Learn how you can help children with special needs increase their self-determination prior to Transition.

By Lynn Coleman, Clinical Director


As Clinical Director of Cotting School, I’ve worked with many families throughout the challenges of learning how best to support a child with special needs. As you may imagine, these challenges become more nuanced when a child develops into a teenager and young adult.

It helps to be intentional about supporting students in ways that empower independence. Before you step in, pause and ask yourself, “Is the help I’m offering rescuing or empowering them?”

Empowering Students With Special Needs As They Mature

Although your students with special needs may continue to need significant help as they get older, it’s important that the help they receive “grows up” right along with them. Make sure to create opportunities for your students to exercise as much agency over their interactions with the world as possible. This will help them reach the highest level of independence attainable.

To achieve this goal, focus on teaching problem solving and self advocacy rather than cookie cutter solutions.  

Providing Intentional Support to Students With Special Needs

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in a lot of meetings with students with special needs and their families focused on Transition. We typically discuss how best to support the student as they get older, including interventions and how sustainable they are as the student matures into young adulthood.

A great example of providing well-intentioned support that may work against increasing independence is hand-holding. Not only can it become confusing for students as they develop into teens and young adults, but it can also be a cause for concern from both a safety standpoint and in terms of establishing appropriate relationships and boundaries with different people in our students’ lives. 

The Best Way to Support Students With Special Needs On the Move

Here are a couple of tips to replace hand-holding with more appropriate forms of support while students are in school. 

  1. If a student reaches for your hand, offer them your elbow or forearm instead and tell them to hold onto you. This aligns more closely with the manner in which professionals in the community would aid a person needing extra support. It also prevents potential finger entanglements, which could cause injury in the event of a fall, and empowers the student, since they can control the level of support they’re using more directly than when holding hands. 
  2. If you notice that one of your students has become a “frequent flyer” when it comes to hand-holding, consult with other members of the student’s team (e.g., their Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist and Communication Therapist) to learn more about the skills they are developing to increase their independence. To be as consistent as possible, ask how you can best support these therapies during classroom-based transitions. 

Since we train the staff at Cotting in Safety Care, the majority of each student’s team knows how to implement a “supported guide.” This is a safe and appropriate way to support a student on the move. To implement this technique, place your cupped hands above your student’s elbow joints and below the shoulders. This ensures the respectful and appropriate placement of hands and allows you to position yourself alongside the individual being helped. 

Stay tuned for more blog posts on the topic of preparing young adults with special needs and their families for Transition.