your child will be able to get over any hurdles successfully.

If you're just beginning to consider your middle school options, check out this guide to researching schools for children with special needs. You can also find further articles about special needs education by Noodle Experts like Gina Badalaty.