Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Next Stop, Adulthood: A Framework for Effective Transition Planning for Students with Severe Disabilities

It is imperative for school professionals such as special education teachers, general education teachers, guidance counselors, and other school personnel to be knowledgeable of the secondary-transition planning process for students with severe disabilities to better meet the needs of their students and to assist in creating a plan. Throughout a free and appropriate public education, school personnel work relentlessly to help students with severe disabilities develop skills that will enable them to be as independent as possible. And yet, upon graduation, it is still possible for a student with a severe disability to graduate from high school and have no formal plan for his or her adult life. With no plan for the future, the skills that took minutes, hours, and years for an individual to master may quickly fade away. There may be no body of peers to socialize with, no yellow school bus waiting outside the house, and unfortunately there may be “nothing to do” at all. In order to sustain the continued efforts of school professionals, family members, and more than anyone, individuals with severe disabilities themselves, we must take the steps required to develop a realistic and effective plan for the future. The intention of this article is to familiarize practitioners with the transition planning process through a proposed framework to assist in creating effective transition plans for students with severe disabilities.

Young teacher having meeting with parent of schoolboy,

Who is Responsible for Transition Planning?

It is the shared responsibility of the school district to ensure transition planning is adequately being practiced. Stakeholders such as general education teachers, special education teachers, transition specialists, and employment specialists must be prepared to participate in an ongoing collaborative process and offer their expertise to drive best practice in transition planning for each individual student (Holthaus & Smith, 2002). According to IDEA (2004), the term “transition services” means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that: (1) Is 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, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation; (2) Is based on the individual child’s needs, taking into account the child’s strengths, preferences, and interests; and (3) Includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation [34 CFR 300.43 (a)] [20 U.S.C. 1401(34)]. Local education agencies have some flexibility in regard to carrying out the federal law and state interpretations. For example, the “buy out option” is a practice in which school districts can contract directly with private adult service agencies to provide transition related activities. This may include services such as job development and on-the-job support in the form of job coaching (Sailor, 2002). School districts can meet the federal and state mandates of IDEA by entering contracts with adult service agencies and forming partnerships with the existing school personnel team.

From School to the Adult Service System

For students with significant disabilities who will continue to need support after high school, the transition from high school into adulthood is stressful. For many years the school has acted as the coordinator of services, working collaboratively with parents/guardians of students with severe disabilities to individualize educational plans and provide related services to target areas of need. Once the student finishes out the school year in which he/she turns twenty-one years old, there is no longer an entitlement to services. Adult services are eligibility driven, and it is possible to be eligible for services and not receive them due to a lack of funds (Certo et al., 2008). After young adults leave high school, students with disabilities and their parents must become their own advocates for service and supports (Austin, 2000; Everson & Moon, 1987; Henninger & Taylor, 2014).

Transition Planning: Tips for Future Success

An ideal transition plan has no gaps in services between school and adult services. For students transitioning out of the school system, the day after graduation should look no different than the day before (Certo et al., 2008). The key in preventing gaps in services is being proactive and organized in transition planning. The following recommendations can be used to facilitate imperative conversations and discussions that are at the forefront of successful, organized, and attainable transition plans. With the support and collaboration of key personnel, an individual’s post-secondary plan should be one that allows for new growth, opportunity, and a rich quality of life.

1. Identify the Individual’s Strengths and Interests

In a recent study on transition planning for children with disabilities (Ankeny, Wilkins, & Spain, 2009), mothers who were interviewed shared their hope for their child to be independent, successful, and happy in their adult lives. Identifying the cognitive, communicative, social, behavioral, and physical strengths of the child in addition to considering his/her interests is essential to devising an effective plan for the future. A good reference point for identifying the child’s strengths is on the present levels of performance section of the child’s most current Individualized Education Program (IEP). Schools are required to assess every student with a disability with a transition assessment from when the child is fourteen years old and each year thereafter if the child continues to have an IEP (IDEA, 35 years). The results of these transition assessments can and should be taken into consideration to further identify and integrate the student’s strengths, preferences, and interests.

2. Consider Level of Support

The intensity of support that students with severe disabilities may need varies greatly from person to person. It is important for transition teams to identify the current frequency and intensity of support that a student needs in addition to considering the frequency and intensity of support the student will need after high school. In reflecting upon which post-secondary options are a good fit for the individual, it is imperative that serious consideration is given to the level of support and the type of support that is necessary for success. It is not uncommon for specific adult service options to have rigid staff ratios, such as one direct support staff worker for every five participants. Identifying the amount of support the individual may need is key to selecting viable post-secondary options.

3. Understand the Options

Each state in the United States is responsible for offering service options and funding for individuals with severe disabilities. Many states offer a range of options that simulate a continuum of services for individuals with disabilities while other states have very limited options available. Some of the adult service options that are typically available are day habilitation programs and self-directed services. It is important for practitioners to be mindful of the options that are available to individuals with disabilities in their state after they transition from the school system. Becoming knowledgeable about post-secondary options for students with severe disabilities will help professionals see the big picture and how their specialized work assists the individual in attaining his or her future goals.

4. Schedule

The easiest way to ensure that the last day of high school looks to be just as fulfilling as the day after graduation (Certo et al., 2008) is to plan out what a typical day or week may look like. This is particularly important for individuals who choose self-directed plans because of the nature of that plan. The schedule should be flexible but structured. It is important to think about the types of activities the individual will begin or continue to participate in rather than the specific times and days at this point in the transition planning phase.

5. Identify Next Steps and Assign Responsibilities

Schools typically help parents of students with disabilities gain access to adult services. Transition coordinators can maintain open communication with the adult service representative that is assigned to the individual’s family and keep the team informed of potential day habilitation programs that former graduates have had success at. Special education teachers can offer assistance by conveying job sites that the student has had success at, as the individual may want to continue to work at that business after high school. School personnel and family members alike must pitch in to help this great vision come to fruition.

Looking to the Future

We live in an exciting time where there is promising news in the field of secondary transition. Research has begun to show us that high school experiences effect transitional outcomes of individuals with severe disabilities. Test, Mazzotti, & Mustain (2009) found that taking vocational education classes, participating in paid job experiences, and receiving transition programming lead to better student post-school employment outcomes. As school professionals, we must continue to do all that we can to help students with severe disabilities develop the skills that will be essential to their post-secondary plans. With a strong transition planning framework and the collaboration of key personnel, students with severe disabilities should have a high-quality transition plan that will enable them to access services and learn from new and unprecedented opportunities.

Lauren Andersen is a high school special education teacher on Long Island. She obtained her BA in elementary and special education from Providence College and her MA in multiple and severe disabilities at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently working towards her doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University in the field of Intellectual Disability and Autism. For additional inquiries, she may be contacted via e-mail at


Ankeny, E. M., Wilkins, J., & Spain, J. (2009). Mothers’ Experiences of Transition Planning for Their Children With Disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(6), 28-36.

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Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Mustian, A. L., Fowler, C. H., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidence-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(3), 160-181. doi:

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