A happy start to school for kids with special needs

Sweet smiling boy with Down syndrome

At a glance

  • Parents play an important role in ensuring their child has a successful start to school.
  • Most families who have a child with additional needs begin planning the transition to school well before their child starts school.
  • In the months leading up to school entry, families are encouraged to meet with school staff.
  • Identify key words that will help your child express their needs.
  • Use photos to help your child become familiar with the school environment as well as routines.

Parents often ask what else they can do to help prepare their child for school. Here are some excellent ideas to practise over the holidays or any time of the year.

Skills to work on over the holidays

Make time before the end of the year to talk to your early childhood teacher or specialist support staff to identify specific skills to continue working on, especially over the holiday break.

Key words for helping your child get by

Think about key words that will help your child express their needs. Practise these as often as you can in everyday situations either by using single words, hand gestures/signing or pictures. For example, I need some ‘help', I need a ‘drink', I need to go to the ‘toilet'. ‘Stop' is also a word children need to know and understand.

Become familiar with new environments

Children need to become familiar with new environments. During your transition visits to the school, ask permission to take photos of your child in the classroom, in the playground and at the front of the school. Put these photos in a prominent place so that you and your child can talk about going to school. You could also make a book or have them scrolling as a screensaver on the computer.  

Establish daily routines

Establish everyday routines. Take a few photos such as having breakfast, washing face and hands and cleaning teeth, and getting dressed ready to leave the house. Use the photos as visual prompts to help your child learn routines.

Buy school items your child can manage

Buy clothing and school supplies that your child can manage. When buying school bags, lunch boxes and drink bottles, take your child with you. Find out which ones your child can open by themselves or with help. If your child has trouble with laces buy shoes with velcro or ones that slip on easily. This will encourage your child's independence.

Help your child to recognise their belongings

Label all school items in a way your child can easily identify. Write their name on everything so the teacher knows the items belong to your child. Also include a favourite symbol or picture that your child can easily recognise. Remind your child to look for the symbol when searching for their belongings.

Comfortable uniforms

If your child has sensitivities you may need to practise wearing parts of the uniform including shoes. You may need to wash the uniform a few times to soften the material. Make sure your child is comfortable in their uniform before the first day of school. Take a photo of your child in their uniform and put it on the fridge so you can use it as a talking point about starting school.

Talk up school

Talk about going to school in a positive way. Drive past the school and talk about some of the things that your child may do at school the following year.

Develop good communication with the teachers

Establishing good communication with the teacher is essential. Make an appointment to talk to your child's teacher early in the year. You might like to make a list of things your child enjoys doing as well as things that overwhelm them, and signs of when your child is feeling anxious and ways to settle them.


Remember to take a photo of your child as they head off to big school. You will be surprised how quickly they grow up. Your child will also enjoy looking back at this important milestone in their life.


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