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Transition to School for Children with Disabilities

How can preschools support a smooth transition to school for children with disabilities?

Ed and three children indoor table 2

The transition from preschool to primary school is a significant period for every child. For children with a disability or additional support needs, some further planning and preparation usually needs to occur to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible. Preschool educators are well positioned to provide information and support to families to enable them to make informed decisions about schooling options.

Transition to school for children with a disability requires earlier planning to navigate the options, application processes and timelines involved.

In NSW children are eligible to start school at the beginning of the school year provided they turn 5 years old by July 31st of that year. By law children must be enrolled in and attending school by their 6th birthday. Exceptions are rare and an application must be made to the Department of Education to be granted an exemption. More information on exemptions from school can be found here.

In addition, children who have a moderate to severe intellectual disability and/or autism, can start school in a special school, known as a School for Specific Purposes (SSP) or an IO Support Class (for children with a moderate intellectual disability) from 4 years of age.

For children with physical disabilities, the family should approach the school 2 years prior to school entry to allow time for any building works that may be needed to ensure the child’s access. For all other children the year prior to school entry is the time to approach the school to start the transition to school process.

Preschool educators support families to:

Terms 1 & 2

  • Talk to their child’s preschool and/or day care teachers, therapists, and early intervention professionals to discuss the support that might be needed at school.
  • Consider options and arrange visits to schools and/or support classes.
  • Attend open days and arrange preliminary interviews.
  • Plan and book updated assessments. Examples include a cognitive assessment, for example, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) with a Psychologist and/or a Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF) assessment with a speech pathologist

Download more information about how educators can support families around transition to school in Term 1

Term 2

  • Discuss pros and cons of each school option investigated.
  • Make a list and prioritise options.
  • Apply for their local Department of Education public school.
  • Apply for preferred schools/support classes with relevant school system.

Download more information about how educators can support families around transition to school in Term 2

Term 3

  • Consider offers of school placement.
  • The school applies for individualised funding if appropriate.
  • Meet with the Learning and Support Team (LAST) at a public school, or a similar team at an independent or Catholic school. Exchange information, discuss transition and orientation plans.
  • Ask the school for information to help prepare their child for a smooth start to school e.g: check if there’s a school information booklet/ or already developed story about the school to share with their child.
  • Preschool completes the Transition to School statement to share important information about strengths and effective support strategies.

Term 4

  • Attend planned orientation visits, including possible extra sessions.
  • Continue exchanging information with the school.
  • If attending a support class or special school outside of the local area, apply through the school for assisted transport.
  • Make or locate resources to use over the holidays e.g. a weekly visual timetable, a social script or booklet about the school and other generic story books about starting school.
  • Make a plan to visit the school periodically over the Christmas holidays to walk past, or if possible, play on the school equipment to become familiar with the school environment.
  • If possible, connect with other families with children going to the same school and arrange play dates.

Every child has the right to attend, and is guaranteed a place at, their local public school.

If families are interested in applying for NSW Department of Education support classes or schools for specific purposes (SSPs), applications must be made through the child’s local public school, regardless of where the support class or special school is located. Families should make an appointment with their local school, who will discuss options & eligibility and submit an Access Request form for the type of support class or special school they wish to apply for.

Mainstream enrolment at local or out of area school

Support available

  • A Learning and Support Team (LAST) is located in every school, providing support for all public school students.
  • Families arrange a meeting with the Principal and the Learning and Support teacher (if available) to discuss what support might look like for their child at each school and any additional programs they may have, for example, buddy systems, lunchtime activities, social skills groups, literacy/numeracy support.
  • Individualised funding is provided through Integration Support Funding (ISF) for children with moderate to high learning support needs, for example, children with moderate to severe intellectual disability or significant autism.
  • Itinerant teachers – Hearing/Vision/Transition are available to support children and their school.

Eligibility/Application process

  • All children have the right to go to their local public school regardless of their needs.
  • Out of area schools may be able to offer a place but this is not guaranteed for various reasons, for example, if they’re already at capacity with student numbers.

