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.

Exam accommodations in secondary school: What you need to know about RACE

In October 2016, fundamental changes to the Reasonable Accommodations in Certificate Examinations (RACE) scheme were rolled out to Principals, Deputy Principals in a nationwide series of information days.  This same information was disseminated to students and parents, quietly, via an announcement on the State Examinations website, namely:

For 2017 there have been changes to the scheme and we have a Guide For Students available on the link hereIf you need further information relating to the new scheme it can be accessed here.

A review of the RACE process has been ongoing since 2015, and was instigated in response to protests over a lack of fairness and transparency connected to eligibility and implementation, and late decisions on eligibility for supports.

Principally,  the following changes to RACE have been activated with immediate effect:

  1.  Examination accommodations granted at Junior Certificate can be automatically ‘reactivated’ for the Leaving Certificate on the strength of confirmation from the post-primary school, as a function of ‘identified and continuing need’.
  2.  The category of Specific Learning Difficulty has been replaced with a category for ‘Learning Difficulty.’
  3. Crucially, the new deadline for application for accommodations in the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations in 2017, is the 9th December 2016.



Schools are the principal information providers on eligibility for RACE

  • Schools will identify the need for RACE and assess eligibility by undertaking testing to provide evidence.
  • Schools will make applications to State Examinations, recommend supports, manage expectations, communicate with students and parents about their eligibility and decisions, and engage with a Quality Assurance panel.

National Educational Psychology Service (NEPS)

  • Will provide advice, information and support to schools, and engage with State Examinations on Quality Assurance.

State Examinations Commission

  • Makes the decision on granting of examination accommodations, and advises on complex cases.
  • In general, State Examinations Commission accepts school recommendations.
  • Provides the Quality Assurance.
  • Uses discretion in sanctioning special centres.

General principles

  • RACE is part of the Continuum of Support umbrella (see the new general allocation of resources to primary and secondary schools as explained by Mary Byrne 18thmarybyrneseptember2015ilsaannualconference)
  • Examination accommodations should reflect the students normal way of working, and therefore ‘practice’ sessions should not be necessary.
  • They should be based upon a prior identified need.
  • They should go hand in hand with learning supports.

Management of the scheme

  • All existing circulars and guidelines are revoked with immediate effect.
  • The definitive RACE document underpinned by Expert Advisory Group report (has anyone seen this?) and an updated Framework of Principles.
  • There are new application forms : Reactivation Form RA1, New Accommodation Form RA2, Late Application Form RA3, Emergency Form RA4.
  • All deadlines will be strictly adhered to, no exceptions..
  • An Independent Appeals Committee will consider appeals and outcomes will be communicated to parents by schools.
  • Formal management of special examination centres in certain schools may be audio recorded to ensure integrity.
  • State Examinations will make the decision about their necessity, as not all RACE needs require a special exam centre.
  • The need for a special centre will not be automatically reactivated
  • Shared centres may be used for use of a PC, reading assistance, medical conditions, emotional / behavioural disorders.
  • Individual centres will be used for a scribe or recording device, full reader, contagious medical conditions.

Testing and assessment of need for RACE

  • Only standardized and normed tests should be used e.g. WIAT and WRAT 4
  • Results must provide standard scores and must have been assessed within 12 months of the date of application.
  • No change to criteria in terms of standard scores, percentiles, speeds etc. for eligibility.
  • There is no longer any need to test for cognitive ability, as there is no need to distinguish between general learning difficulty and Specific Learning Difficulty.
  • It is anticipated that all testing will be carried out by schools.
  • In the absence of school tests, results from Educational Psychologist reports are acceptable “where they are already available to the school” (i.e. not new?), and where testing was conducted within 12 months of date of application.  However, the required counts of error rates for reading and spelling may only be obtained from school assessments, results from external reports may not over-ride the school assessment.






Telling stories about everyday things

I’ve just come back from a one-day workshop with Carol Gray, an American teacher and autism expert who developed an intervention called Social Stories™ in 1989. Instructional requests to comply with rules, tenets or behaviours are not effective if the rationale for doing so does not make sense.  Carol explains that because social rules or social cues are quite specific to the person, place, situation or event, there are billions of potential combinations of meanings and outcomes.  Therefore, the way in which we teach everyday skills, must be unique to the learner and their personal goals.

A personal social story should share information in a way that is completely accessible to the learner, and which enables them to make their own understanding of a skill, task, activity, context or situation.  So the author of the story has a responsibility to involve the learner as a person, and to make sure that it is a story that belongs to them, and not to a generic type of person or set of behaviours.

I had this conversation with a student teacher recently, let’s call him Bob.  Bob had asked me for advice about a young person with ADHD who was repeatedly rubbing out his writing at school, meaning that the his copy  / work books often had holes or tears in the pages.  Having directed Bob to look at Carol’s methods, he came back to me and said that they were interesting, but his student was not autistic. This misses the point that social stories are not specific to any one type of learner, or disability, or special need, or any other label.  Here’s a social story adapted from the Watson Institute that might help Bob and his student.

Letters Don’t Have To Be Perfect

Sometimes I copy words from the board in school. I try really hard when I write words down.

