Frances Burns (specialist clinic teacher consultant, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne): The move from primary school to high school with everything else being equal, is challenging for any family. You have a student who is entering or has entered into adolescence and adolescence is a tricky time for all young people. Additionally with an autism spectrum disorder you’ve got another layer of complexity. So it pays to prepare for this. It pays to plan well in advance and it pays to be very involved in your child’s school and get to know the staff really well.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer (psychologist, The ASD Clinic): Year 7 is I think one of the most hardest years for my clientele because they look and sound like a 12/13 year old but underneath you’re dealing with somebody who has got skills, in terms of social and communication and really interaction skills of perhaps a 10 or 11 year old.
Frances Burns: School entails a new building, a new playground, a new set of classrooms, a new set of teachers, a lot more rules and regulations, a new expectation about the quality of your work and students are expected to work much more independently than they have in primary school. Once an enrolment is settled on then there can be some formal processes that assist any parent who is transitioning to a new school.
Two main things that need to be done is handover meeting from the previous school to the new school and this is an information sharing opportunity so it’s a time to express parent concerns. To demonstrate and try and get a handle on what those special needs of the child are likely to be and to set up supports and strategies in advance of that child entering the school so that when Day One comes, there are no surprises.
And the second part of the formal process would be a proper transition program that the child is involved with. That they have an opportunity at the end of Year 6 to travel to the new school in Year 7 and go through all the new changes that they’re going to be facing.
Elena (mother of Alex, 15, who has autism): We had a four-day transition. The first two are half days. The first day I went with him and they did the tour of the school and everything. The transition was mainly just to show them the ropes of the school. Where the canteen was, you know. Where the different classes were and just so they sort of didn’t stress over the holidays. That they already knew sort of what was going to go on and they knew who their teacher was. So it was actually really good.
Dolores (mother of James, 14, who has autism): They had a period of time where I think for a month James went to that school for…I think it was half a day every week. And then they had another couple of orientation days as well. So James visited that school at least 6 times before he actually had to start at the school.
Frances Burns: Preparation is the key in terms of changing from one environment to a new environment. So the better prepared you are, the more familiar the child is with what’s coming up. The more structure and routine you can embed pre that first day of school, then the likelihood of transition issues is reduced.
Elena: One thing we did was just explain to him that you’ve got to have different teachers because you’re not going to have the same teacher the whole time and just to try and be polite. We had to get used to teaching him where my car would be and he walks to the car. So the first couple of days I waited at the bottom of a walkway and my car was sort of half way down that street and I’d walk down with him and then eventually after the first week or two I would just sit in the car and he would just walk down to the car. So that was one transition was getting him to and from school.
Frances Burns: Something as simple as a school uniform that would be purchased at some point in the school holiday is going to be new clothing for the child so even something like that you can adjust, you can help your child adjust to by wearing the uniform in the holidays. Practice getting up in the morning and getting ready for school. Drive to school in the morning and pretend that that’s going to be your morning’s activity.
Dolores: The transition for James going from primary to high school was, for us was quite easy. All it took was just a couple of visits to that high school and just for us to do some little social stories at home about the fact that he was moving from one school to the other and because he was getting older.
Frances Burns: It’s hard to predict what your child’s experience is going to be like in Year 7. It’s ideal for it to be what I call a seamless transition and I think you can only do your best to prepare for that.
Dr Richard Eisenmajer: I say to parents all the time ‘Don’t give up. It’s kind of…you know…not an unexpected thing for things to blow up a bit in Year 7. But don’t give up on education.’ It’s more like ‘how are we going to find our way around it?’ And there are alternatives. We’re looking at things like part-time placements. The child may even home school for the year. The child may come to school in a very infrequent way and then repeat Year 7 the following year.
Frances Burns: There’s no need to assume that transition is going to be difficult or that issues will occur. Any school worth it’s salt will be doing its best to make sure that they pre-empt any potential issues before they happen. You’ve got a lot of Year 7’s coming in. All the students are new and teachers know that all students are dealing with transition.
Dolores: I think schools and people within the schools, the teachers, are used to us worrying parents. So they kind of know how to help you through that and sometimes it’s us as the parents that need the help more than the child does. I mean my husband and I worried about James going into high school more than he worried about it.
Frances Burns: Transitioning to high school and having a successful high school experience from Years 7 right through to 12 is certainly achievable for all children regardless of their special needs. Regardless of challenging behaviours. You need to celebrate the progress that your child has made. And every child will make academic progress. Every child will make social progress. But the way to measure that progress is what did they enter school with and how far have they come in their progress?