Special Education

Preparing Students With Disabilities for Life Beyond School

Transition planning is a crucial part of ensuring that students feel confident in their capabilities prior to graduation.

January 31, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Family and school partnership is an important component of school success and student achievement. Engaging families of youth with disabilities is especially crucial. When students with disabilities enter middle and high school, schools and families need to begin to ensure that these young adults are prepared for life after graduation. As mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), transition planning is required for all youth with disabilities, not just the ones with severe disabilities. General education and special education teachers are part of their students’ individualized education program (IEP) team, so they are required to be involved and know how to prepare and support their youth with disabilities and their families throughout the process. 


Transition planning is a process. Since IDEA was revised in 2004, all states are mandated to begin transition planning for students with disabilities by the age of 16. Recent research shows that over half of the states and territories in America, such as Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, have chosen to lower the required transition planning age to at least 14 years old, since they believe that this process should begin as early as possible. 

During transition planning, schools are obligated to collaborate with students with disabilities and their families. As a team, they will determine what education, experiences, supports, and services students with disabilities need in order to be prepared and lead successful adult lives beyond high school. This information needs to be embedded in the students’ IEP and revisited each year. 


Student input in transition planning is required. This means that they need to attend their IEP meetings. Due to some students’ disabilities, their involvement may be limited. However, educators and families are expected to provide support so that students can be actively involved in planning for their future. For instance, they can assist students to identify their strengths and interests and determine if they wish to continue their education or pursue a career. This valuable information guides the IEP team when identifying appropriate support and services.

Because transition planning begins prior to students’ legal age of majority, their families should be involved in their children’s IEP team—collaborating with school professionals throughout middle and high school. Additionally, all materials provided to families should be available in their preferred language.

To ensure that families are aware of what transition planning involves and how they can be prepared, information about the process should be provided to them at least one year prior to the transition planning age. If the transition planning age in your state is 14 years old, that’s the time when students with disabilities enter high school, so information should be shared when the student is 13 years old. Due to a placement change, families need time and guidance to determine which high school is suitable for their child with disabilities, such as transitioning to a regular high school or a vocational high school.


Before postsecondary goals can be developed, schools are expected to conduct a variety of transition assessments that allow the team to gather information about the whole child in order to understand their strengths, interests, and needs related to “training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills.” Other areas of assessment, such as self-determination, assistive technology, and college readiness, can also be included.

Transition assessment is an ongoing process that allows the IEP team to monitor students’ progress toward postsecondary goals. Assessment tools used in this process can be formal (Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales) and informal (John Litpak’s Transition-to-Work Inventory). 


When all needed transition assessments are complete, schools should share the assessment results with students with disabilities and their families prior to the initial meeting. The IEP team will use the collected data not only to create postsecondary goals for the students with disabilities, but also to determine the needed support and services. 

For example, if the results show that a student with disabilities has robust academic skills (strength) and wants to continue their education (interest), the team may consider giving them opportunities to take one or two courses at a community college or a four-year college or university to gain experience learning in those environments (education and training). 

Additionally, if the results show that the student has limited proficiency in performing household tasks (needs), such as laundry and cooking a simple meal, the team would need to determine how to strengthen the student’s skills in this area at school and at home. The student may need to be enrolled in a life-skill class (education and training), or their teachers may need to integrate the student’s learning with real-life situations so that they can apply what they’ve learned (independent living skills).

Once transition planning begins, the IEP team is required to monitor students’ progress, conduct transition assessment, and revisit the postsecondary goals at least annually in order to determine if the students are making adequate progress toward the postsecondary goals. 

Students with disabilities and their families may find the journey of transition planning to be a nerve-wracking process because there are many uncertainties. Families may also be concerned about the limited support their youth with disabilities would receive after exiting high school. However, with good planning, students with disabilities can gain the necessary knowledge and develop skills while in school so that they are prepared to lead successful and meaningful adult lives beyond high school.

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  • Special Education
  • Administration & Leadership
  • Family Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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