I like my letters to look nice. Sometimes I want to rub out the letters and make them look perfect, but letters do not have to be perfect.

It is OK to erase the words once or twice, but I will try to stop rubbing out my writing after 1 or 2 times.

Other children do not erase more than once or twice. Other children do not write
perfect letters. If I erase too much I will get behind in my work. Rubbing out my writing over and over again may tear the paper, or make holes.

I will try to write letters and then leave them alone, because it is OK if the words on my paper are not perfect.

Sometimes the words will be a little messy and that is OK.  Letters don’t have to be perfect.  As long as people can read them, that is OK.

If I try not to erase so much, I’ll get my work done more quickly, and my teacher will be happy. I will feel better too.

Nowhere in this story does it say ‘only people with autism can read this’, nor does it say ‘people with ADHD may not find this useful’.  My student teacher needs to work with his student and find out why he is anxious about his writing, or the presentation of his school work.  He may need to write  a completely different story.

A good story sticks to Carol Gray’s guidelines and as I mentioned at the  beginning of this post, there a great many social story resources, some commercial and some not, some better than others.  The TASN Autism and Tertiary Behavior Supports website is part of the Kansas State Department of Education’s Special Education Services.  They have a collection of stories or social narratives for all age groups in Word, Powerpoint and pdf.  The Special Education Technology (SET) in British Columbia also provide templates for stories and storyboards.


Of course you can write your own stories for use with iPad or Android tablets, and there are plenty of apps that can help you do this.  However, it is just as easy to type, word process or handwrite these, and to illustrate them using EasyRead graphics and icons that are freely available from the NHS resource bank Easy on the i.

I’m working with several young people aged 18 to 22 years at the moment, and we usually begin our sessions with a conversation about the mysteries of common social behaviours, such as shaking hands and ‘ the point of passing the time of day.’  We have started to write a series of social articles – together –  formatted as a short newspaper article, as a way of understanding the building blocks of why humans do what humans do in social situations.





Writing a social story takes a lot of preparation, practice, editing and revision, but  writing unique stories that are specific to the needs of a child, young person or adult makes all the difference.

10 minutes with …


…. Lisa Marie Clinton, CEO, Avail: Assisted Visuals Achieving Independent Living




1.  What does avail do?

avail is an educational platform that promotes independence for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disabilities and Developmental Coordination Disorder. avail provides personal step-by-step instructions of tasks through the use of videos, pictures, audios and text prompts. These are delivered on our avail app, while our avail web portal tracks and reports progress.

2.  Why did you choose to create this kind of support / product?

I have worked within the disability sector for the past 10 years, the majority as an ABA Tutor in a school for children with Autism. I witnessed many teenagers transition into adulthood and seen a need to provide an approach that can promotes lifelong learning and opportunities within and outside of the educational system. At the time I was completing my Masters and questioned using the advances in technology “How can I help people be independent?”

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

I completed a 4-year Honours degree in Social Studies in 2008. After many years of supporting people with disabilities, I wanted to take a step back and study the research conducted in the field. In 2014, I returned to college and completed a Masters in Child, Family and Community Studies with DIT. I loved the variations of modules and the broad experience of the lectures and fellow classmates. Adamant to make the most of the opportunity, since I had taken a career break from school and made financial sacrifices, l completed my dissertation on the use of assisted technology for people with disabilities. I knew l could use the research in my work and raise awareness on the use of assisted technology, an area l always had a keen interest in. Although, l wasn’t expecting to development avail from it, that just happened as a result of seeing an opportunity!

 4.  What qualities and skills did you bring to this initiative?

There are real benefits to gain form building a product from the ground up. From my experiences l obtained valuable insight into all of life’s transition: home support, education, day services, employment and residential/independent living.

Having worked 1:1 with students and adults, l developed the motivation and courage to want to do more for the fantastic people and family that l work with but also for the others who also have dreams and personal goals. Other skills l bring to avail, l would like to think a positive attitude and open mind. I started avail with student load and a big dream!

5.  Have you always worked in the area of disability?

Mostly yes, when l was completing my Master’s l worked part time with teenagers in care. I found this area challenging and alien to me, within my other roles l could witness the progress and impact l was making on an individual’s life although it was difficult to make such an impact within this role. It was a valuable experience, but l knew my passion was working in the disabilities sector.

6.  How can avail support college students and / or school leavers?

avail can support in many different ways, and this is based on the person’s goals. We actually have one student using it to support him in travelling to his college, he is now travelling independently! He receives instructions on the task e.g Picture and audio prompt of his bus, video of how to hand over his ticket, picture of his stop is, video of how to cross at the traffic lights and then a picture of his class.

School leavers can use avail for independent living e.g cooking, cleaning or community skill e.g purchasing items, going to the gym etc. It is built around the person, so there are no limits on the skills that can be learned.

7.  What do you like most about your job?

Ok, well that’s an easy one. I love that l have changed and will continue change many people’s lives! As l say this l am cringing but that is what avail has done for the people who are already using it, and we haven’t launched yet. From travelling independently, cooking your own dinner, living independently. These may seem like small things to a lot of people, but for a person and their family this could be like winning the lotto! I love presenting avail to people, as afterwards l hear about all the possibilities that are an option now as a result of avail. I am so fortunate and thankful l didn’t give up, these stories are my motivation that got me to this point.

