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John Bair
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Transitions: Building Post-High School Goals Into An IEP

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As a society, we’ve agreed that every child, no matter what, deserves to reap the benefits that a high-quality education can promise. Legislators have even written this right into federal law, passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, which guarantees that every student with a disability has the fundamental right to a public education adapted to meet his or her specific needs.

But of course, an academic education is only one facet of this equation. That’s why IDEA also includes a provision for “Transition Services,” laying a foundation for students with disabilities to make the big leap from school to a post-high school life filled with possibilities.

What Are Transition Services?

Here’s how federal law defines the concept:

A “coordinated set of activities designed to be within a results-oriented process that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities.”

As the National Center for Secondary Education and Transition says, it’s about planning for life.

Once children with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, turn 16, it’s time to start thinking about life after high school. In a practical sense, it’s time to start thinking about goals, from post-secondary academic opportunities to vocational programs and employment. Community living, helping young adults learn how to access the resources around them, is another big emphasis in the world of transition planning. So are developing interpersonal skills, financial literacy and an understanding of healthy lifestyles.

Underpinning all of these considerations is the project of identifying government, family and community resources that will help young adults with disabilities begin their journey into adulthood with adequate, coordinated support.

Taking Strengths, Weaknesses & Preferences Into Account

As with every other consideration in an IEP, these transition goals should be decided based on a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, along with the skills they’ve acquired during their lifetime. But perhaps most importantly, the student’s own preferences need to be placed at the core of any planning.

One of transition planning’s main goals is to help young adults understand themselves, their disabilities and the choices that will come to determine their futures.

In fact, federal law requires that teens attend their own IEP meetings beginning at the age of 16. If an IEP team thinks it’s appropriate, transition services can be folded into an Individualized Education Program even earlier than 16. Some states have even passed laws that entitle younger children to transition services. In Massachusetts, for example, IEP teams are required to begin planning for transition services when an eligible child turns 14.

No matter when the planning begins, however, students must be invited to IEP meetings in which transition planning will be discussed.

6 Factors That Help Students With Disabilities In Their Transition

For many children, school is a place where they can begin developing skills for a healthy, happy life. Before graduation, though, most teens enter a period teeming with challenges and major life changes. In 1995, a special education expert in Oregon even gave this transitional period from high school to post-secondary education or employment its own name: “floundering.”

Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that the “floundering” phase lasts longer for students with disabilities. The long-term implications are obvious. In 2004, 78% of people without disabilities had locked down full- or part-time jobs. Only 35% of people with disabilities were employed. The government’s transition services requirements were designed to change those statistics for the better.

In a now landmark study, researchers at the University of North Carolina identified a number of factors that can help students transition successfully to their lives after high school. Here are 6 of them:

  1. Career awareness – learning about different types of employment, how people apply for jobs and exploring a student’s own interests and skills to identify possible lines of work
  2. Community experiences – developing real-world employment skills through on-the- job training and age-appropriate integration with peers without disabilities
  3. Inclusion in general education – learning alongside peers without disabilities in a general education classroom has been linked to improvements in academic achievement, employment and independent living
  4. Self-advocacy – teaching young adults with disabilities to consider themselves the primary causal agents in their own lives, and helping them make their own choices and decisions free from undue external influences. Empirical studies have linked an emphasis on self-advocacy and self-determination to major benefits in both education and employment.
  5. Social skills – helping young adults understand and honor social standards for interaction, as well as how these standards can change in different contexts
  6. Parental involvement – young adults whose parents take an active role in the educational process have been found to benefit far beyond the classroom

Further Resources On Transition Planning:

  • In this slideshow, the Federation for Children with Special Needs outlines the basics of
    transition planning, and highlights how young adults with disabilities can benefit:

http://www.slideshare.net/fcsn/transition-101- high-school- to-adulthood

  • A government-funded resource on transition planning and keeping students with disabilities on-track for graduation:


  • An informative guide on introducing children with disabilities to social skills:


  • A website run by youth with disabilities, for youth with disabilities, providing resources on self-advocacy:


  • A wealth of information on community inclusion, from scholarship opportunities to job search resources: