How To Move Teens on to High School when Change is a Huge Issue

Do you have teens with special needs or simply inflexible teens? Do they have trouble adjusting to change? Me too.

This September my youngest starts high school. Why is that a big deal? Well, my younger daughter has a host of diagnoses. She has an IEP (individual education plan), technology for accessing the curriculum, FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), sensory and learning challenges, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) all related to that. Combine all of that with a difficulty adjusting to change.

Ainsley has difficulty adjusting to life changes. That is extremely typical for kids and adults with FASD – a prenatal brain injury sustained prior to her birth and her adoption by us. FASD is the result of prenatal exposure to alcohol. So basically if birth Mom drank, then the baby’s growing brain and body absorbed all of that in utero. Drinking when pregnant can leave a child with lifelong learning disability and physical disability.


Transition resistant teens can easily get stuck and spend weeks, months and years expending all their energy on trying to wrap their brains around huge life changes. That can leave their brains so stressed they basically are unable to attend to the typical job of learning in class. It’s not that transition resistant teens want to be stuck, but their brains work differently. This type of brain injury leaves memory deficits and learning challenges.

When transitioning my daughter to anything new it is a big process. Luckily we have had 14 years now to perfect our system of dealing with this. In grade one we transitioned for the greater part of a year!! When her elementary school overflowed due to high enrolment and had to move buildings she took many months to adjust to that life change.

So when high school was on the horizon we started the process knowing it could take awhile. In fact we actually started the process of transitioning at least a year ago. This is what works for my daughter and can work for other challenging teens. Your child might be different but if they struggle with big life changes give yourself time.


Here’s What Has Worked for Us So Far

HUGE life Changes and Helping Teens Adjust to Change.

Talking about the school.

We discussed high school choices and why we were opting for a particular high school (smaller numbers of students and caring teachers, proximity to home, plus supportive staff all came in to play)

Initially my daughter was extremely unhappy with that choice because of the uniforms required at this school. (Another change). I consistently reminded her that we had to go with the school we knew she’d get support at. Our primary factor in deciding. If you repeatedly tell me that your high school doesn’t have resources to educate all the kids with IEPs then I am moving on. Her needs come first.

Get on the Phone.

Calls to the school to discuss her needs. I did this well over a year in advance of her entering school. Then I called again by February 1st the same year she was scheduled to start high school.

Visits to the school.

Drive by casually. Drop your other child off if you have an older one attending the high school already. Enlist their help where possible and have them discuss small fun things about friends, lunch, classes they love or teachers they adore. You will visit in person many times but you need to work up to that.

Attending all the scheduled meetings and orientations.

Involving your teen in the process as much as is possible and to the level that they are able to handle without being stressed out.

Meeting personnel at the school.

I was struggling with this one a bit because who to meet? And how to make that useful for everyone? Then I called a school social worker that my older daughter interacts with ( she has helped volunteer to build a school mental health program ) This was the magic button. As soon as I called Julie she organized the tour and meeting for Ainsley and that was a huge relief to all of us.

Touring the school.

Connecting with a support person fast. My daughter needs to know she has an adult in her corner any given day. We need to scaffold her with a supportive base of people she can trust. On a bad day she HAS to be able to withdraw from the noise of a loud classroom and find a quiet space with a person she trusts.


If this is a piece of the puzzle for your teen then I suggest getting a uniform a few months in advance. Order it now and have it in their bedroom closet or drawers. I have said nothing much about this and know I will need to order a new one soon because they grow so fast. But we have one of my older daughter’s grade nine uniforms in Ainsley’s room. She is able to try it on whenever she needs to or wants to. And she has done that already a couple of times. Why? Well, first of all you will know if it fits. Second of all you need to know if there are any sensory issues with the materials etc.

IEP – Deliver it in person.

Make sure key support and resource people have it and have read it. They need to know what to expect and where the stuck spots will be. Support needs to be there from day one in order to make high school a success for teens who cannot cope with big life changes.

Advocate Immediately

Insist on Getting What You and Your Teenager Need to Make Adjusting to Change Successful.

Two examples here for you: Scribing is a chunk of my daughter’s daily education plan. She runs out of time and cannot write fast enough or type fast enough or get it done in the time allotted. I mentioned this when choosing her courses and was told that doesn’t happen in high school. No resources. So we identified that as a potential concern and addressed it again in the first team meeting with my daughter in the room. At that point the resource person indicated that if it was necessary she would help with this. (That’s a big relief again)

During Registration Week we were told she could visit once or twice during orientations scheduled. UM, NO.

I clearly said once or twice is not going to work for us. Ainsley’s disability means she will visit multiple times – 10 or 20  – if that’s what she needs to feel comfortable and able to do this. The aim is to minimize anxiety over the change by making it seem routine. Not unlike exposure therapy actually.

Map It

Logistics that I rarely think about for me are gigantic worries for my daughter. We headed to a school orientation day yesterday and in the morning she noted she had no idea how to walk home. What is the route? That was worrying her. So, I solved that by having my older daughter show her the walk home.

Another parent I know who has a brain in jury herself suggested that we map it with google maps and have the way home plugged into her phone every day until enough repetition makes it automatic. SO SIMPLE but I had not thought of it.


With proper planning and support you can make a huge difference and calm any of the pre September back to school jitters even for kids who have trouble adjusting to change. Identify them now. Ask your child what they are worried about and address issues immediately, calmly, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition has always been a big key here to helping my child adjust to new settings and scenarios and changes in routine.

And if Transitions are Still Challenging?

Oh they will be. There will be issues that still arise especially when kids have trouble adjusting to change already. I know this. And when you are done, there will still be stuck spots and small things that come up. BUT, at least you have done all the ground work and given them tools to handle the change.

Mom of two beautiful active girls, traveller, fitness junkie, social media consultant, and keeper of the sanity.