Beyond Backpacks – Transitions to School

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Transitions to school can be one of the most stressful times for parents of children with special needs. This article provides some tips and advice from parents who have been through it, and some useful links to help get you through this time – from preschool to post-secondary.


This could be the first time you’ll be leaving your child in someone else’s care. It could also be the first time your child will be around large groups of other children. The transition to preschool (or daycare, Montessori, etc.) can be stressful for you and your child, but it can also be a wonderful experience as your child starts to gain some independence and experiences the joys of learning in a more structured environment.

Tips to Prepare your child:

  • Talk to them about their early learning centre (preschool, Montessori, daycare, etc.).
  • Be enthusiastic: Use simple, positive language and make sure your facial expressions match your enthusiasm.
  • Take them for visits if possible (take photos to review at home)
  • Worried about separation anxiety? Try reading books that help address the issue. The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a great read about a racoon who is going off to school. (Bonus: Also a great book for kids transitioning into elementary school).
  • Try to schedule a meeting with your child’s future caregivers and your therapy team to discuss support items that might be needed and current goals for your child.
  • Talk to your child’s therapy team openly about any concerns or issues.

Elementary school

The transition to school process usually starts a year in advance of when your child is set to begin school. By this point you’ve likely had many conversations with your child’s therapy and school teams about the transition. However there are still a few things you can do to help the transition in the coming weeks and over the first few weeks of the school year. Also, if your child is transitioning from one grade to the next you might find some of these tips helpful.


  • Take your child to school. Show them the route, the schoolyard, etc.
  • Read books and sing songs about going to school and the bus (if applicable).
  • Start transitioning sleep times if necessary.
  • A lot of parents prepare documents that help teachers, educational assistants and therapists get to know their child. These can be in the form of a letter, one-page document, PowerPoint presentation or picture/storybook. These documents can cover topics like:
  • A child’s diagnosis and what it means
  • Their likes/dislikes
  • Equipment needs
  • Family info, other/alternative therapies that a child receives, etc.
  • What a child needs to enjoy an experience or succeed
  • Photos of important people, interests and places
  • A summary or cheatsheet if reading through the document is not possible or a child has a substitute teacher or educational assistant one day.
  • Please note these documents do not replace any formal school documentation. These documents are not a requirement, simply a tool that some parents develop and find helpful.
  • Knowledge is power. Get to know your new world (and all the acronyms that come along with it).
  • Though it isn’t always possible for parents to give as much of their time as they would like, try to get to know your child’s team (teachers, therapists, educational assistants, etc.).

Secondary School

By now a lot of your child’s foundational skills have developed. This transition period can focus on other skills, such as social skills and increased independence in addition to getting the necessary support to accommodate any of your child’s special needs.


  • Stay connected with friends from elementary school who will attend the same secondary school as your child.
  • Practice the route to school and visit the school if possible. Familiarity can help ease anxiety.
  • Look for opportunities to increase your child’s independence over the coming weeks.


The applications were sent in, acceptances received and cheques have been written (yikes!). If your child is getting ready to attend college or university this fall the added complexities of having special needs can be effectively addressed by leveraging resources that are likely already in place.


  • Most post-secondary schools have accessibility services departments. These departments can help coordinate extra time needed for assignments, tests or exams, physical accommodations, etc. Contact your individual school to ensure you are linked in with the department.
  • Encourage your child to introduce him or herself to their professors or teachers early on in the semester (they may have to do this anyway to get any forms from the accessibility services department signed).
  • Look for additional scholarships and bursaries to help with expenses. Even if deadlines for this year are over, be sure to keep them on your radar and apply for future years if applicable. Your post-secondary institution’s accessibility services department or student services should be able to direct you to a comprehensive list.

For more tips and ideas for all transitions to school, visit our Online Resource Centre here.
Official school board links: