Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education


This study explored the experiences of ten students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as they transitioned from primary to secondary school. The aim of the research was to investigate and share the experiences of students, using a multiple case study approach involving observations, interviews and formal and informal interactions. Parents, teachers and school principals from both the primary and secondary schools involved were also interviewed as part of this study.

The research was based on an understanding of child development as a joint function of environmental influences, including parents, teachers and neighbours, and the characteristics of the child. Bronfenbrenner’s Social Ecology Model was chosen, as it focuses on the child in his or her various environments and, as such, uniquely supports and provides justification for this approach (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986; Sontag, 1996).

Educational transitions, by their nature, are complex and multifaceted processes (Akos & Galassi, 2004). When they involve adolescents with intellectual disabilities and the added issues of the physical and psychological changes that occur during this time, they can become even more complex (Vinson, 2006). This study attempted to provide insights into how students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities transitioning from mainstream primary schools experienced this transition.

There is a great deal of research about the inclusion and transition of students with intellectual disabilities from the perspective of parents, teachers and school principals, however, little work has been undertaken to gain insights into how students experience or understand these transitions. This research focused on the importance of listening to students and the value of student voice as a means of students sharing responsibility for, and meaningfully participating in, educational decisions that concern them (Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Mitra, 2009; Taylor & Robinson, 2009). The rich and multilayered data that emerged from the study helped in understanding the complexity of transitions, the successes and challenges faced by students, the commitment of parents and staff and the changes in relationships that occurred as transitions progressed.

The findings revealed that transition was a positive experience for students as they made a successful start to secondary school. The transition programs developed were helpful in assisting students to adjust to much larger school campuses and more-complex structures. The study particularly highlighted the success of the work of primary schools in this process, while identifying a number of concerns in transition and inclusion in secondary schools. The literature indicates that the key to successful transition is to build primary and secondary school communities that have at their foundation the development of collaborative structures and inclusive educational practices (Hunt et al., 2000). The results of would indicate that secondary schools require further work in this area.

This research has significance for researchers and educators, as it provides reflections from the students themselves about their experiences, which will hopefully assist educators in providing for their academic, social and physical needs during transition. The study also describes the types of support systems that can be developed to assist students with intellectual disabilities and their families at a time of great stress and anxiety.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.