Transitions from early intervention to school-age special education services

Publication Details

This paper presents an overview of the international literature related to transitions between early intervention services and special education services for school-aged children. The review describes, firstly, families’ perceptions of services during the transition period, and, secondly, key factors associated with quality transition services.

Author(s): Research Division, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: September 2013

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It should be noted that this literature, predominantly from the United States, is centred more generally on the transition to school for children with special education needs, rather than the transitions from early intervention to school-age special education services. The majority of studies reviewed are descriptive rather than experimental, with few quantitative studies. The evidence to support any specific practice is therefore, not strong.

Review findings

Families’ views

Families of children with special education needs may find the transition to school in general more difficult compared to families of children without special education needs. Families and professionals differ in how satisfied they are with the transition between services. Families perceive the quality of services, once their child enters school, to be lower than that of services received prior to transition. Factors contributing to families’ difficulties include a decrease in the frequency and intensity of services and shifts in service providers.

Quality practices

The literature identifies the following quality practices to support effective transitions between services.
Communication – The importance of good communication between all stakeholders is the strongest theme to emerge from the literature. This incorporates:
  • sharing information between providers and between providers and families on an ongoing basis
  • collaboration across programmes and with community partners
  • having clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  • having a primary contact person within each programme or agency.

The quality of relationships is also a significant factor in families’ satisfaction with transition services.

Planning is interrelated with effective communication, and should:
  • include identifying (and communicating) timelines for activities, such as referral processes, enrolment processes, and decisions about eligibility for resources
  • address the strengths, needs, and characteristics of individual children, families and programmes.

Family involvement
The literature stresses the importance of active family involvement in transition planning. Barriers to involvement centre on language and culture, and the level of support available to families. Families should be given opportunities for education and skill development, and appreciation for their contribution.

System level processes
The literature points to the importance of service providers:
  • knowing which agencies and services are available in the community and the specific roles and responsibilities associated with sending and receiving programmes
  • having  managerial support for effective practice, for example,  having the time required for working with families
  • having professional development opportunities that demonstrate how to incorporate policies and regulations into practice.

Monitoring children’s adjustment to their new environment, a standard quality practice, appears to be neglected.

Gaps in the research  

Assessment of the outcomes of transition services is a key gap in the research. This includes the planning before a child moves between services and follow-up afterward. In the New Zealand context, there is overall a very scant research literature.


The literature provides a consensus of stakeholder opinion about the factors supporting effective transition between services. It also suggests that it remains a challenge to create mechanisms so that this knowledge can be implemented across the diverse contexts in which children live.

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