Transition Planning –It Takes a Village

by Melva Radtke

tran·si·tion (n.): movement, passage, or change from one position or stage to another

Transition Planning Requirement

There are two major turning points in the lives of school-aged children with disabilities and their families.  The first one is when they enter the special education system.  The second is when they leave it.

Turning point number 2 is "Transition."  Under federal law, the IEP of every special education student going into secondary school must include a "Transition Plan" -- a description of the non-academic goals the student plans to achieve in the years after high school.Those goals must address training, education, employment and independent living skills. In Minnesota, the Transition portion of the IEP must be complete when the student is in grade 9 or age 14.

The goals and objectives described in a student's Transition Plan are similar to the goals and objectives in other parts of the IEP.   However, the goals in the Transition portion of the IEP aren't strictly academic and many of those goals can't be accomplished inside the school walls. To help fill the gap, local agencies work with schools as partners to offer the community-based services needed to help students achieve their Transition Plan goals, often by providing community experiences and helping students develop job goals and pursue independent living objectives.Training = A program leading to a high school completion document or certificate (Adult Basic Education; General Education Development [GED]); Short term employment training (Workforce Investment Act, Job Corps); Vocational Technical School (less than a two year program)

Student and Parent Rights in Transition Planning

In crafting the IEP, the IEP team must follow certain procedures to ensure that students and parents have the opportunity to participate in the planning process. The laws are written to help ensure that Transition Plans are laser-focused on each student's unique needs and talents. These laws include the following protections and rights:

  • The student must be invited to participate in IEP meetings to discuss transition goals.
  • Parents may ask for several IEP/Transition Planning meetings any time during the school year.
  • Parents may invite representatives of local agencies to IEP meetings to discuss transition goals and the community services needed to support those goals.
  • Parents may dispute a school decision to place their child in a program simply because it's available. The transition plan should be based on a model of person-centered planning which reflects the student's interests and abilities.
  • Parents may ask for placements which help their student develop the skills in a setting that is of personal interest to him/ her and where his/her unique abilities can be successfully utilized and improved with job coaching.
  • Parents can ask for progress reports about their child's community based work experience.

School Accountability - Indicator 13

Federal law requires state education departments to develop six-year State Performance Plans around 20 indicators and to report on those indicators with Annual Performance Reports. The 13th Indicator is the reporting item for transition services for students.

Reports submitted by states for Indicator 13 must include data about the percent of youth with IEPs aged 16 and above who have IEPs that include annually updated and appropriate measurable postsecondary goals which are based age appropriate transition assessments and listings of transition services. The annual reports must also indicate that students are invited to IEP Team meetings where transition services are to be discussed.

Beyond the Legal Niceties

Beyond the legal framework for transition planning, there are important planning and policy issues to consider. These issues have a major impact on the quality of transition planning for students.

The Planning Process: Importance of Student-Centered Planning

Education = Community or Technical Colleges (two year programs); College/University (four year programs); Continuing Education

By law, the Transition planning team must include a large group of people:

  • the student
  • the student's parents
  • special education and general education teachers
  • someone from the school who knows the school's capacity and instructional approaches
  • other services agencies, as well as other individuals who the parents may invite 

In the midst of this cast of players, the planning process works best when the student has the central role with supporting roles played by the adults in the room.

For both the school and parents, putting the student at the center of transition planning may involve advance preparation. It can be an important opportunity for families to talk in depth about the student's goals for the future and how to start achieving those goals.Teachers can talk individually with team members before the meeting or can even help the student craft a written invitation to each team member.

It is often easy for adults to take over the planning, making the young person a passive observer instead of a leader in the process. The entire team must make conscious efforts to provide the student with ways to express his or her own dreams for the future, agree or disagree with other members of the team, and be actively involved in the team's ongoing efforts. Students with all types of disabilities—regardless of the severity of the disabilities—should be included in the transition planning process.

Young adults also have a number of responsibilities when it comes to participating in and leading their transition planning meetings. They need to think about what they really want for the future, identify what kind of help and support they might need to achieve their goals and come to meetings prepared to share this information with their team.

Transition Program Challenges and Policy Issues

Fragmented Communication Among Agencies

More globally, creating and implementing effective transition plans for students also relies on the presence of functional communication links between schools, parents and providers in the community. This is an area in need of serious homework throughout the state and the country. Communication between agencies is often fragmented, not as a matter of intent, but because of a "silo problem" that runs throughout government administration -- different agencies serving different missions and offering different programs with no consensus and little or no sharing of information about how to consistently assess student needs.

Issues of Access for Parents and Students

A study done by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) in August of 2012[1] concludes that students with disabilities face several longstanding challenges gaining access to the services that may help them as they transition from high school into postsecondary education or the workforce—services such as tutoring, vocational training, and assistive technology.

The GAO report concludes that students with disabilities are often not adequately prepared for successful transition to life after high school, in part because schools generally offer limited opportunities to participate in vocational or life skills training or to get on-the-job experience. Another challenge in transition programming is the lack of sufficient information or awareness of the full range of service options available after high school on the part of students with disabilities, their parents, and service providers.

Another obstacle for students with disabilities and their parents is the lack of coordination among multiple federal agencies. To receive tutoring, vocational training or life skills support services after leaving high school, students must apply as adults and establish eligibility for programs which are managed by multiple federal agencies. In the states contacted by the GAO, students and parents faced major hurdles trying to navigate different programs and providers find it challenging to coordinate services across different programs.

Some Good News - Model Programs in the U.S.

Programs in a few states are developing innovative programs to help create an improved trajectory for students transitioning to the world of work and continuing education.

Tennessee– College Campus Transition Program[2]

In Tennessee, the Memphis City Schools and the University of Memphis Institute of Disability jointly piloted the College Campus Transition Program (CCTP). The program brings high school seniors with moderate disabilities to the UM campus, where they rotate through a series of internships in various university departments.

The first half of the year-long program is held at the University of Memphis campus, where special education teachers from the Memphis public schools teach students about job preparation, take them through career and academic assessments and help them build electronic portfolios of the results. Seniors also work on learning and practicing fundamental life skills such as making eye contact and shaking hands.

In the second half of the year, students practice those skills in on-campus internships. Program managers work to match the work they do to their interests and learning styles.

New Jersey- Transition to Adulthood[3]

A program in the Montclair, New Jersey Public Schools works with 18- to 22-year-old students who have significant learning disabilities who have not received a high school diploma.

Since 2008, two special education teachers and a half-dozen teaching assistants in Montclair have been building an intensive model for the dozen or so young adults—most with intellectual disabilities or autism—who are part ofthe district's Transition to Adulthood program. The program teaches life and work skills, provides daily one-on-one coaching, and dispatches students to the local community for internships and the business of everyday living, from shopping to taking public transportation to working out at the gym. Students also meet individually with the teaching assistants, who coach them on transitional skills such as budgeting, Internet safety and time management.

The Transition to Adulthood program has also worked with Montclair State College to arrange internships in six departments on the college's campus, recruiting volunteer mentors from Montclair State's student ranks, and clearing the way for Transition to Adulthood students to visit classes and clubs on campus.


Transition planning -- planning ahead to life after graduation –is a critical stage in the education process for all students with disabilities. It is a time when the student moves to the center and plays an increasingly responsible role in the shaping of his or her future. It also is the start of a transition for the school, when the school moves from chief service provider in a student's education to a collaborator-among-many working to help the student take on their new roles in the community.

The laws which govern transition programs offer broad regulatory requirements about what schools must include in transition plans. However, those laws offer no real world guidance to schools or to parents about how to design, coordinate, implement, access or use transition programs. There are significant challenges in this arena, given the complexity of student needs and the lack of consistent communication among providers.

A few programs in the country offer positive models for how effective transition programs might look. Those models feature strong links between secondary schools and post-secondary schools within their communities.

There is much to learn and much to do to improve the effectiveness of transition programs. What we do know is this: transition services provided by resourceful and thoughtful educators and community providers can be designed to help students reach their goals and give them options for productive, happy lives. It's their hope for the future. Not to mention the hope of the community.

[1]Students with Disabilities: Better Federal Coordination Could Lessen Challenges in the Transition from High School, GAO-12-594, Jul 12, 2012

[2] Postgraduation for Special Needs Students: Programs for students with learning disabilities help them move forward into the workforce and/or college, Ron Schachter
District Administration, September 2012

[3] Ibid.


Melva Radtke lives in Lakeland and is the mom of a 22-year-old young man with Asperger's Syndrome with her own story about transition. Her unique and sometimes-quirky son was misdiagnosed with ADHD throughout grade school and had an IEP for a lisp because no one could figure out what else to do. By the time a correct diagnosis came when he reached junior high (thanks to a cover article in Time magazine), everyone was scrambling to understand what Asperger's meant in the present. Focusing on a plan for the future didn't make the triage list.

Melva is an attorney who specializes in parent-focused special education law. She also is producer of a company called 9th Planet, which produces social skills learning videos and course materials for teens and young adults on the Autism Spectrum. Melva is a former member and chair of the Stillwater School Board who worked for 15 years as a policy researcher in the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives.

Melva is on the board of Autism Works, a nonprofit organization which provides job placement services for adults on the autism spectrum, using an individualized method of job placement called "Discovery." She is also a pro bono attorney for the Children's Law Center which represents children in foster care.

Melva is steeped in the work of ConnectWC (formerly Stepping Up Moving Forward), an organization of individuals who are committed to creating and improving opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Washington County.  They have several community projects, including one to improve communications between special education parents and school districts, with a current focus on the Stillwater School District. Anyone who wants to join these efforts or learn more about them may contact ConnectWC.

If you have questions for Melva which are related to this article or other school issues, you may reach her at