8.  Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yes, at the moment we have various Day Services and Parents trialling avail ahead of our launch at the end of October. We are also speaking to Employability Services who have also seen the potential of avail as an aid to support people in employment. While I am building our avail library to include a variety of tasks and social studies that can be downloaded.

9.  What is your top tip for students starting college or entering employment?

I know it can be a major adjustment for many young people, so familiarise yourself with the building, course content, classrooms, canteen, community if the student is staying up or the bus route if traveling. This will hopefully reduce anxiety or sleepless nights, and help you settle in. Also, choose a course that you are interested in!

10.  How can parents help?

I believe preparation is key, and this is probably related to my background. So start talking about college early and explore what is needed for a successful transition. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to contact the college, they are there to help. Continue reading “10 minutes with …”

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.


10 minutes with ….



…..  Susan Madigan, Occupational Therapist, Disability Service, Dublin City University.


1.    What does an Occupational Therapist do?

Occupational Therapists work with people in relation to their daily activities or “occupations”. We work with people who are not currently able to do the things that they want to do, or the things that they need to do. We work with people to build their own skills, but we also look at what can be changed in the physical and social environment, to enable people to be more independent. Occupational Therapists work in a variety of settings for example; with children in schools and clinics, teenagers and adults in mental health settings, and older people in hospitals and in trying to enable them to stay in their own homes.

2.    Why did you choose Occupational Therapy?

I was involved with lots of different voluntary work since my teenage years, even using most of my annual leave from my bank job to volunteer with different groups, including Barretstown. All of the volunteer work I did was involved with facilitating or enabling people to do the things they wanted to do. When I was looking for a change of career, there was only one job that appealed to me – variety, fun, working with people, and definitely not a typical desk job!

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

I completed the four-year undergraduate course in Trinity College, Dublin. There is a mix of academic work, practical projects, and work placement – 1000 hours over the four years. The Occupational Therapy course is tough, but very varied, so there’s always a new module or topic to get stuck into. Though financially it was a struggle, as I had already completed a degree, and so had to pay for my course, it was the best decision I have ever made. I will still be working and enjoying my work for years to come!

4.    What qualities and skills does an Occupational Therapist need?

OTs need to be great communicators, love working with people, and have a knack for creative problem solving – a big part of our job. For me, a very important quality is being non-judgemental. We don’t know who our next client will be, and it’s important for us to leave our biases at the door, and work with our clients to reach their goals.

5.    Have you always worked with young people?

Yes, I have always enjoyed working with young people since training the 1st year netball girls at school! I love working with young people, it’s so much fun, and really keeps me on my toes. I have been very fortunate to work with young people over the past 20 years as a cinnire at Irish college, an inner city tutor at college, and a Cara at Barretstown. As an Occupational Therapist, I worked for a year in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinic, which was great as I got to work with small children right up to school leavers. As an Occupational Therapist in third level, I  have worked in Trinity College, Dublin Institute of Technology, now DCU.

6.    What kind of support do you provide to college students?

My main role is to support students to participate in everyday activities that are important to them. We generally support students to make changes in their academic habits, communication, time use and well-being areas. I do this by facilitating students to identify changes they would like to make in their daily life, coach them through reaching their goals, work together to develop their skills, and reflect on the positive outcomes. An important aspect of Occupational Therapy is that we encourage the development of a person’s own strategies and skills, to enable them to manage life’s ups and downs after college. The Occupational Therapy process is very practical and functional, and focused on getting things done now and in the future. It is about doing!

7.    What do you like most about your job?

I enjoy the variety of working with a diverse group of clients especially at third level. We have school leavers up to retirees, international students, and work with people managing physical, neurological and mental health conditions. I like meeting with new clients and introducing them to the ideas of Occupational Therapy, and the best thing is seeing students graduate with their well-earned degrees after working together over a number of years.

8.    Are you working on any projects at the moment?

We are always working on lots of projects 🙂 One that we are quite excited about is a programme we piloted in the summer, to support people repeating exams. It is an intensive week of interactive workshops and structured study sessions. We are now going to roll it out for the annual Christmas and Summer exams, and is especially useful for students with exam anxiety or those who have difficulty performing well in exams for any reason.

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

Pick the right course! Get some advice from people you trust, and be happy with your choice. Take some time out before college if you need to, this is an important decision. Once at college ask for help if you need it. There are lots of resources to help people settle in.

10.  How can parents help?

Parents can really help by supporting their young person to choose a course that will suit them. Of course you should pick the course you are interested in, but not all courses are created equally. Some courses are extremely academic, with little group work or interaction. Some are highly practical and focus more on building functional skills, rather than academic learning. Arts in NUIG may look very different to Arts in DIT. What will suit you best? Encourage your child to do something they are interested in, remember, they have to study it for 3-4 years (not you) and doing something they dislike because “there’s a job in it” does not make for a successful student.