Introduction to Transition Planning

Back to top


Transition planning is a part of the special education process. It is designed to help students with disabilities in high school get ready for life after high school. Schools are required to include a transition plan in students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, when students turn 16 years old. Some states require the transition process to begin sooner. Transition planning is focused on what the student likes to do and what the student is good at, so it is very important that the student be a part of the transition process.

Why is secondary transition important?

Back to top


People with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD) go to college, work, and live independently at much lower rates than people without disabilities. All students and their families need to plan ahead for life after high school, but it is even more important for students with I/DD who may need additional supports to transition successfully. Without a good transition plan, students with I/DD:

  • Who could earn a high school diploma may not.
  • Who want to go to college may not.
  • Who want to get a job might find it harder.
  • Who need to receive adult services may not get connected to those services.
  • May find themselves sitting at home with nothing to do and with little or no money to take care of themselves and do the things they want to do.

Students with I/DD are not always encouraged to plan for post-secondary education, competitive employment, and independent living. Instead, they are often placed on paths to sheltered workshops and segregated living arrangements. With so many options for post-secondary education, as well as community-based and employment supports for people with disabilities, students, families, and schools must ensure that expectations are set high for what individuals with I/DD can accomplish.

What should be included in the transition process?

Back to top


A good transition process starts before a student enters high school and includes:

  • Transition assessments
  • A meaningful transition plan
  • Help identifying appropriate high school classes
  • Connections to appropriate adult service agencies

Transition assessments should identify a student’s strengths, needs, and interests. There should be formal assessments, such as intellectual, academic, and adaptive tests, as well as informal assessments, such as questionnaires and observations. Transition plans should be based on information learned from the transition assessments. Therefore, the assessments need to be done before the transition plan is written.

Transition plans cannot be written based on what a teacher or the student’s parent thinks the student should do after high school. The transition plan must be based on the student’s interests. Therefore, the law requires that schools invite students to any IEP meeting where the transition plan will be discussed. If the student doesn’t want to participate, the school must find other ways to ensure the student’s preferences are reflected in the transition plan. When a student’s transition plan is created with little or no input from the student, the goals are less likely to reflect the student’s true interests and, therefore, less likely to lead to meaningful post-secondary outcomes for the student. The transition process gives students a chance to plan for their future, practice making decisions, and learn self-advocacy. Students, families, and schools must ensure students are involved in and benefit from transition planning.

Transition plans must include transition goals and transition services in three areas:

  1. Post-secondary education – what training, certification, or college instruction does the student need for the jobs he or she wants?
  2. Employment – what kinds of jobs would the student like to have after high school?
  3. Independent living skills – what skills does the student struggle with that are needed to be able to live on his or her own?

Sample post-secondary education goals might include:

  • Enrolling in college entrance exams and requesting accommodations
  • Researching and visiting colleges or training programs appropriate for the student’s skills and interests
  • Completing college and/or training program applications and applying for scholarships
  • Contacting college disability support offices and/or training program administrators and requesting accommodations related to the student’s disability

Sample employment goals might include:

  • Researching jobs in the student’s areas of interest
  • Visiting work sites
  • Interviewing and/or job-shadowing individuals employed in the student’s areas of interest
  • Seeking internships and volunteer opportunities
  • Seeking paid employment, including supported employment

Sample independent living goals might address:

  • Basic self-care
  • Money management
  • Cooking skills
  • Time management, organization, and study skills
  • Appropriate communication and understanding in social situations
  • Self-advocacy skills, including understanding your disability and how it affects you and learning how to ask for help
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Taking care of health, dental, and vision needs
  • Protecting your privacy
  • Staying safe in the community
  • Transportation, including driver’s education and/or using public transportation
  • Phasing out systems of support that aren’t available outside the education system

Transition services are the supports that the school will provide to help the student reach his or her transition goals. Transition services can include direct instruction, related services, and community-based experiences, including paid and unpaid work experiences. For example, if a student’s goal is to learn money management skills, the transition plan should identify which school staff will help the student learn those skills and how. If a student’s goal is to find a paid work experience, the transition plan should identify who at the school will help the student identify opportunities and provide any supports the student needs on the job site. Schools should report on the progress the student is making on reaching his or transition goals, as often as they report on the student’s progress on academic and other goals in the IEP.

The student’s IEP must identify whether he or she is working toward a high school diploma or some other exiting document. Most students should try to earn a high school diploma because it is required for many colleges, training programs, and jobs. States often require certain high school classes to earn a high school diploma, and states may have rules about whether segregated special education classes and programs qualify for high school credit. School staff must make sure that students with disabilities and their families understand how all of these pieces work together. In particular, the IEP team must ensure that students and families understand the impact of choosing not to seek a high school diploma. Based on the student’s transition goals, whether the student is working toward a diploma, and what supports are needed, the IEP team and other school staff must help students identify what high school classes to take. Since some classes are required before others can be taken, it’s a good idea to think first about what the student needs to accomplish by the time he or she leaves school and work backwards to ensure the student takes the classes he or she needs each year to meet the goals in the transition plan.