Support classes in mainstream schools

  • All support classes have a reduced number of children (up to 10) and staffing varies according to the class make up. Typically, classes are staffed by a teacher and a teacher’s aide, known in public schools as a Student Learning & Support Officer (SLSO).
  • Please note it’s not possible to apply for a class at a particular school, rather you’re able to apply for the type of class or school.
  • A diagnosis or recent Developmental Assessment is essential for an application for a support class.
  • Parents need to contact their local in area public school and make an Access Request. The Department of Education then considers all applications at a placement panel level and make offers accordingly.
  • There are a number of categories of support classes:
    • EI - Early intervention support classes. Prior to starting school, children aged 3-6 years attend 1-2 morning/week.
    • IO - Intellectual disability - Moderate. Support classes for children with a moderate intellectual disability.
    • IS - Intellectual disability - Severe. Support classes for children with severe intellectual disability.
    • AU - Autism. Support classes for children with a diagnosis of Autism.
    • ED - Emotional Disturbance. Support classes for children with emotional and mental health issues.
    • MC - Multi-Categorical. Support classes for children with a range of disabilities with similar support needs. Students may have one or more disability type, and may include Autism, emotional disturbance, moderate to severe intellectual disability or physical disability.
    • IM - Intellectual disability - Mild. Support classes for children with a mild intellectual disability, regardless of an additional diagnosis. IM classes commence from Year 3.

Schools for Specific Purposes

  • For children with moderate to severe intellectual disability. These children may also have physical disabilities, sensory impairments, or autism spectrum disorder.
  • Specialised facilities may include secure fencing, toileting facilities adjoining each classroom and accessible playground equipment.
  • Grades K-12
  • Child to teacher/SLSO ratios vary according to the class make up.
  • Entry available from 4 years of age.

Catholic School system

Entry criteria/support available

  • Priority of access guidelines apply, based on religious affiliation.
  • Non-Catholic families are eligible to enrol if positions are available.
  • Fees are payable and vary from school to school.
  • Class size may be larger than in K-2 in public schools.
  • Individualised funding with similar criteria to public schools.
  • Discuss the types of supports available with schools. Support classes are available at some schools.
  • Families must apply to enrol in their local Catholic school and attend an interview with an Education officer in order for the panel to consider a support class allocation.
  • Apply directly to the school by end of Term 1 for next year.
  • Most schools interview during Term 2 before offering places.

Independent School System

Mainstream schools

  • Schools range from large independent schools to very small schools with a range of educational philosophies and religious beliefs.
  • Schools may be K-12 or K-6 with various class sizes and teacher: child ratios.
  • There are a wide range of fees payable with some scholarships available.

Eligibility criteria/support available

  • Applications must be made to each individual school and support varies from school to school.
  • Enrolments may be subject to waiting lists, preferencing applications made prior to the year before school.
  • Some federal funding is available to support children with a disability.
  • The Association for Independent Schools NSW (AIS) employs itinerant special education consultants who can support schools to adapt the curriculum for individual children and provide inclusion support.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)

Options/Support available

  • Aspect base schools for students aged 4-17 years.
  • Satellite classes hosted by local public or Catholic primary schools.
  • Students in these classes wear the school uniform and participate in school events, however the class is managed independently.
  • Distance education. A distance education program for students on the autism spectrum, allowing them to learn from home.
  • Application and tuition fees are payable.
  • This is a transition model, which aims to move students from the setting of highest support (the base school), to a setting of lower support (a satellite class), and then to a mainstream school class, where appropriate.


  • Students with a diagnosis of autism, and recent cognitive assessment (dated within 2 years of enrolment).

Recorded webinar: Transition to school for children with a disability

Transition to School Guide for Parents developed by Reimagine Australia

Transition to School Guide for Early Childhood Practitioners developed by Reimagine Australia

“Starting school” social scripts that can be adapted for your local schools and children:

School exemption fact sheet: