Feb 14, 2019

Tips for Building Successful School Transitions to Empower & Connect Students

A pocket watch with a chain

Kelli J. Robertson, M.A., CCC-SLP
GWAEA Autism Consultant & Assistive Technology Coach


The numbers don’t lie. Anxiety has been referred to as the “mental health tsunami” of today’s generation of students (Flannery, 2018). By age 18, 30% of students (nearly 1 in 3) meets criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder (2018 Mental Health Report, Child Mind Institute). Transitions to new school buildings and new teachers can be highly stressful for students (and parents & teachers too!). In my work, shifts to new environments and new teachers can be highly stressful for students, and is often cited as a source of derailment for student-school connection, student interest, student performance, and student self-esteem. According to Hattie’s work (2009), one of the areas we actually can have the most control and influence over in student achievement is the influence on positive student-teacher relationships (Whitaker, 2018). Thoughtful transition planning is an opportune time to build the foundation of success for every student, especially our students who may have more anxiety, trauma, social challenges, and/or sensitivity. Often times, I see more anxiety with students who may have ‘invisible disabilities’ because they may have acquired coping skills (or coping people) in their current environments, and they can be more nervous about what to do in the new environment with new people, as their tools/strategies/supports may be different or may have to change.

Tips for Smoother Transitions

  1. Start early. I typically recommend starting transition planning and ‘practice’ 4-5 months in advance, depending on the student. For highly anxious students, I’m thinking about transition activities in January/February to help ease the mounting anxiety of the new school/teacher. For some students, this also helps the end-of-year slump because it can help motivate them for the next chapter and build some excitement.
  2. Gradually introduce the student to the new setting/teachers. See the attached table of transition ideas for a ‘scaffold’ of gradual acclimation activities.
  3. Share your own experience & empathize -- MODEL. None of us are strangers to discomfort or anxiety-provoking situations. But students don’t know this (our thinking is invisible); make it visible. Don’t minimize student anxiety or respond to students with something like, “This is so easy… you shouldn’t be stressed…” Rather, share “It looks like you might be worried… I can see how you could be stressed…” comments (use mentoring/coaching stems). Share your thoughts, “I can also get nervous when a new year starts…” and what you think/do to positively ‘coach’ and cope yourself.
  4. Include the student & their input/perspectives. It gives the student a sense of control when they have choice and are included in decision-making (true for ALL of us!). Make sure their voices are heard. They often have great insights on what their strengths are, what their challenges are, what seat might work best, what they might need to focus or be productive, what questions they have, and what concerns they have. Remember: Too many choices can be anxiety-provoking. For example, classrooms with flexible seating options may be too much for some students. They might just like to select from 2-3 options so it isn’t open-ended and overwhelming (e.g., sit near teacher/sit in front, sit in a group of 6/sit in a individual desk or group of 2, etc.).

Gradual Acclimation Structure & Activity Ideas for Transition

Scaffold of Gradual Acclimation

Activity Ideas

Learning about new setting/teacher in the comfort of your familiar setting

  • Start looking at pictures of the new building/setting
  • Visit website/web page for building to get to know staff, information, etc.
  • Social narratives or social articles - factual information about what to expect
  • Use the student handbook; give students time to read through it and identify anything they have questions or concerns about
  • A printed school map can be invaluable for many students to refer to


  • Might also start driving by new school at different times a couple times a week, noticing/commenting on things about the school

More in-depth interaction about the new setting/teacher still in the comfort of your familiar setting

  • Receiving principal/administrator (of new building) might create a short intro video of setting, general building expectations to share with incoming student(s)
  • Student mentoring - students finishing their first year at new building can use video chat (Zoom/Google Hangout) to have a facilitated Q&A session or share about their journeys. The teacher could show this during a morning meeting/homeroom, or this could be 1:1 or small group.
  • Principal, teachers, and/or students can visit students in their current building (coming over to their familiar territory).

Initial exploration of new setting

  • Might start (if possible) when all the building students aren’t there (before/after school) with a walk through of the setting. Some students may help you ‘deliver’ something to the office for a very quick/brief visit.
  • Go to main/common areas to say ‘Hi’ and walk through if they aren’t very congested/overwhelming. Areas might include: main office, playground, library/media center.


  • Might take your child to the playground in the evening or on the weekend at least a few different times.

Interaction with new setting

  • Build in opportunities to regularly visit new building and build deeper relationships with people. Options that have worked well are:
    • Visit library/media center and start checking out books
    • Make weekly ‘deliveries’ to new school/teacher
    • Student may be open to observing a special activity or class in the new building more regularly (e.g., a social skills class, TAG/GT class, interest group like chess club)
  • Have student (if they like tech) create a Google Slide deck to share with new teacher(s)/staff - things they like, things they are good at, things that are a challenge, triggers, how they learn best, etc.
    • It’s great if students can make a screencast of their slide deck, as it adds more student voice & personality.
  • Before the new school year starts, during classroom setup, it can be wonderful to have the student visit the classroom/teacher, and have some control like picking out their seat or helping the teacher with room cleaning/organizing while getting to know the teacher 1:1.

Transition tips that can help the new teacher/staff:

  • It can be very helpful if the current teacher takes video of the student using his/her supports, what their work spaces look like, and what types of prompts/cues are provided - and share this with the new/receiving teacher. You might also take photo/video of the students accommodations and any individualized visual supports s/he uses. Video modeling and visuals are helpful to everyone (adults too!!!) and seeing the actual supports in action can frequently translate better than interpreting a written plan. (IMPORTANT: Please follow your district policy for photo/video permissions and sharing)

For more tips on anxiety, check out these resources:

Category: The Linker Autism