To Middle School

Beginning at a new school is difficult for many children and families, and may be particularly challenging to children with special needs. Middle school experiences will vary widely depending on each child’s abilities and needs; some children may continue in a single classroom during the day, some will participate in the usual classroom changes, and others will have a class schedule that combines these two scenarios. Some children will continue in the general academic curriculum, while others may attend classes that emphasize self-help and functional skills. As a parent, you should be involved in deciding the appropriate middle school program for your child. Because each child is unique, a transition meeting will be especially important, and will include you, your child’s teacher/teachers, and other school personnel.
The team, including you and your child, will work to identify the appropriate setting and program for your child as he transitions to middle school. If possible, include someone from your child's previous IEP team, and a guidance counselor. Some IEP teams complete a student profile that outlines your child's specific needs and health conditions as a starting point for determining IEP goals. As you plan for the first year in middle school, consider changes in the services your child will receive; services may be more difficult to obtain as your child moves up to middle school. For instance, if your child has had an aide in elementary school, ensure that this continues via her IEP if still necessary. The plan should include designated responsibilities and specific actions for team members, as well as dates for completion and/or re-evaluation. You’ll also want to make sure that your child's Individual Health Plan is updated. Remember that if you have concerns as the school year begins you can always arrange for another IEP meeting.
The following checklist can serve as a guide for creating a school plan. Before you meet with the transition team, you can prepare for the meeting by gathering your thoughts and questions. Of course, there may be other necessary plans and discussions depending on your child’s needs, but we hope this will help you get started. It’s important to note that if your child will receive special education services, a plan for transitioning to adulthood should be in place by age 14.
Points to Address in the Individualized School Plan
  • Are the curriculum requirements well matched to your student's particular abilities? For instance, will your child be able to succeed in the general curriculum or will they be in a special education class? Are there any specific classes that may be difficult such as P.E. or computer keyboarding?
  • Does your child need individual accommodations to assure that she can access the curriculum, i.e. books on tape, adjustment of reading level to appropriate group, etc.?
  • Are there safety/mobility issues? (Does your child need to attend classes up or down stairs? Are trailer classrooms accessible? Can he get to his locker easily?)
  • Consider your child’s social skills, communication ability, self-help, and self-advocacy skills. Will she be able to obtain her lunch in the cafeteria and sit with friends or will she need help? Is bullying a concern, and how will it be addressed?
  • Should pre-vocational skills be introduced or encouraged?

Common Student Concerns

Your middle schooler may have many of the same social concerns as any middle school student, but depending on her condition or needs, she is likely to also have unique concerns. In some schools, for example, students are required to change clothes for physical education classes, and to shower in front of peers. This is sometimes a source of intense anxiety. For children with special needs there may additional concerns about privacy surrounding self-care away from home, such as insulin injections or catheter care, or taking necessary medicines. Your child might voice more than ever that he or she just wants to be "normal."
There may be questions surrounding mobility or accessibility in a new, possibly much larger school. The hallways of a middle school can get incredibly crowded. Your child may worry about feeling safe at school, or about finding his locker, the lunchroom, bathrooms, or elevators, or even about finding the right bus to ride home. Some of these challenges can be lessened by visiting your child’s school with him before the school year begins and helping him get his bearings when the hallways are still empty. You might schedule a meeting with some teachers or the school nurse, and introduce your child to school staff who can help if he needs it.
A visit prior to the school year can also help prepare your child for a new set of responsibilities. If she has to change classrooms, she’ll have to remember her schedule, and where to go for each class. She will have to learn to get to class on time, and to remember which books to bring home in order to complete her homework. All these things can be overwhelming, but you can help your child by talking with her about these new challenges, helping her develop systems or habits when possible, and by helping her become familiar with her new school environment.

Common Teacher Concerns

Middle school teachers sometimes tell us that they worry because parents become less involved in their child’s life when their child reaches middle school. Teachers often have their hands full with the large number of students in their classrooms, and the extra attention that complicated or special needs children sometimes require can be even more challenging. Sometimes they feel ill prepared or simply uninformed about what a particular special needs child requires. As always, an open conversation with your child’s teachers can help both you and the teachers more comfortably meet your child’s needs, and better understand the challenges that each of you face in helping your child achieve his educational goals.

Suggested Strategies to Help Your Middle Schooler

We’ve gathered the following suggestions from other parents and teachers to help you and your child prepare for middle school.
  • Inform a new school of your child's conditions and needs well in advance of your child’s first day.
  • Visit the new school early with your child to locate locker, bathrooms, lunchroom, and office; ask for a locker change if mobility is an issue. Show your child where the bus will pick her up after school.
  • Talk to the bus driver about your student's needs.
  • Meet with teachers to discuss health, behavior, and learning issues.
  • Ask the principal to assign someone to case-manage your child's needs and to address safety issues (such as fire escape), mobility issues, toileting, locker placement, schedule, etc. A school physical or occupational therapist may be best suited to make this assessment. Verify that all school team members* and teachers have a copy of the emergency plan. The health plan, emergency plan and medication list should be updated approximately every 6 months.
  • Make arrangements with school staff regarding special health equipment storage, self-care, and toileting.
  • Meet with the school team to set up a "quiet time" location if fatigue or over-stimulation are issues for your child.
  • Find out about class expectations (e.g., P.E., shop, food, lab, etc.) and speak with the teacher about your student's specific needs.
  • Attach a copy of your child's class schedule inside a notebook and/or help him post an extra copy in his locker.
  • If appropriate, teach your student to use an organizer and prioritize different class assignments.
  • Ask about assigning a peer assistant for hallway navigation, especially if mobility is difficult.
  • Consider arranging to have a second set of textbooks at home.
  • Talk with your student about social issues before they arise. Consider role-playing to explore possible responses.
  • Encourage your student to practice self-advocacy.
  • Encourage your student to become involved in school activities or after-school activities/clubs. Find out which clubs, sports, and activities are available for your child.
  • Notify school in advance of an extended absence; if possible, arrange homebound teachers. Upon your child’s return to school, update the health plan, medications, and emergency/escape plan.
*"School team" may refer to the IEP, 504, Health plan, or school accommodation team.

What Might You Expect from the Medical Home?

Your child’s Medical Home will continue to be involved throughout middle school. They may be helpful in determining and asking for necessary accommodations for your child. For instance, your child may need an aide present in the lunchroom if choking may be a problem, or a letter from your Medical Home may be necessary to specify accommodations needed in physical education classes. They will be available as necessary to communicate with the school about changes in health status or needs, and for helping to keep the IEP up to date.
As parents or guardians, you are not alone in encouraging your child to become more independent, develop self-advocacy skills, and learn self-care skills. Medical Homes also play a role in encouraging and fostering these skills. You may find that you can suggest, encourage, and nag your child to consider or try new skills, but when an outside adult makes the exact same suggestion, your child will hear it for the first time and act on it. Your family can help the Medical Home plant the seeds for greater independence by sharing some of your child’s interests, dreams, hopes, and concerns with the Medical Home. A brief comment about social or self-care skills from the medical assistant (“I hear you are learning to take your medications by yourself. Good job!”), or an inquiry about functional skills from the primary care clinician (“I hear you want to make video games when you grow up. How are you doing at using the computer keyboard?”), can have a lasting impact on your child. The Medical Home wants to help your child reach his full potential.
You can also foster your child’s growing independence by allowing and encouraging your child to have private discussions with the primary care clinician about sexual maturity and development, self-management goals, medications, or therapies. Don’t hesitate to ask the Medical Home for documents for the IEP team, or resources for your child or family when challenges arise. The Medical Home has been trained to provide these services and you can help the Medical Home by sharing information, asking for help, and supporting your child’s independence.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Transition Tips for Parents of Teens with Disabilities (PDF Document 476 KB)
This pamphlet, developed by Shriners Hospital for Children, provides information for parents on taking care of themselves, helping teens stay physically and emotionally healthy, addressing sexuality, helping teens succeed in school and work, teaching teens to manage their own health care and become more independent, and includes a list of other resources and websites.

Transition Tips for Teens with Disabilities (PDF Document 308 KB)
This pamphlet, developed by Shriners Hospital for Children, provides information for teens on staying physically and emotionally healthy, taking charge of their own health care, succeeding in school, preparing for work, getting ready for the future, and includes a list of other resources and websites.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences and other federal, state, and local services. This link has a search tool to help you find the parent center in your state; Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

PACER Center
Champions for Children with Disabilities, PACER Center is a parent advocacy site covering a wide variety of topics for special needs kids including education; community support; training for parents; bullying prevention, financial planning and teen transition to employment.
A federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services with resources and information on bullying.

State Education Contacts and Information
Contact the department of education in your state, or the adult ed, arts, child care, higher ed, humanities, libraries, PTA, special ed, tech-prep, vocational rehabilitation, vocational-technical, or other education office in your state.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2008; last update/revision: August 2012
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Contributing Authors: Gina Pola-Money
Lynne M. Kerr, MD, PhD
Reviewer: Alfred N. Romeo, RN, PhD
Authoring history
2005: first version: Robin PrattCA; Barbara Ward, RN BSCA; Cheralyn CreerCA; Karen Ekker, RNCA; Carolyn Green, RNCA; Lynne Larsen-MillerCA; Elaine PollockCA; Kathryn PostCA; Helen PostCA; Lisa Samson-Fang, MDCA
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer