Strategies for parents and young people to ensure successful post-school transitions.

Strategy 1: Attend information opportunities and access online information to find out more about further or higher education, employment, and support services.

Strategy 2: Partner with other families and support groups to explore choices and pathways.

Strategy 3: Begin planning for transition early in post-primary school, and seek support to create a clear Transition Plan.

Strategy 4: Build independence by teaching practical skills

Strategy 5: Help young people to identify and build a network of support

Better options for students with disabilities.

On the 22nd November post-primary students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties in Ireland are invited to the annual Better Options event.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to attend this event whether you are in 5th or 6th year.  Researching supports in further and higher education is a key part of  making decisions about transition pathways that suit your profile of strengths and interests.

This is your opportunity to meet the people who will be supporting you in college, and to ask questions relevant to your individual support needs, for example:

  • what type of academic and personal support will I receive?
  • can I request exam accommodations?
  • do you provide assistive technology?
  • is there a respite or sensory rest room?
  • do you have accessible lockers?

The list of exhibitors for this year includes:

Association for Higher Education Access and Disability
Assistive Technology Demo Stand
Blackrock College of Further Education
Blanchardstown IT
Carlow College
Cavan Institiute
Dublin Business School
Dublin City University
Dublin Institute of Technology
Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology
Dun Laoghaire Institute of Further Education
Dundalk IT
Dyslexia Association
HADD Ireland
Harper Adams University (UK)
Killester College of Further Education
Marino Institute of Education
Maynooth University
National College of Art & Design
National College of Ireland
National Learning Network
Open University
Roslyn Park
Tallaght IT
Trinity College Dublin
University College Dublin

Better Options also provide seminars for parents and students on the following topics:

DARE – How to Apply
Into Nursing
Into Teaching
Into Clubs & Societies
Into Technology
Into Freshers Year – and how to survive it
Into College with an Intellectual Disability

No need to book, just turn up 🙂
November 22nd (10:00-13:00) in the Auditorium, Block A, DCU St Patrick’s Campus

This year’s Better Options college fair for students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties will take place in the Auditorium, Block A, DCU St Patrick’s Campus on Nov 22nd 2017.


10 minutes with …




  1. Why do colleges offer dedicated Access Programmes for young people?

Fundamentally, access offices attempt to ensure that the student body within higher education is reflective of the diversity of society at large.  We are keen to ensure that students of all ages (Mature and Young Adults) achieve their full educational potential.  The circumstances of your birth which may include social and economic challenges should not dictate the limits of your educational achievement. Individuals, communities and society at large benefit greatly when students have the opportunity to fulfil their educational goals and that is why colleges offer dedicated access programmes.

  1. What is your role within TAP?

I have had the pleasure of working with students and staff in Trinity College for nearly 20 years.   My current role is that of Deputy Director of the Trinity Access Programmes, and consists of working with an enthusiastic team and in partnership with schools, businesses and communities at developing policies and practices which help to ensure that widening participation is prioritised and is a success in Trinity.

  1. Why did you choose work in this area?

Like many things in life, my career has been part accident and part design.  I initially trained as a second level teacher, and was supervised by the former Director of TAP (and fellow Mayo supporter) Deirdre Rafferty.   In 1997, she invited me to volunteer on a summer school programme which was being organised by TAP for second level students, and I couldn’t resist.  Aside from that experience, my personal history aligns with the TAP story, as I am a first generation college entrant.  Although my own parents didn’t complete primary school and have struggled with basic literacy, they instilled a fire in my belly for education.

  1. Where did you train and how long did it take?

My undergraduate education took place in the inspirational surroundings of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts.  After a few years of working and traveling, I undertook the Higher Diploma, Education TCD.  More recently, I completed a Master’s in Education.  I also have a certificate in Equality Studies from UCD.   Thankfully, my job allows for a considerable degree of reflection, research and professional development – all of which is essential to ensure that I am doing the best job possible for students.

  1. Have you always worked with young people?

As a little girl, I loved nothing more than playing teacher.  I have always been involved with education  — primarily with ‘young’ people but also with mature students.  In my earlier years, you would have found me escorting groups of students and educators to far-flung places in the former Soviet Union.   My early days in Ireland were spent teaching in the North Inner City and Tallaght.  My time in Trinity has allowed me to design and deliver so many interesting and impactful programmes for children from ages 12 to 20.  Working with young people is a joy, and I believe that they have taught me as much as (hopefully) I have shared with them.

  1. What do you like most about your job?

I am lucky to work with a really dedicated team in Trinity – people who are creative, humorous and always willing to go the extra mile.  But, I think that we would all agree, that the best part of our job is learning our students’ stories and watching them undertake an educational journey and begin to flourish.

  1. Are you working on any projeccaw-logots at the moment?

I am working with colleagues in NCAD, IADT, UCD and Marino on a grant application.  We are also working on delivering the fourth annual national College Awareness Week campaign, which has been a huge success (  Not to mention, our orientation programme for nearly 300 incoming Freshers!

  1. What is your top tip for students starting college?

Be yourself, look after your well-being, and ask for help when you need it!

  1. How can parents help?

Parents can help by showing unconditional love and support.  A warm meal, a place conducive to study, words of encouragement, continuing to do their laundry (!) and offering a few quid for socialising all help.   Parents may also consider visiting the college/ university web-site to familiarise themselves with the range of transition programmes, student services, bursaries, etc. that are available to help students thrive while in college.

  1. Where can parents and young people find out more about access programmes?

Visit the website of the college which your son/ daughter is attending/ hoping to attend or by visiting

Making it personal.

I wrote about the structure and purpose of the DARE scheme in Who DARES, wins  and have received many queries from students and parents about the personal statement element of the application process.  Every year this task causes feelings of apprehension and anxiety for many applicants, so I am sharing here some general advice about how to approach this, bearing in mind the completion deadline of 1st March.


The personal statement is Question 5 of the online application DARE form, that students complete within their CAO account.  As stated on page 15 of the DARE Application Guide, it provides students with an opportunity to describe in more detail, the impact of disability in the classroom, the school environment, and in completion of academic tasks. It is an important piece of supplementary information for Disability Services (DS) in colleges, universities, and Institutes of Technology.  After accepting a CAO offer, the DS contacts the student to organise a Needs Assessment meeting, at which both parties discuss and agree upon the most appropriate supports and reasonable accommodations.  As the number of students with a disability registering in college may be as many as 200 (depending upon the size of the institution), it is extremely useful for DS staff to have prior knowledge about the strengths, challenges and needs of each student.

Section B Educational Impact Form must be completed by the school, and on page 2, the student must respond to the following question:“Please ask the applicant: Has your educational experience been affected by your disability/condition in any of the following ways? Record their response to each of the following:

  1. I needed and received supports in school or exam accommodations.
  2. My school or class attendance has been disrupted.
  3. It has impacted on my overall experience of school.
  4. It has impacted on my school exam results and learning.
  5. I have experienced other educational impact not listed above.
  6. I have a Specific Learning Difficulty and my literacy and/or numeracy abilities have been impacted on.”

It is very important for students to think about and discuss their response to this question with parents, guardians or carers, before they meet with a member of school staff to complete the form. To meet DARE eligibility requirements, students with a Specific Learning Difficulty must meet Indicator 6 plus one other indicator. All other applicants must meet any combination of two indicators from Indicators 1 to 5.

Therefore, the personal statement should match the factors that the student indicated as having had an impact on their education. Students can include comments about any aspect of school that they have found challenging, difficult, or obstructive.  This might include their performance in tests and exams, access to books and other materials or resources, access to teaching and instruction, issues with memory or concentration, the effect of any mental health condition, problems with time management and organisation, difficulties with attending school, supports received such as resource hours, technology, or help from an SNA.

It is not necessary to provide an essay type statement, it is acceptable to write in bullet points; the important thing is to communicate exactly how disability has impacted on the experience of secondary education. So a personal statement based on Impact Indicators might look something like the following example.

Patrick is a young person with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyspraxia, and depression.  Patrick has used a laptop in the classroom since 2nd year, and uses a computer in examinations (Impact Indicator 1).  Patrick has regular outpatient appointments for support with social skills, and feelings of social isolation (Impact Indicator 2). Patrick also has Sensory Processing Disorder which means that he finds the physical environment very challenging, being particularly sensitive to auditory stimuli (Impact Indicator 3).

ASD has had an impact on my education, in very particular ways.  Because my handwriting is both slow and at times illegible, this affected my school exam results and has also meant that I struggled to take notes in class.  I was able to use a computer in the Junior and Leaving Cert which helped me to get down everything that I needed to say in a way that teachers and the examiner could understand. My school attendance has not been great as I had to attend appointments with my psychiatrist during school hours, and there have been times when depression prevented me from leaving the house.  I think it has impacted on my overall experience of school, because I find social situations extremely challenging, making it difficult to fit in and to make friends, and this has made me feel very unhappy at times.  Some smells and sounds cause me distress, and this is a problem if there are large numbers of people.  This can affect my concentration in lessons.  I become overwhelmed and get very tired, meaning that sometimes homework is impossible to complete at the end of the school day.

Barbara was diagnosed with a Specific Learning Difficulty (Dyslexia) in primary school, affecting spelling and written expression to a significant degree (Impact Indicator 6).  Barbara’s psycho-educational assessment also indicates that her overall ability lies within the above average range, but this not reflected in her school results (Impact Indicator 4).  She has received regular learning support in post-primary school, for help with essay writing and study skills (Impact Indicator 1).

  1. I have always had help in school from the resource teacher to help me with organising information, and writing essays.  She taught me how to use mind maps to learn and remember material.

  2. My Dyslexia report says that I have a slow processing speed and working memory.  It takes me a long time to get my thoughts down in writing.  I just cannot keep up with taking notes in class, I just don’t write fast enough.

  3. In general, I don’t think that my performance in exams reflects my ability.  I know I’m not stupid but I just don’t get the marks.

  4. It takes my brain a long time to retrieve information, so I end up writing far less than everyone else, and running out of time before I have answered all of the questions.

  5. Having to study for so many subjects is hard for me, it takes such a long time to do homework.

Other examples are provided on page 14 of the DARE 2015 Application Guide.

These examples should help students to understand how the personal statement connects to communicating educational disadvantage.  It is so important that students take this opportunity to tell their story.


Getting started on transition planning 2: Secondary school to college or employment

After leaving school, young people need to discover and navigate new environments, and become familiar with a different set of social and institutional rules.  They also need to know how to disclose a difficulty or disability, manage daily living activities independently, and be confident in their social and self-advocacy skills, organization, and time management.  If these skills have not been acquired during the senior school years, personal circumstances can change from managing, to not managing, very quickly.  Students can become lost in the college or university system, or become anxious and lose confidence in an overwhelming work environment.

Moving into third level education

Leaving school means moving from a familiar and highly structured environment. This is difficult for most young people and can be especially difficult for some young people with additional needs, challenges or difficulties.  Being self-aware, discovering options, researching choices, gathering all of the information to make comparisons, and discussing advantages and disadvantages, are essential to enjoying the first year in college and to staying in college. Students need to be confident about strengths and challenges and how these fit with their chosen course.  Identifying support services, arranging for a needs assessment and disclosing special needs or disability is very important. Choosing not to disclose may lead to a delay in receiving human and technological support, and may make the first few weeks very difficult.

There is enormous pressure and significant value placed upon  ‘going to college’ or uni, and rarely is sufficient time or thought given over to the appropriateness of the setting or environment, relevance of the course to future aspirations, and availability of person-centred supports.  These issues can be complex and time consuming, and need to be investigated before the final year in school, which is inevitably taken up with intensive study and examinations.  Chapter 5 Planning Transitions for Young People with Special Needs and Disabilities looks at discovering options and making choices early in the senior cycle of education, and Chapter 8 – Managing the Transition Bridge – contains checklists and forms that can assist with managing the move from school to further / higher education or employment. For example, Transition Tasks for Students and Parents,  and College Offers Checklist.


Moving into employment

The shift from school to the workplace can be confusing and disorientating especially in the first few weeks.  At school everyone is completing the same work at the same time in the same way.  At work everyone has a particular job to do and it isn’t always easy to remember all of the steps and tasks that are assigned to your role.  A short induction or on-the-job teaching might take place, but often there is a lot of information to remember in a short space of time.  Young people need to be confident about asking for information to be provided in a format that they can re-visit and re-check.  Having a part-time job and getting some work experience are really useful actions for preparing for the move from school.  Knowing how and when to disclose a special need or disability is very important and needs to be discussed and practiced before a job interview and / or the first day at work.  Choosing not to disclose may lead to potentially losing a job, creating a lack of trust or uncertainty, or a delay in receiving human and technological supports.  Creating and practicing a disclosure script is incredibly useful, and a template for creating a disclosure script can be downloaded here.


The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) has an excellent guide to disclosure which you can download here and which includes a self-assessment of reasonable accommodation requirements.

You can find more job seeking tips from AHEAD at




The National Autistic Society has also published an excellent interactive workbook on finding employment called Finding Work.


10 minutes with …..


…… Cillian Murphy, Educational Psychologist with Student Support and Development in Dublin City University.



What does a Student Learning Officer do?

I work with undergraduate and postgraduate students at third level to help them build effective learning strategies and writing skills.

Why did you choose to work within Disability Services

I trained as an Educational Psychologist but wanted to do work based more on psycho-educational intervention than assessment. I did a placement in a disability service during my training and knew third level was the right setting for me. I began working after graduation in a Disability Service, but in my current role I now provide the same support to the whole student body, as many students have issues with learning effectively at third level, not just those with disabilities.

Where did you train and how long did it take?

I completed a four year Psychology degree in Trinity College Dublin, then worked for three years in the education sector gaining experience, before returning to college for a two year Masters in Educational Psychology in University College Dublin.

What qualities and skills does a Student Learning Officer need?

A Student Learning Officer needs to be empathetic to the difficulties students frequently face in tackling third level, they need to be calm, approachable and good at relating to students. They need to have the skill to pick out exactly where a student is having difficulties in their learning and know a range of tools, strategies and techniques to overcome these issues.

Have you always worked with young people? 

Yes! I’ve been volunteering with children and young people since my own days as a student and my entire career to date has been working with children and young people.

What kind of support do you provide?

I provide many workshops every week in different study and writing skills that students can drop into. The workshops cover areas such as critical writing, time management and effective reading amongst others. I also lead a small group programme called ‘Learning to Learn’, coordinate a Writing Centre for students to avail of writing support, and offer individual learning development sessions.

What do you like most about your job?

I love working with a small group of students over several weeks – it’s great to see people sharing their experiences and supporting each other and taking strides forward in their learning.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

I’ve actually just launched an exciting technology project with our I.T. team. We’ve embedded the best learning apps and extensions on Google Chrome (for example mind mapping and flashcards apps) to all student Gmail accounts. This way all students at the institution have access to good quality learning technology, not just those who engage with Disability Services.

What is your top tip for students starting college?

Get organized! Read through module outlines, know when your assignments are due, how much their worth, the topic on the module. Create digital folders in Google Drive or Dropbox for all of your materials and stay on top of them right from Week 1.

How can parents help?

Parents can help by emphasizing how important routine is in learning – building a study routine almost like a real workplace routine can give students the structure they need to manage independent learning.

I’m on the wrong course, get me out of here!


I’ve just come back from visiting a young man  who has decided, at the end of Week 1,  that he simply cannot return to his course. Whilst for most students the disenchantment period might drag on for a little longer, there are implications for future choices and funding.

Recent reports estimate that up to 80% of students on some college courses in Ireland, are withdrawing from college within the first year, with a general withdrawal rate in first year of 1 in 6 students.   As I pointed out in an earlier post, national and international studies suggest that the principal reasons for dropping-out are:

1. Course choice: inaccurate understanding and awareness of course content in terms of modules, learning outcomes and the curriculum across all three or four years of study.
2. Personal factors: self-awareness, self-management, insufficient competence in study skills, a general lack of preparedness.
3. Financial burden: costs associated with attending college, including the need to seek part-time work, and late payment of student grants.
4. Medical and mental health difficulties: exacerbated by anxiety, self-esteem, a sense of ‘not fitting in’, social isolation, homesickness, and feeling overwhelmed.
5. Family influences.

There is a great deal of work to be done around items 1 and 2, an increasingly impossible task in the light of cuts to career guidance in secondary schools, as highlighted in Lest we forget: Lessons learned in Ireland following Budget 2012.

The seeds of self-awareness, self-determination, and self-advocacy, need to be sown, watered and nurtured by competent gardeners.  Exploring options and choices are physical activities that require the support and engagement of knowledgeable adults.  These things do not happen by chance, and using a transition planning tool such as MyUniPlan, can help to get the ball rolling.

Phew.  Rant over.

So IF you discover that you are on the wrong course, what is to be done?

  1. Transfer to another course within your college.
  2. Transfer to another college, university or Institute of Technology.
  3. Re-apply to the CAO to begin another course in the following year.

BUT it’s important to bear in mind the financial implications… 

In Ireland, students receive ‘free fees’ meaning they pay a ‘contribution’ towards their university education, currently c. €3,000.  The remaining fees (c. €3,000) are paid by the Higher Education Authority.  For this reason, changes you make to your registration status as a student, may incur a financial penalty.  A comprehensive explanation of how fees work for repeating a year in college can be found at Student Finance.

Bottom line: the HEA pays their share of fees in each of the years of your undergraduate degree.  If you withdraw after one year, you are deemed to have used up one year of your ‘free fees’ contribution from the HEA, so if you begin the year again in the same or another institution, you will be liable to pay the ‘student contribution’ PLUS the ‘HEA contribution’, in other words, about €6,000.   So you need to be sure about your decision, and the timing and method of transfer or withdrawal is crucial.

IMPORTANT: Although the HEA will not pay tuition fees if you have to repeat a year (for example, if you failed exams or decide to switch courses), they may do so if you can provide evidence of ‘exceptional circumstances’ such as a certified serious illness, for example, one that might have resulted in a period of hospitalization.  Very stringent regulations on this, check with your college or university.

Transfer to another course within your college.

Most colleges, universities, institutes of technology have explicit regulations about this, and, in general, you must follow the procedures to request a transfer  within the first three weeks of beginning college.  Check the rules in your college.

Transfer to another institution.

If you want to switch to the same or a similar course in another college, university or institute of technology, you must meet the subject entry requirements for the course either through your Leaving Certificate results, or from the study you have completed on your existing course.  You do not get extra points for having been in college already. Students apply to the CAO as usual by 1st February, although there is a special late closing date of 22 July.  Read the CAO handbook, and check the rules in your institution.

Re-apply to the CAO to begin another course in the following year.

In the usual way.  If you applied to DARE the year before and were eligible for a DARE place, you can ‘carry over’ this eligibility for one year.  You still need to follow some of the DARE application procedures through your CAO account.  Follow the instructions carefully.




This can all be avoided with early, staged, person-centred transition planning.