To Middle School

Going to a new school is hard for many children, and may be even more so for children with special needs. Middle school learning will differ based on each child’s skills and needs: some children may stay in a single classroom during the day, some will take part in regular classroom changes, and others will have a class schedule that blends these two scenarios. Some children will have an academic course of study, while others may go to classes that highlight self-help and functional skills. As a parent, you should be involved in deciding the right middle school program for your child.

Transition Planning for Middle School

Because each child has individual needs, a transition meeting will be important, and will include you, your child’s teacher/teachers, and other school personnel. The team will work to identify the appropriate setting and program for your child as he moves on to middle school. If fitting, invite someone from your child's last Individualized Education Plan (IEP team), and a guidance counselor. Some IEP teams fill out a student profile that outlines your child's needs and health issues as a starting point for deciding IEP goals. As you plan for the first year in middle school, think about the changes in the services your child will have; the options may change as your child moves up to middle school. For example, if your child had an aide in elementary school, make sure that this carries on through his IEP if still needed. The plan should have responsibilities and actions for team members, as well as dates for completion and/or re-evaluation. You’ll also want to make sure that your child's Individual Health Care Plan is updated. If you have concerns as the school year starts, you can always arrange for another IEP meeting.

Points to Address in the School Plan (IEP/504/Health Care Plan)

This checklist can serve as a guide for making a school plan. Before you meet with the transition team, you can prepare for the meeting by writing down your thoughts and questions. Of course, there may be other plans and discussions based on your child’s needs, but we hope this will help you get started. It’s also worth noting that if your child will continue to receive special education services, a plan for transitioning to adulthood should be in place by age 14

  • Are the curriculum requirements well matched to your student's abilities? For example, will your child be able to succeed in the general curriculum or will they be in a special education class? Are there any classes that may be too hard, such as physical education (P.E.) or computer keyboarding?
  • Does your child need accommodations to access the curriculum, such as books on tape, change of reading level, etc.?
  • Are there safety/mobility issues? (Does your child need to go to classes up or down stairs? Are trailer classrooms accessible? Can he get to and open his locker?)
  • Keep in mind your child’s social skills, communication, self-help, and self-advocacy skills. Will she be able to get her lunch in the cafeteria and sit with friends or will she need help? Is bullying a worry, and how will it be dealt with?
  • Should pre-vocational skills be part of the plan?

Common Student Concerns

Your middle schooler may have many of the same social concerns as any middle school student, but based on his health issue or needs, he is likely to also have other concerns. In some schools, for example, students change clothes for P.E. classes, and shower in front of peers. This is sometimes a source of great anxiety. For children with special needs there may be more concerns about privacy with self-care away from home, such as insulin shots, catheter care, or taking medicines. This may be a time that your child might voice (more than ever) that he or she just wants to be "normal."

There may be questions about mobility or accessibility in a new, larger school. The hallways of a middle school can get incredibly crowded. Your child may worry about feeling safe at school, or about finding her locker, the lunchroom, bathrooms, or elevators, or even about finding the right bus to ride home. Some of these challenges can be lessened by going to see your child’s school with her before the school year starts and helping her get her bearings when the hallways are still clear. Meet with teachers, aides and the school nurse to introduce your child to school staff who can help if she needs it.

A visit before the school year can also help your child get ready for a new set of responsibilities. If he has to change classrooms, he’ll have to know his schedule, and where to go for each class. He will have to learn to get to class on time, and to know which books to bring home to do his homework. All these things can be a lot, but you can help your child by talking with him about these new challenges, helping him with a plan, and by helping him get to know his new school setting.

Common Teacher Concerns

Middle school teachers sometimes tell us that they worry because parents become less involved in their child’s life when their child reaches middle school. Teachers often have their hands full with the large number of students in their classrooms, and the extra care that special education students sometimes need can seem like more of a challenge. Sometimes they feel they do not know enough about what a special education student might need in their classroom. As always, an open talk with your child’s teachers can help both you and the teachers meet your child’s needs, and better grasp the challenges that each of you face in helping your child meet her educational goals.

Suggestions to Help Your Middle Schooler

We’ve gathered suggestions from other parents and teachers to help you and your child prepare for middle school.

