Volume V Number 1-2, June 1998

Transitions For Success: Helping K-12 Students Move Through The Public School System

Carmela Cunningham

Change is Scary. It usually means new people, a new environment, new equipment, new procedures, and new expectations. But change is also a part of progress. And the way to make sure that life changes are more beneficial than painful, is to understand what is expected and required in a new environment and to carefully plan how to fulfill those new expectations and requirements. Students with disabilities can have a particularly hard time making the usual transitions that take place in the educational process.

When a student moves from one educational setting to another, it is a time of anxiety. If that student has a disability, the anxiety is multiplied. The new environment may have to be physically adapted. New classmates will have questions, and new teachers will need information on how to best help the disabled student progress and become an interdependent part of the new classroom or school.


One of the main issues facing parents of children with disabilities is whether or not to allow their children to be mainstreamed - put into regular school classrooms. Many people see it as an equality issue. Others see it practically - some children aren't able to learn what they need to learn in regular classes.

Whether or when disabled children are mainstreamed into the general school population is an issue that must be addressed for each child. Some students do just fine entering the general population at a young age. Others benefit by going to special classes for a few years and then moving into mainstream classes. The important thing is to make sure that mainstreaming is right for the individual child, rather than being done as a policy decision.

The education of most K-12 students with disabilities is guided by an Individualized Education Plan, also known as an IEP. The team that puts the plan together includes the child's parents, teachers, a school administrator and some times special ed service providers and adaptive computer specialists. This team develops a plan that would provide the best education for a individual student and also makes recommendations on adaptive technology.

Whether a student goes through school in special education classes or in regular classes, the transitions from one school to another are often a challenge for the student, parents, teachers, and service providers.


The transition between elementary school and middle school requires special consideration because children with disabilities are moving from generally protected environments in which parents, teachers and school principals have taken responsibility for ensuring that physical and educational accommodations are in place, into a more independent environment in which students become increasingly responsible for making sure that their own special needs are met.

In elementary school, students are usually sheltered in one classroom, with one teacher and 25 classmates. Although the teacher and many of the classmates change from year to year, the environment is generally static. New teachers are informed ahead of time that a student with a disability will be in class, and special arrangements are generally put in place before the student arrives for the first time in a new class.

In a one-room setting, a teacher has the opportunity to spend more time with a disabled child, to understand the particular child's special needs and to offer assistance and encouragement. Also, in the one-room setting, assistive technology needs - such as a computer and adaptive hardware and software - can be set up in a special workstation.

Accommodation isn't quite as simple in the faster-paced, mobile middle school environment, which is designed to demand more independence of students. Students move from class to class, and from teacher to teacher. Teachers lose the opportunity to work as closely with their students, and accommodating students who need it becomes a more difficult job.


Even with IEPs and cooperation from faculty and administrators, the reality is that making the best arrangements for disabled students is difficult. Many parents say that the hardest thing about having a child with a disability is having to continually fight for rights and services for their children.

As students move into high school, the battle often gets harder. There's not as much individual attention to go around, and there's usually more competition for school funds and resources.

There's also a great number of social issues that students and parents are faced with. This is where self-advocacy starts to become more critical for disabled students.

One of the most important things a child with a disability is going to have to learn is to advocate for himself or herself. Society is becoming increasingly aware of the needs of individuals with disabilities, and there are laws that mandate accommodations for individuals with disabilities. There are even funds that have been set up to ensure that accommodations are made and that education is accessible. But, the fact is that no one knows what a particular individual needs better than that person and, no one else has as much at stake as the individual in question. From an early age, children with disabilities should be encouraged - by parents and educators - to take responsibility and to speak up for what they need. When children are young, parents have to be the advocates, but the children should be part of the advocacy process from the beginning. By the time they reach high school, students will be in the position of advocating for themselves - whether or not they're ready for it.


The transition from high school to college brings extra challenges for students with disabilities. As with earlier transitions, graduation to college brings more independence - and more personal responsibility.

Again the setting is more mobile than the student has been accustomed to, and there is even less personal contact with instructors and school counselors than occurred in high school.

While an IEP team no longer plans the course of study or determines the assistive technology that a disabled student will use, most colleges have a Disabled Student Services Office or an Adaptive Computing Technology Office that will provide support for students with disabilities.

Through the Disabled Student Services office, students with disabilities can register for their classes, find note-takers, readers and interpreters, and receive general support for their specific needs.

While most colleges already have Disabled Student Services in place, others have also established offices that provide adaptive computing technology services as well. These offices, which have special equipment available for students with disabilities, help determine what assistive technology best meets the needs of particular students and then train the students to use the equipment.

The successful transition of a student from high school to college depends on early planning with either or both of these offices. Several months before taking classes at a college, the student should contact the Disabled Student Services office, the Academic Computing Center or the Adaptive Computing Technology office to make arrangements for services and training.

It is important that new students begin meeting with people from the Disabled Student Services office, Academic Computing and the Adaptive Computing Technology Program office as soon as they have been accepted at a college or university.


What are the steps that faculty and staff at elementary, middle, secondary and post-secondary schools can take to make those educational transitions easier and most rewarding for students with disabilities?

First, planning is critical to support disabled students who are moving through the educational system. Each educational institution should have a plan that complies with the intent of laws such as IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Schools should also conduct a needs assessments of the current student population and work with feeder schools in their area to make long-range projections of what the demographic base will be in the coming years.

Second, service providers, faculty and accessible facilities must be available to support adaptations required by students with disabilities. This includes providing facilities and equipment access and staff who can provide technology training and support, especially in fields such as math and science.

Third, teachers and administrators must have appropriate information on how to best help students with disabilities succeed in their classes. Students with one or more physical disabilities will most likely require physical adaptations in the classroom, and the more informed faculty and staff are, the easier it is to make physical and computing adaptations.

Fourth, as they progress through school, students with disabilities must learn to take increased responsibility for their own educations and for making sure that special requirements and equipment are in place. Faculty and staff should help students learn to become self-advocates as early as possible.


Teachers, parents, and service providers should continually evaluate five areas when planning and acquiring assistive technology and support for students with disabilities.

*Consider the curriculum and goals of the student. What kind of classes is the student taking? What is the student's ultimate goal?

*Evaluate the requirements of the student. What is the student's disability? What abilities does the student have? What tasks does the student have difficulty with?

*Make a detailed task analysis for each of the student's classes. Exactly what is required for each class? Does the student require assistance in reading, writing, listening, speaking, or organizing information?

*Match appropriate assistive technology to each task. What technology best fulfills each specific function? What technology is the student most comfortable with?

*Continually re-evaluate the effectiveness and practicality of the assistive technology. Is there technology that is easier for this particular student to use? Is there technology that is less cumbersome or more portable? Is there a less expensive way to fulfill the same need?

Cunningham, C. (1998). Transitions for success: Helping k-12 students move through the public school system. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 5(1-2).