Transition from elementary to middle school is stressful for any student but the process can be even more challenging for the student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and for his or her parents. Many things will be different. The school will probably be larger, the campus more confusing and the enrollment may be several times greater than at the elementary school level. The student will not know his or her new teachers and, in turn, they might not know anything about him or her. The aide, if one is needed and provided, may be a stranger. Most of the students will not know their classmate with ASD. In any given class, he or she might find no familiar faces. The student might change classes not only every period, but also might only have certain classes for a semester, for a quarter, or on alternate days. There will be greater demands for independence in terms of work habits. The homework assignments will be more complex and involve more hours of work. There will be different and more complex social demands within the cultural setting of the school and during extracurricular activities. But, there may also be new opportunities that were not available at the elementary school level. Careful planning will be needed to increase the probability that transition to the middle school environment is a successful endeavor. Planning for the transition process will usually need to begin several months before the actual transition occurs. This article provides a process that others have found useful for developing a successful plan. Additional steps may be needed in individual cases.
Step I. Preparation During the Last Year in Elementary School
The elementary school team might visit the middle school so that they can:
- Meet teachers and administrators in the middle school.
- Learn about important differences between elementary and middle school, and about new expectations.
- Obtain some of the middle school textbooks or course outlines to help determine placement when levels of classes are offered.
- Obtain information about school policy, traditions, and so forth
- Obtain information for the parents about the new school, including its faculty, opportunities, challenges, rules and traditions.
- Develop a list of important skills to teach the student that he or she might need in the new environment.
Step II. Planning the Curriculum, Goals, and Schedule for the Fall Transition to Middle School
The elementary school team can:
- Gather information, prior to the individualized educational program (IEP) meeting, about the student’s strengths, challenges, interests, and need for technology, support, and accommodations/modifications.
- Discuss a potential schedule with the parents and the receiving middle school team with regard to the student’s need for balance in his schedule, breaks, and opportunity for resource support. Sensory challenges must also be considered as the schedule is designed.
- Develop a list of helpful strategies, a student portfolio, and/or a video that shows the personality and strengths of the student to the new staff.
Step III. Preparing the Parents
The elementary school team can:
- Discuss with parents how they might assist their child over the summer to become ready for the transition.
- Share materials that might assist the student to become familiar with the new school (e.g., map, student handbook, yearbook).
- Discuss how the parents can communicate with the new teachers to insure an easy transition. Provide information about school activities and faculty expectations revolving around homework.
- Identify parent support and booster groups so parents can become involved, if they wish, in sponsored activities of the school.
- Remind parents of school personnel who will function as the case manager or primary contacts.
- Discuss the need to develop an effective means of communication with the middle school contact person and other staff.
Step IV. Preparation of the Student
The parents and/or a school team can:
- Write a social story or series of stories that will help the student prepare for the change.
- Allow the student to have as many visits to the new school, as needed.
- Allow the student to practice walking the route to his classes while the building is empty. Make a video, if needed.
- Identify important areas, including a safe haven, bus stop, homeroom, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym, and so forth.
- Provide the student opportunities to practice opening and closing his or her locker.
- Help the student understand school rules.
- Help the student become familiar with the faculty and school activities during the year by reviewing the yearbook.
- Take him or her to parent-student orientation.
- Practice scripts so that the student knows where to go to get help and how to ask for assistance.
- Practice the routine of requesting to go to a quiet place to calm down; practice the route to get to the place.
- Prepare the student for the fact that each teacher will have different rules and procedures. He or she will need to be flexible.
- Buy a special notebook with dividers that will help him or her stay organized.
Step V. Preparation of the Staff
The middle school or Autism Support Team can:
- Inform the teaching staff as soon as possible that they will be receiving a student with an autism spectrum disorder.
- Plan how teachers will be prepared, informed, and supported.
- Provide staff with an information packet that includes the names of videos, books, and websites about autism spectrum disorders.
- Identify whom to contact, if staff have questions or problems.
- Identify an older student who can serve as a mentor or “Big Brother/ Big Sister” to the student with ASD during the new school term.
- Assist staff and aides so they are ready with adaptations/modifications for that first week.
- Advise staff that the student may be clueless about the hidden curriculum. Enlist their help to provide explicit information in written form, if possible, that the student will need to cope within the school environment.
- Advise staff of the need to closely monitor comprehension of material since many students with ASD excel at memorizing information without processing or understanding it.
- Plan to meet often as a group to proactively and quickly solve problems.
- Set up rules with the parents regarding the amount of homework and their expected role.
- Negotiate the best method of quick and reliable communication with parents.
While this list is geared more towards the needs of the student who will be active in the general education classroom, many of the same steps are appropriate for the student who will be in a more restrictive program. This list is not all inclusive and individual steps should be added to meet the needs of specific students and their school system. Many of the same strategies will be needed when preparing for the transition from middle school to high school.
Vicker, B. (2003). Transition to middle school. The Reporter, 8(3), 19-21.