Finally, IEP teams need to be familiar with the agencies in their state that provide services to adults with disabilities. Schools need to understand the kinds of services each agency provides and the process for obtaining services. Then, schools can help connect students and their families to these services before the students leave high school to ensure as smooth of a transition as possible.

How can students and their families participate in the transition process?

Back to top


An important step is to ensure that students are participating in their IEP meetings well before high school, so that they will feel comfortable attending the IEP meetings when their transition plan is discussed. IEP meetings often take a long time and involve a lot of adults. They can be intimidating, especially when schools and families may have a disagreement. Students are not as likely to actively participate in their meetings if they are being included for the first time in high school, so invite students to their IEP meetings as early as possible. Let students set the tone of meetings by preparing them for their meetings and allowing them to lead the meeting as much as possible. Keep meetings friendly, even when there are disagreements. Use basic language that students can understand when talking about each part of the IEP and especially when discussing the transition plan.

Students and families should also make sure that the student actually chooses his or her own transition goals. The goals should not be based on what the school or family thinks would be best for the student, what the school provides to all students, or what would be easiest to provide. Students can be supported to create a draft transition plan before the meeting and then present it to the team. They can describe what their long-term goals are and what they need to do in the next year to work toward those goals.

Finally, students should be taught self-advocacy skills so that they are comfortable asking questions and know when to ask for help. When students become adults, family members will not always be in a position to know whether the students are receiving their services. It is important to empower students to understand their disability, understand the services they are supposed to receive and why, and know when to tell their family members that their needs are not being met. Schools and families can help students understand their personal strengths and areas of need, and they can help students understand their goals and why they have them. If students are empowered to advocate for themselves, they will. The transition process offers a unique period where parents can take a back seat to observe how their child makes decisions and advocates on his or her own, while still being involved and able to answer questions, provide support, and directly advocate for their child, if necessary.

What happens when students reach the “age of majority” in their state?

Back to top


In many states, students are considered adults when they turn 18. Students with disabilities have a right to services until they graduate from high school with a regular diploma or turn 21 years old. So what happens if a child turns 18 before he or she graduates or ages out of special education services? The student still has a right to special education services, but the rights that parents had, called procedural safeguards, when the student was a child, now transfer directly to the adult student. That means the adult student must be informed about and invited to every IEP meeting; the adult student must consent to evaluations the school wants to do; the adult student must consent to changes in the IEP; the adult student can give others permission to look at school records or come to IEP meetings; and the adult student can file a complaint if there is a disagreement about goals and services in the IEP.

As discussed above, students should be prepared for this change by being involved in their IEP meetings as much as possible, as early as possible. An elementary school student can at least introduce the people at the meeting and talk about what they like about school and what they are having a hard time doing. Older students can help write their IEP goals, give input on what services and placement work best for them, and be helped to lead their entire IEP meetings.

Some students may have disabilities that make it hard for them to understand the IEP process and their rights in that process. These students should be provided information in a way that they can understand, given an opportunity to seek help from others, and provided whatever supports they may need to make decisions on their own. Most adult students are able to make their own decisions with these informal supports. Other students may use more formal supports for educational decisions, such as providing a power of attorney to a parent or other supportive adult to make educational decisions for them. For more information about support for people with I/DD to make decisions, visit The Arc’s Center for Future Planning and view The Arc’s Position Statement on Self-Determination.

Sometimes schools tell parents that they should obtain guardianship of their child so that they can continue to make decisions for him or her. The appointment of a guardian is a serious matter. It limits a person’s autonomy, or ability to decide for him or herself how to live, and transfers that right to make decisions about one’s own life to another person. Many people with I/DD feel that guardianship is stigmatizing and inconsistent with their abilities to exercise adult roles and responsibilities. For more information, view The Arc’s Position Statement on Guardianship. Students and families who believe that someone else needs to make educational decisions for the student should speak with a local advocate to find out what the options are in their state.

Find help in your state >>

What is a summary of performance?

Back to top


The law requires schools to provide a summary of performance, or SOP, for students with disabilities when they complete school, either by graduation with a high school diploma or when they turn 21 and are no longer eligible for special education services. The SOP is basically the final progress report on the student’s IEP goals. It should include a summary of the student’s academic and functional skills. It should also include recommendations on the supports and services the student will need to accomplish the goals in his or her transition plan, including getting further education, getting a job, and living on his or her own. The SOP can be especially useful to students who are going on to postsecondary education or employment and who will need to advocate for themselves in obtaining accommodations.

Where can I get more information?

Back to top