Transition Triage: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Amanda Bailey

Amanda Bailey

Sonia Janks, Contributing Editor

About the Author

Transitioning to a new grade, a new school, or back to in-person classes after remote learning can be a significant adjustment. You may have done a lot to get ready: previewed the transition with your Autistic child or teen, discussed what to expect, developed a plan with their team, and prepared as much as you could. But now you are several months into the school year and things aren’t going well. Now what?

First, understand that an inherent part of any transition is some level of change from what is familiar and what may have worked in the past. The effects of this change can be unpredictable for children and teens who thrive with routine and known expectations. While preparing can often make things easier, there are sometimes variables you cannot anticipate. Things can still go wrong and there may have been no way to avoid it.

This does not mean the situation has to stay that way. Here are some steps to take when you need to turn around a rocky transition.

  1. Validate your child’s experience. Your child is going through a tough time, and it may show in a variety of ways: they may be acting out, they may be shutting down, they may be refusing to follow routines or to do work. Whatever is happening, acknowledge that this is hard for them. Hold space for their experience before you start trying to fix the problem. If your child has signs of anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue, taking care of their emotional well-being comes first. The situation cannot improve until your child feels a greater sense of emotional stability. Reach out to your current support team or therapists for guidance to address these concerns or find new mental health professionals who can help.
  2. Get to the root of the problem. Finding out what is going on is critical. Don’t make assumptions. Remember you are not seeing everything that is happening at school and the easiest explanation may not be the right one.
    • Find a way for your child to share their perspective in the format most comfortable for them. If they like to write, grab a piece of paper and pencil, or ask them to type what they are thinking and feeling. For younger children, maybe it is easier to draw what is happening or how they feel than it is to put it in words. Have a casual talk with them and see if it is possible to record the conversation. (This involves getting permission from older children and teens.) Ask: what would you change about school? When is it hardest? Also ask if there are any times when things are good. Look for the patterns and go from there. Review the accommodations in their IEP or 504 Plan, verify what is being done, and ask what is working and what isn’t. Are there issues that haven’t surfaced before, like sensory sensitivities or difficult classroom dynamics? If you are finding a lot of resistance to communicating with you, see if you can get help from someone else in your child’s life that they trust: an extended family member, a family friend, a therapist, or anyone who might be able to help them open up.
    • Getting the perspective of your child’s team will help establish a multi-dimensional view of the situation. What is the teacher observing in the classroom? When do the problems surface? What is happening right before there is an issue? How does (or doesn’t) this connect to what your child is telling you or what you are seeing at home?
  3. Gather the team and add players if necessary. While there is no such thing as an “emergency IEP meeting,” you can request an IEP or 504 Plan meeting at any time. This may be an opportunity to include additional support members, like an adjustment counselor or the school’s counselor/psychologist. Review whether or not any further data is needed. This may involve conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment, a new evaluation, or observations in different settings, including recess or free/study periods. Is more school cross-department communication necessary, for instance, between the attendance office and the IEP/504 team or between the teachers and the lunch monitors? Work together to create a plan of action to address the areas that are causing concern.
  4. Document everything and schedule check-ins. Keep track of all of the conversations and communications you have with your child’s team. You can use a daily log and send thank you emails stating your understanding of phone conversations or summarizing meetings. Agree on when to touch base to see if the new plan is working. Create a realistic timeline to ensure accountability and to evaluate if things are starting to move in the right direction.

Throughout this process, find opportunities to foster self-advocacy in your child. Actively engage them in finding solutions and thank them for whatever they can contribute. Things may not change overnight, but you can help your child gain resilience and realize they can have an active part in improving the situation.

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