  • Let the new school know about your child's health issues and needs well before the first day.
  • Visit the new school early with your child to find their locker, bathrooms, lunchroom, and office; ask for a locker change if mobility is an issue.
  • Show your child where the bus will pick him up after school.
  • Talk to the bus driver about your child's needs.
  • Meet with teachers to talk about health, behavior, and learning issues.
  • Ask the principal to choose someone to help manage your child's needs and to look at safety issues (such as fire escape), mobility issues, toileting, locker placement, schedule, etc. A school physical or occupational therapist may be best suited to make this assessment. Make sure that all school team members* and teachers have a copy of the emergency plan. The health plan, emergency plan and medication list should be updated about every 6 months.
  • Make arrangements with school staff for special health equipment storage, self-care, and toileting.
  • Meet with the school team to set up a "quiet time" place if low energy or over-stimulation are issues for your child.
  • Find out about class expectations (e.g., P.E., shop, food, lab, etc.) and speak with the teacher about your child's individual needs.
  • Attach a copy of your child's class schedule inside a notebook and/or help her post an extra copy in his locker.
  • Ask about a peer helper for hallway navigation if mobility and finding classes is an issue.
  • If needed, arrange to have a second set of textbooks at home.
  • Talk with your child about social issues before they come up. Do some role-playing to explore social responses.
  • Teach your child to be a self-advocate.
  • Support your child in getting involved in school activities or after-school activities/clubs. Find out which clubs, sports, and activities are available for your child.
  • Let the school know in advance of an absence that may last longer than a few days; if fitting, arrange for schoolwork at home or hospital. Upon your child’s return to school, update the health plan, medications, and emergency/escape plan.

*"School team" may refer to the IEP, 504, Health Plan, or school accommodation team.

What Might You Expect from the Medical Home?

Your child’s medical home will still be involved throughout middle school. They may be helpful in deciding on and asking for needed accommodations for your child. For example, your child may need an aide in the lunchroom if choking may be a problem, or a letter from your medical home may be needed to explain accommodations needed in physical education classes. The medical home should be able to be reached as needed to speak with the school about changes in health status or needs, and for helping to keep the IEP up to date.

As parents or guardians, you are not alone in helping your child to become more independent, build self-advocacy skills, and learn self-care skills. Medical homes also play a role in fostering these skills. You may find that you can suggest, rally, and nag your child to try new skills, but when an outside adult makes the same suggestion, your child will seem to hear it for the first time and act on it. Your family can help plant the seeds for greater independence by sharing some of your child’s interests, dreams, hopes, and concerns with the medical home. A brief comment about social or self-care skills from the nurse (“I hear you are learning to take your medications by yourself. Good job!”), or a question about functional skills from the primary care doctor (“I hear you want to make video games when you grow up. How are you doing at using the computer keyboard?”), can have a lasting impact on your child.

You can also foster your child’s growing independence by letting your child have private discussions with the primary care doctor about sexual maturity and development, self-care goals, medications, or therapies. Don’t hesitate to ask the medical home for records for the IEP team, or support for your child or family when challenges come up. The medical home has been trained to provide this kind of care and you can help by sharing information, asking for help, and supporting your child’s independence.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent Centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences, and other federal, state, and local services. See the "Find Your Parent Center Link" to find the parent center in your state.

PACER Center
Champions for Children with Disabilities, PACER Center is a parent advocacy site covering a wide variety of topics for special needs kids including education, community support, training for parents, bullying prevention, financial planning, and teen transition to employment.
A federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services with comprehensive resources and information on bullying, cyber bullying, and how to get help.

State Education Contacts and Information
This page has contact information for state school resources, including the department of education, the higher education agency, special education agency and adult education agency in any state, commonwealth, or territory; U.S. Department of Education.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2008; last update/revision: September 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Contributing Authors: Gina Pola-Money
Lynne M. Kerr, MD, PhD
Reviewer: Tina Persels
Authoring history
2008: revision: Alfred N. Romeo, RN, PhDR
2005: first version: Robin PrattCA; Barbara Ward, RN BSCA; Cheralyn CreerCA; Karen Ekker, RNCA; Carolyn Green, RNCA; Lynne Larsen-MillerCA; Elaine PollockCA; Kathryn PostCA; Helen PostCA; Lisa Samson-Fang, MDCA
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer