Getting started on transition planning 1: primary to post-primary

There are two parts to successfully completing the move from primary to secondary school: forward planning by parents, and building trust, confidence and familiarity in children.

A Plan for Parentsschool-building4-1

Finding out involves making checklists for phone calls, organising meetings and school visits, and gathering any information or formal paperwork that is needed.  Start a file or folder and create a checklist for issues or concerns with:

  • School environment
  • Safety and social relationships
  • Academic tasks including homework
  • Transitions and routines
  • Personal belongings


Talking about change is crucial as the transition to secondary school coincides with the onset of adolescence, a period of significant emotional, physiological and psychological changes. Inevitably, this has an impact on friendships, social groups, environments and methods of teaching and learning.  Starting these conversations early, rather than at the moment of impending transition, will help to tackle worries and concerns before they become problems.

Communication in the classroom is particularly important for students who experience difficulties with receptive and expressive language, and might include agreeing verbal and non-verbal tools or strategies with school staff.  It is important that these are determined before school begins.

Coping strategiess include activities and resources that will assist your son or daughter to manage potentially stressful situations within the school environment. These might include making communication cards or developing behavioural scripts for scenarios such as:

  • Feeling unwell
  • Changes to routine
  • Getting lost
  • Forgetting homework
  • Transition between classes
  • Sensory overload

Managing the school environment is a significant task for both parents and students, particularly during the first year of secondary school. Changes to the practical aspects of school-based learning include an increase in academic subjects, organising the books and materials associated with those subjects, an increase in workload and in particular homework, and maintaining high quality communication between home and school.  You need to be clear about how you are going to manage these changes at home, to reduce any stress or confusion for your student.

Individual Transition Plans completed by the student, their parents, and support professionals are a very useful method of transferring knowledge about strengths and challenges.  Indeed, in the absence of an Individual Education Plan, it ensures that needs and reasonable adjustments to the learning environment are communicated well before the moment of transition to secondary school.  Nowhere does it say that this is not allowed.

Activities for Children

The following activities can be completed over the course of the final year in primary school.  You should do these activities together, and use a scrapbook to gather any information that is needed.  If you are handy with word processing you could make a workbook and have it spiral bound at a printing shop.  If you are an all out creative type, an eBook will make it extra special.

Finding out more concrete information about the physical surroundings and features of their new school can be enormously reassuring for young people.  This activity also provides opportunities for meaningful conversations that can address anxieties, and indicate areas for further discussion or action.  Answering basic questions such as:

  • What does my school look like?
  • Who will I meet?
  • What will I do?
  • Where will I go?

ensures that students become knowledgeable and confident about how secondary school works.  Here’s a tip. Find out if the school hosts a Summer / Christmas Fair, Bake Sale, Car Boot Sale etc etc.  Make sure you go to them all.  Develop a sense of familiarity (and have a sneaky look around the classrooms, dining room, toilets etc).

Talking about changes should encompass all aspects of change in people, activities and environments, including:

  • Clothes
  • Friends
  • Homework
  • Lessons and subjects
  • Teachers
  • Sports and PE

Knowing where to go and what to do during break and lunchtime periods can be a source of great anxiety.

Getting organised and managing time needs to focus on getting to grips with:

  • school bags
  • books and materials
  • lockers
  • timetables
  • homework

What time do I need to get up in the morning, how will I get to school, how will I get home?  You can use checklists, visual timetables or a whiteboard to help with this.

Things that can help me are activities for developing coping mechanisms.  Identifying and using ‘safe spaces’, or ‘go to’ people in the school environment is an activity that can take place closer to the move to secondary school, and should form part of the school visit. Introduce school rules and why they are important. Now is the time to talk about differences in social situations, for example, what happens at break and lunchtime, managing large groups, teasing and bullying, and who to go to and how to ask for help.

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You can read more about planning and preparing school transitions and the resources I have created for each of these activities in Ready, Steady, Go! Planning the Transition to Secondary School: A Workbook for Children and Families.  I hope to have this published in January 2017 😉


Drowning not waving, or, how to get help in secondary school

A lot of enquiries this week about supports in post-primary school for children who have only recently received a diagnosis.  This is a difficult time for parents, especially where it coincides with the beginning of secondary education.

Step 1.

Your most important task is to take care of your own support needs by finding some allies, and arming yourself with the right information.  Contact a parent or community support group local to your area, attend their next meeting, download any leaflets, get involved, talk to someone. I don’t have the space here to list every organisation, but the Disability Federation Ireland has an alphabetical listing.  Spectrum Alliance is an umbrella group for ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and Asperger’s Syndrome, and you should most definitely browse the website of the Special Needs Parents Association.

Step 2.     

Set aside at least a week to read and digest all of the publications linked in the next three steps (sigh). This is where the experience of other parents is invaluable. They have already travelled this road and can summarize all of this material, extract the key truths, and point you towards shortcuts and useful people.

