Making a Move: Special Needs Kids and Frequently Changing Homes

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

I've been spending a lot of time after school packing up my home, preparing to move into another home, one which is a lot closer to my school, closer to the Big City, and is located in a mid-sized town. I'll be back where food can be delivered to my door. Boy, I sure did miss delivery…what natural beauty the Mississippi River Delta has offered me through it's peace-giving quietness, amazing neighbors who don't live right against my house and whose dog is my dogs' best friend. A dog who chases my car every morning on my way past their house as I head off to work. I hear the cicada buzzing their song every night, I hear the crickets chirping, I see the heron standing in the middle of the rice fields, I hear the occasional car rolling by my 10 acre home site. I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity to mow the yard for countless hours while thinking about life's important matters as I zip up and down the patterned rows on a zero-turn lawn mower. The dogs will miss their ability to run freely. I'm trading this all in because it's just time to move back to town. My reasons for moving are my own, but I will surely remember with affection my time living here in the midst of cotton and rice fields. I will NOT miss the snakes. Not. At. All.

Transitions for adults can bring a lot of stress, periods of adjustment, paperwork, and hassle. It can also mean loss, but it can also mean happiness-moving to a better place in a better community. But still, it brings a certain brand of change.

I'm a hot mess right now. My emotions are fairly peaceful, but I've kicked into Bossy Pants mode to get things done within a certain time constraint. From what those around me are saying, I may be a little grumpy. That's just their opinion. I'm sure I'm fine (wink, wink!).

Getting utilities turned off at one place and turned on at another, changing or re-hooking up the Internet and TV is a necessary pain. Packing. Moving. Unpacking.

As grown-ups, we are able to recognize these feelings of dis-ease and organized disorganization for what they are: temporary.

For young ones with special needs, a move can create utter chaos.

When a special needs child has settled into a home setting where they feel safe, secure, and on a schedule within a routine, they are at a more peaceful state, better able to gain as much from each day as they possibly can as happily as they possibly can.

Upset that finely tuned balance and you will upset their world. Be ready for what may come. It probably won't be pretty.

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A friend of mine has a daughter who is Autistic and has a list of additional needs requiring specific care. One day, my friend's husband came home and shared he'd been offered an excellent position within his company at an office across the country from where they currently resided. With a significant raise, lower living costs, shorter commute, and closer to family, after much consideration, my friends decided to make the move. With a lot of planning and preparation, these wise parents made the transition with their children as best they could-a lot of discussion, a lot of time spent on their computer showing pictures of the new community and their new house, a LOT of time video-chatting with the family members near whom they'd be living in order to best sell the idea of a new locale. But when it came to their special needs child, the transition wasn't as seamless as all had hoped. Moving from her life-long home, this young lady was left in a state of confusion. Wisely, the parents made sure to set up the home as similarly to their former home as they possibly could so that familiar things were in familiar places. Adjusting to a new school…that took some time. As the family members spent time with the newly relocated family members, everyone took great pains to be sure their Autistic family member learned who everyone was. She was able to adjust to them at her own pace because of a calm, supportive family who made sure that happened. There were, however, a lot of meltdowns, a lot of toys thrown in frustration, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of frustrating days. Eventually, things normalized to a place where things settled and a new normal was birthed.

In may schools across this country, children are constantly moving homes. In my experience, I've seen kids move three or four times in one year because of their grown-ups inability-for whatever reason-to pay their rent. I've had students who've lived part of the year in homeless shelters, who have bounced between friends and relatives. It's not my place to judge their family's situation, but it WAS and IS my job to support my special needs little ones as best I can during their time in my class.


It ain't easy, I promise. But if you truly love your littles, it will be easy to WANT to do it. You'll have things thrown at you, there will be tears, there will be fits, there will be defiance, there will be frustration, there will be love. They trust you and they feel safe with you. I had a dear friend and retired Special Education Teacher, Linda, tell me once-"If they throw a fit with you when their family's in crisis, it's really a compliment to you-they trust you enough to love them through it."

Let's get practical. Here are some tips to try. Will they all work? That's left to be seen given your particular situation. Hopefully one, or a few of them, will, so be open-minded as you read through the list, and as always, modify them to meet your specific situation:

  • The benefit of kids in school is the fact they have friends! There is consistency and constancy in their friendships within the special education classroom. Allow for some buddy time opportunities-reading together, playing a buddy game, coloring together-whatever is their jam.
  • Talk about the move with the student. Let them share their thoughts and perspectives. Do your best to accentuate the positives, but if they open up about the negatives, be a good listener. If you are blessed enough to have a school counselor at your school, bring them in the loop to provide more specialized support. Watch for signs of anxiety and again, bring in the additional support you have available.
  • Keep routines. KEEP ROUTINES. Kids who are transient NEED the safety of routines in your classroom.
  • If your school doesn't have a breakfast/feeding program, get some cereal/milk/cereal bars/juice boxes, etc. to keep on-hand. These babies need you to feed them if they're not being fed.
  • Establish the best rapport possible with the grown-ups in this child's life. While initially our good hearts may want to wash their clothes or bring them clean clothes, it is important for the adults-who may be in crisis-to maintain their dignity. If there is a solid rapport in place, offering supports will potentially be received more positively. Discuss these situations with your administration. They will have experience, knowledge, and information to which you may not be privy.
  • Have a classroom climate and culture of respecting each others' belongings. For transient special needs students, it's all about maintaining as much consistency as possible. By having their own tools and supplies at their seat or in their cubby, comfort is gained.
  • Keep your expectations high, your structure and routines in place, and most of all, be patient.


This list is certainly not exhaustive but these are a few strategies which have given a sense of calm confidence to my transient special needs-and general education--students over the years.

Our role gets more challenging with each passing year. Learn what you can about legislation which supports homeless and transient students. Did you know there are 1.3 million children who are homeless? (

Check out the McKinney-Vento Act for specific information and opportunities for students considered homeless:

My wish is that all our babies with disabilities know only the good things life has to offer them. I know, though, that life throws a lot of curve balls and sometimes I feel like they're too frequently thrown to our special ones. Make the difference in a child's life by being their patient, calm, loving place of comfort as I know you are striving to do.

Great luck with your new school year, my friends. Keep doing a great job!

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