Grown up issues


Kairen Dexter provides some useful pointers on preparing students with learning difficulties for adult life

When a child has learning difficulties, there is always an underlying question of what will happen later in their life. The thought of how their son or daughter will cope as an adult can be very worrying for many families, but this doesn’t have to be such a daunting prospect if it is planned for from an early age.

It is important that we raise our expectations and encourage aspirational thinking about what the child’s future might look like. Of course, the outcomes we want to establish will need to make sense in the real world, so we have to have a shared vision and develop appropriate services and procedures together – involving families, schools and health and care services.

Common issues for the young person and families can include:

  • the change from paediatric to adult services
  • the fear of leaving an educational establishment that they may have been attending since the age of two
  • a lack of availability of transition support and other services
  • a lack of knowledge and information about what is available in the local community
  • poor signposting to pathways for action (or not having support in place early enough to make a difference).

The more complex the needs a young person has, the more difficulty they may have in securing a successful transition to adulthood. Many children with SEN, and especially those with learning disabilities or complex physical needs, will need more assistance on their pathway to adulthood. Preparation must begin at a very early age, using a highly personalised approach.

Three of the key pathways to greater independence in adulthood are:

  • employment/supported employment
  • independent living
  • community inclusion.


For many young people with SEN and disabilities, some form of employment is a key goal – whether it be supported or not, paid or voluntary, regular or casual. Education settings need to ensure the curriculum the young person is following is supportive of this aim. Here are a few examples of how this can be done.

In the early years, vocational role-playing can be covered alongside developing problem-solving, reasoning and literacy skills.

In primary school, pupils can visit local community establishments such as libraries, retail and service outlets, or fire and police stations. Children should be given access to a wide range of influences, and supported to make decisions about their own potential career interests. Secondary school age pupils can be given access to career related role models while they start to develop their own career ideas, based on their vocational and personal profiles.

Post-16 students can then build on the strengths and interests that were highlighted in their profiles, including further work on academic and vocational qualifications. This could also include work experience at an appropriate level.

Throughout children’s development at school, English and maths are paramount, as they underpin so many career opportunities.

Independent living

Supporting independent living involves encouraging the development of self-help skills (such as feeding, drinking and toileting) in the early years. Choice-making is also a key skill here.

The primary curriculum should include further skills development, including tasks such as washing, cooking and brushing teeth. This can also include functional skills, including telling the time and the use of money in context.

Secondary curriculums can build on earlier skills by generalising them into other areas, for example, independent travel training, preparing snacks and socialising unsupervised.

Post-16, students should learn to manage and develop the use of money and further enhance personal skills to include daily living tasks.

Ensuring the individual’s safety in society is essential when promoting independent living skills.

Community inclusion

Young people who will struggle to access independent living and employment pathways as adults, including those with profound and multiple learning difficulties, still need to be a part of their community and included in social activities. They may not be able to sustain employment, but they have a right to lead a fulfilling life.

In the early years, pupils should be supported to look at making friends and developing social interaction with both pupils at their setting and those in mainstream placements. They should be encouraged to communicate as effectively as possible with both familiar and unfamiliar people.

By primary school age, pupils should work on team playing, developing friendships and choice making, including weekend activities. By secondary school age, pupils can look at internet safety, building appropriate friendships and relationships, and having opportunities to belong to different social groups. They will need to generalise to age appropriate activities that still meet their cognitive ability.

As they approach adulthood, post-16, students should be supported to further develop their sequencing skills (such as times of day), organising their day-to-day activities and managing their own possessions, while continuing to develop in an age appropriate manner.

Schools need to challenge pupils throughout their education and be open to the fact that some young people  may change pathways as they develop. It is incumbent on all services in the multi-disciplinary team around the child or young person to ensure their needs are fully met and continue to be appropriate throughout their school life. However, it is not solely the responsibility of professionals to equip young people with skills for adult life. Parents and carers also play a key role in the education of their child. Professionals and families need to work closely together to bring about a successful transition to adult life for each individual child.

About the author

Kairen Dexter is the Headteacher at Bleasdale School, Lancashire, a specialist school for pupils aged two to 19 years with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

+ posts


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here