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Preparation is critical when relocating a family with disabilities

Families are moving in ever-increasing numbers. While relocating a family is challenging under any circumstance, transitioning a child with a disability between schools--especially to a new state--can be particularly difficult. In spite of federal laws guiding the process and development of a child’s individualized education program, state and local school districts interpret these laws differently. It is very important for families to prepare themselves and consider how best to spend their valuable time before the move.

Families must consider the legal, personal, pragmatic and philosophical issues related to relocation. This article not only offers guidelines to get you started in your preparation for moving, but will help facilitate valuable family conversations and provide you with some practical ideas to help make the move less stressful for all.


Do understand your legal rights

Federal legislation guiding special education for qualified students with disabilities is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law is based on principles requiring family engagement in the development of a child’s individualized family service plan (IFSP) or education program (IEP). Because research has shown the value of family engagement in a child’s academic achievement, schools are obligated to involve families in building reciprocal relationships with educators. It is also important for parents to be knowledgeable about other related laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which articulate anti-discrimination protections and ensure access for people with disabilities.

Do identify useful web-based resources

While the vast amount of resources can be overwhelming for families, many of these are extremely helpful and offer a myriad of useful information. For example, the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) provides user-friendly explanations in English and Spanish of both federal laws and state guidelines, and provides helpful links to state-based organizations, some of which are disability-specific.

Do become familiar with local, regional and state organizations

In addition to becoming familiar with the federal organizations supporting families with children with disabilities, contact regional or local Parent Training and Information (PTI) centers (a list of these can be found on the Department of Education’s website). PTIs can help you understand the nuances of local practices and also offer support and advocacy advice from informed parents. Additionally, PTIs can help you identify the different eligibility criteria that your designated school and state use to qualify your child for services--one of the most important considerations when moving.

Do ask yourself personal questions

Before moving, it is essential to completely understand your family’s goals and priorities. Ask yourself the following questions: Have I explained to my children why we are moving? What are your priorities for your child’s education, and for your future neighborhood or community? Which of these are non-negotiable? To help answer some of these questions, you should think of the questions in terms of your values, financial needs, and pragmatic concerns, such as accessibility for a child who uses a wheelchair.

Do create and collect important documents

When moving, it is helpful to update your child’s academic, social and health assessment information. Consider asking your child’s team to develop a list of strengths and strategies. Also, create a social scan called a “Circle of Friends.” This begins with your child’s name in the center and adds the names of the people in your child’s life in concentric circles-- including family, friends, neighbors, therapists, teachers and coaches. Be sure to collect work samples. Ask the staff at your child’s current school if they are willing to be contacted by the staff at the new school. Sign a release of information form in advance and keep an updated contact list.


Do not wait

The time is now to begin your research. Because there is so much to learn regarding the opportunities and resources in your new location, don’t wait. Some of what you learn in your research will likely influence your decisions on where to live and what assessments to bring with you. Depending on your organizational style, you may choose to divide the research tasks among different family members. You will likely collect a great deal of information using the internet, phone, and in-person site visits, so be sure to keep this data in an organized manner. It is helpful to designate one person to create a to-do list. Also, consider keeping a master document in a binder or electronic folder and using a designated computer to bookmark valuable web pages.

Do not forget to involve all of your children

All of your children will have different feelings about the move, and each will have his or her own concerns and opinions that need to be heard. Siblings often feel left out as you focus on your child with disabilities, so don’t forget to focus some of your time and energy on the other children. Siblings can provide a unique perspective on what might be needed to support their sister or brother as part of the relocation process, so involve them, too.

Do not set aside your beliefs

Every family has their own social and cultural histories, which influence how they understand the purpose of education, the role of schools and educators, and their own responsibilities related to supporting their child’s education. It is important for families to articulate these beliefs and share them with the new school. By talking this through and writing down your vision, you can determine the schools which provide a better ‘match’ for your family.

Do not expect transparency

Schools may have mission statements that sound inclusive and responsive to all children’s individual educational support needs--but this is not always evident in the daily experiences of children and their families. Instead of taking things at face value, dig deeper and talk with other families (with and without children with disabilities), teachers and staff. Additionally, read through past school newsletters, local newspaper archives and blogs. Try to imagine what your child’s life might be like on a daily basis in each of the possible future schools. Understand the transportation patterns and possible issues that might surface, so you can work with the school in advance to alleviate problems, particularly if your child has special transportation needs. Ask about how other students with disabilities are included in extracurricular activities. Be sure to tour the school--more than once if possible--and do it with your son or daughter to help demystify the new school. Watch them carefully as you tour to see what catches their attention and listen to their opinions afterwards. Tour on different days of the week and different times of day, if possible.

Do not get discouraged

Reassure yourself and your family that together, you will all make it through the move and the changes that will occur. Emphasize that you are working together and identify your family strengths. At times, you may feel exhausted just thinking about the move and anticipating all of the possible related issues. Consequently, it is important to know when you need to take a break. Try calling a friend or family member, and be sure to seek out your own support.

Jumping cartoon

Relocating a family to a new state or city can be very stressful and overwhelming--and this stress tends to increase when a child has disabilities. Because it is critical for families to be prepared before the move, this advice provides families and their advocates with several guiding questions, as well as useful information to help families embark on a move.

More expert advice about Kids with Special Needs

Photo Credits: closeup with box by t whalen via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Janet Story SauerAssociate Professor, Researcher

Janet Sauer is an Associate Professor in the Education Division at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she prepares pre-service teachers, counselors, and human service workers to support young people with disabilities. She taught children ...

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