Step 3.

Read the guide on provision for children with special educational needs a
NCSE children with SENnd disabilities
written by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).  If you have a difficulty with reading printed material, you can listen to an audio version by following these instructions.  The NCSE provides a network of Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENO) within designated geographical areas.  Each SENO has responsibility for specific primary, post primary and special schools.

The SENO ensures that a child with special educational needs receives the supports they are entitled to. SENOs keep parents informed about levels of support and decisions about resources. The SENO will also discuss any concerns that you have about the present or future educational needs of your child. You can find out the name and contact details of the SENO in your area by checking this list.  You should contact them as soon as possible.

Step 4.

Read the NCSE guide on moving from primary to post-primary school.  If your child has significant needs, they may require an Individual Education Plan.  Discuss with the SENO.

Step 5.

NEPS bookletThere are three levels of support implemented in school and these are explained in a leaflet for parents – the Student Support File – written by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS).  You get a heck of a lot more detail if you read the guide for schools and teachers 😉 NEPS provides a network of Educational Psychologists within designated geographical areas, each having responsibility for specific primary, post primary and special schools.  The School Principal will consult them about a support plan.

Step 6.

Insist upon a meeting with your SENO, NEPS psychologist and the School Principal.  If you agree on a School Support Plan and / or an Individual Education Plan, make sure that you receive a copy.  At the meeting, arrange a review date to discuss your child’s progress and their Student Support File.  Include a query about an exemption from Irish if this is necessary, and examination accommodations.


If you are not already sick of reading, the NCSE has guides for parents specific to each special educational need and disability.

AT pearltrees screenshot

I’ve also collected some study skills resources together with links to digital text books and you might like to investigate Assistive Technology solutions, including converting text to speech to alleviate the reading burden.

Managing the School Part of School

Helping your child to manage the school experience remotely is one of the hardest things tasks that a parent will experience.  However, you will be less anxious and more confident as the years go on, if you resist the temptation to do everything on their behalf.  Instead, begin this journey by doing things together, using prompts to build independence.

Talking to Teachers

A great deal of formal and informal information is given to students in school, and very little of this is written down.  Sometimes, teachers are in a hurry to give instructions to students, perhaps at the beginning or end of the lesson, making it hard for young people to write everything down in their school journal or diary.

Agreeing on methods of communication between home and school is vitally important, and is a task that you should address at the beginning of each school year.

This might include:

  • All teaching staff to be aware that a printed version of instructions / homework tasks need to be provided to your student, or if the student is expected to write this down in the lesson, to check that this is accurate.
  • Communication between parents and the learning support / SNA / class teacher is maintained using the home school diary, journal or by email.
  • Regular progress meetings to be scheduled with learning support / Special Needs Assistant / class teacher, in addition to regular parent-teacher meetings.
  • All teaching staff to be aware of the use of communication or prompt cards.
  • All teaching staff to be aware of sensory processing difficulties.

It also helps to be mindful of the most appropriate / convenient times of the school day or week for contacting your student’s teacher.  Teaching staff have many other roles and responsibilities associated with the school, for example, organising and supervising clubs or activities, marking homework. It’s a good idea to establish a good communication time at the beginning of the school year, and to stick to this.

Visual timetables

Your son or daughter may have used a visual timetable in primary school, and these are essential for managing the additional subjects and activities in secondary school.

  • Enlist the help of your young person to make the timetable.  This is important.
  • Use an A1 sheet of paper, the blank side of a piece of wrapping paper, wallpaper or poster.  You could also use a whiteboard.
  • Print out the symbols on the following pages and and laminate these.  Cut out the symbols and stick them to the paper or whiteboard using double sided tape or poster putty so that you can move these around.
  • Display the timetable in a family space such as the kitchen.
  • If you are totally non-crafty, use the inside of a kitchen cupboard door and use washable markers.

Using the visual timetable

  • With your student, model how to use the timetable to check lessons and activities for the following day.
  • Remind your student of the name of the teacher for each lesson, and the location of the classroom.  Check the route to the classroom.
  • Make a list together of the items needed for the following day.
  • Check whether additional items are required for special activities or events.
  • Supervise your student in locating these things.
  • Supervise them to pack these things in their bag, but do not do this for them.
    Photocopy the Pack-A-Schoolbag Checklist template.  You can laminate this and keep it beside the timetable or place it inside a plastic sleeve and use a non-permanent marker.  Or you could copy the checklist onto a small whiteboard which can be sourced from a stationery or office supply shop.

Make it fun, and make it relevant.


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But Dr. Alison, where are the resources that you mentioned?  Where are the subject symbols and where is the Pack-A-Schoolbag Checklist?  Well… this post is an extract from Ready, Steady, Go! Planning the Move to Secondary School: A Workbook for Children and Families, which will be published in January 2017.  (Currently being ‘inspected’ by a focus group of children and families).  As soon as we have a passing grade, I’ll link them to this blog.