Getting from A to B
How to teach your child to use public transit

Learning how to use public transit is part of growing up. “It represents independence,” says Sarah Keenan, life-skills coach with the Skills for Transition program at Bloorview. “Teens don’t have to rely on the school bus or on mom and dad to drive them around,” says Natalie Timbrell, who is also a Skills for Transition coach.

Sarah and Natalie work with teens with disabilities over a 10-month period to help them achieve independence goals. One of the most common requests is to learn how to use public transportation.

If you don’t have access to a coaching program, the following tips can help you or a respite worker teach your child to use public transit.

But first – ask an occupational therapist at your rehab centre to assess whether your child can travel independently or requires support. Travelling alone isn’t realistic for everyone.

1. Familiarize your child with the bus and subway at an early age. Long before they can travel independently, make sure your kids have the experience of going places on public transit.

2. Teach your child the major streets in your city and landmarks both large and small. For example, “Parliament Hill is in downtown Ottawa. We turn left at the Esso station to get to our house.”

3. Once your child understands left and right, begin teaching north, south, east and west. When travelling in the car with your child, talk about directions. “When we go to Grandma’s house in Moncton, we have to go East. In time, you can test your children: “Which direction are we going now?”

4. Ensure your child is street smart. Go over the rules at home, then take your child out in different areas and let your child take the lead and tell you when it’s safe to cross the street. Teach your child that public spaces – libraries, schools, stores, gas stations – are usually safe places to ask for help.

Grade 9 is the age when many youth learn to use public transit on their own. In order to travel alone, your child needs to have the cognitive ability to problem-solve if faced with an unexpected change in route or plans. For example, a bus is taken out of service before reaching its destination or your child misses a subway stop.

5. Have your child pick a destination. It could be school, the mall or a friend’s house. Get a map of your transit system or go online to print out a map. A child with a visual impairment can call a help line at the transit company to ask about the best route to take to get from A to B.

6. Look at the map and teach your child how to identify accessible subway stations and bus stops. These are usually marked with a symbol. If travelling by subway and your child uses a mobility device, identify where the elevators are.

7. Map out your route and write out or type each step. For example:

  1. Take the number 25 bus east to Eglinton Subway.
  2. Enter the subway and go northbound to Finch station.  

8. Go over basic safety rules and explain transit safety features. For example, if you get lost, who is a safe stranger to ask for help? A transit employee, a police officer, a mother with small children, and an employee in a store are good answers. Cell phones are a great safety tool and your child needs to know to call you or 911 in an emergency. If travelling on the subway, your child should always carry two quarters because cell phones can’t be used in subway trains or below street level.

Teach your child about designated waiting areas (DWA) on subway platforms. These areas are brightly lit, monitored by closed-circuit television and have an intercom system. Passenger assistance alarm strips can be pushed for help in the subway cars. MP3 players, such as Ipods, are distracting and should be left at home.

9. The first time you go on your trip, work together. Help orient your child to the process and point out how to be safe. Prompt your child to pay the fare, use a map or listen to the stations being called out. Some teens like to count how many stations they need to go. Point out who might be a good person to ask for help. Take the route a second time and reinforce what your child needs to know.

10. The third time, let your child be the navigator and tell you what to do. If your child is not overly anxious, agree beforehand that you won’t correct them if they miss a stop.

11. If your child makes a mistake, don’t criticize! The best learning happens when things don’t go smoothly. “Okay, you missed a stop. This is a great learning opportunity. What are we going to do?” When your child is successful, celebrate!

If your child isn’t comfortable with a route after repeated trips, pick a simpler one.

12. When you feel your child is ready to take a short trip alone, put supports in place. You, a respite worker or a friend can wait at the destination. Someone at home should be available to receive calls if your child needs help.

For more information, call 416 425 6220 ext 3296.







In order to travel alone, your child needs to have the cognitive ability to problem-solve if faced with an unexpected change in route or plans.