Successful transitions from early intervention to school-age special education services

Publication Details

The purpose of this report is to explore what is currently ‘not working’ in transitions from EI to school-age services from the perspectives of people involved in these transitions—to identify ‘what we can do better’ and explore how to improve transitions and outcomes for young people—to identify ‘what we do well’ and ‘what needs to be changed, and how’.

Author(s): Jacky Burgon with Joanne Walker, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: September 2013

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Executive Summary

When children transition from early intervention to school-age specialist services, Ministry of Education (Ministry) staff play a critical role in ensuring an effective transition—both across services and across learning contexts. Guidelines, specialist standards and locally developed protocols provide a framework for the transition process.

In 2012 the Ministry released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to understand more about transitions from Early Intervention (EI) into school-age services for children with high levels of special learning needs. The Ministry wanted “on the ground” perspectives about effective and ineffective transitions using a case-study approach. NZCER was contracted to undertake this research.

This research focused on the Ministry role/s in supporting transitions, on children’s transitions to school and the associated transition from EI to school-age services specialist support.

The data from the case studies have been analysed for key themes; this report summarises the findings from 14 case studies. The case studies were drawn from four Ministry offices across two Ministry regions.

In this series of case studies, some of the students with the most challenging needs have had very effective transitions. Some (but not all) of the children who appeared to have less-challenging learning and social needs at the time of transition had less-effective transitions. Sometimes, less-effective transitions were related to the amount of time available to plan and undertake the transitions. Less-effective transitions were also characterised by one or more of the following:
  • less-effective relationships between Ministry providers and other providers
  • less-effective relationships between Ministry staff and the school, or Ministry staff and early childhood education (ECE) centre, or school and ECE centre (or a combination of all three relationships)
  • issues in planning and timing
  • continuity issues
  • role clarity and communication issues
  • funding issues
  • perceptions of Ministry staff skills
  • less previous experience within the school
  • issues with timely support of specialist staff and resources.

For many families and whānau approaching this ECE–school transition it was both a time of anticipation and a time of anxiety. Many of the children themselves had already been through a number of transitions in their short lives. Some of these previous transitions added to the complexity of the ECE to school transition.
While transition planning needed to reflect the individual circumstances for each of the children, from our data we were able to identify some key process themes in effective transitions.

The first of these themes was relationships. Relationships were viewed by many we interviewed as key. Family, whānau and Ministry relationships were often strong—especially between EI staff and families. For some families, this relationship changed quite abruptly as the child began school. There were different staff, and some had not yet met their new Ministry lead worker even though the child had been at school for many months.

Relationships between Ministry staff and ECE centres were mostly positive. These relationships were based on mutual respect and complementary skills. Where the relationships were less positive, the issues related to ECE centres’ perceptions of delays, reduced resourcing, and centres being less happy with the skills of Ministry staff visiting the centre—whether education support workers (ESWs) or specialist staff. One comment that came up a few times—in general comments as well as in relation to one of the case studies—was about the lack of a Ministry relationship with some ECE centres. This meant that sometimes staff in some ECE centres were not referring children to the Ministry for specialist support. This impacted on the time and length of early intervention and could lead to more difficulties in the transition process.

There were some strong Ministry–school relationships. However, in a few case studies we noted poorer relationships. These poorer relationships were coloured by school perceptions about Ministry staff competence, inadequate resourcing, poor timing of support, poor information, or personality issues, or a combination of these areas.

In a few case studies we noted that Ministry staff willingness to proactively manage conflict was a positive influence on relationships.

We noted some variability in Ministry relationships with other providers of specialist services. If there were good relationships, there was more chance of there being good communication. In turn, good communication influenced continuity for the child and coordination of people and resource in a timely way during transition.
Parents generally had good relationships with both the ECE centre their child transitioned from and the school their child transitioned into. The school the child went to was not always the family’s first choice. We did note some reports of difficulties when trying to enrol in families’ first choice in school—in one case study, and in the general comments interviewees made.

We noted that positive and ongoing ECE centre–school relationships were of benefit in transition.
However, transitions were not only about relationships. Handover systems and processes was another key theme from our data. Ensuring appropriate continuity was a major component of the handover systems we encountered—especially since about half the case study transitions involved children on the autism spectrum. Staffing continuity was greatly valued by schools. Where Ministry teams were structured to provide services to children from 0–8 years of age within the one team there was capacity for a greater continuity in staffing.
However, staff turnover or changes in staff due to children transitioning across geographic patches sometimes still meant a change of staff for children during transitions even where there was a 0–8 team structure. The other option that gave effective support to continuity was when EI staff stayed in the transition longer than usual. When there were the same staff in an ECE centre and in the first term or so the child was at school there was a much greater opportunity for full information sharing and a longer period of support from staff who knew the child well. We also noted considerable effort in a number of case studies to ensure sufficient continuity in surroundings and routines for the child to be able to make a smooth transition.

Planning and timing were also important. In some cases, planning began six months in advance of the child going to school. Generally the most effective planned transitions were staggered with multiple school visits. Late referral to Special Education (SE) services and late changes of school hampered planning.

Communications systems and modes of communication were important. Good communication could enhance relationships and had the capacity to maximise good planning processes and handovers. We saw some good examples of communication being adapted to meet the needs of different parents and family and whānau. Role clarity was also important; each child had many different specialists working with them: specialists within Ministry teams, specialists across Ministry teams and across different organisations. They all needed to understand one another’s roles, and families and whānau and schools also needed to understand those roles. Also, there needed to be someone to take responsibility for overseeing the transition.

The final theme identified was resources. Resourcing was most often talked about by school staff in our interviews. While resources were important in effective transitions, when transitions were less than effective sometimes it was not just resourcing that was an issue.

When resources worked well, there was understanding about the funding available and how best to use it. Where there was conflict about the quantum of resourcing, it had been actively managed by Ministry staff. Schools were happy with the quality and type of support provided by Ministry staff. Additionally, a number of schools used their own skills and experience developed during the transitions of other children with special education needs into their school.

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