Someday, and that day will come faster than you think, your disabled child will be a disabled adult. And while our learning disabled adults will possess many gifts, history and statistics tell us that they will struggle to find meaningful employment and live independently. Your IEP transition plan is supposed to help with that.

IEP Transition Planning is probably the most important time in a student’s IEP life. Yet it is the section of the IEP that I see inadequate and downright botched most of the time.

A boy participating in an IEP transition workshop with a woman.

I see very few meaningful IEP transition plans written. And meaningless transition IEP transition plans means mediocre IEP transition services and supports.

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Please remember this: You need a decent transition plan on your IEP in order to get decent transition services.

Read: Transition IEP Goals Bank

If your collegebound IEP student’s transition plan on their IEP reads, “Will research 3 colleges appropriate for skill level and application” what kind of IEP transition services do you think will be put in place to support that? I’ll tell you–laptop time, or Chromebook time. That’s it.

IEP Transition Services

If you take away nothing else from this article on IEP transition, take away this: YOU (parents), yes YOU need to engage and take ownership of your child’s IEP transition. DO NOT rely on the school to do this.

So what do I mean by food, filth and flowers?

IEP Transition Plan

Most schools have options and programs already in place for IEP transition students. And, those IEP transition services usually fall into 3 categories:

  • Food and Food Service, diners, fast food restaurants, coffee shops, etc.
  • Filth–cleaning services, laundry services, routine maintenance
  • Flowers–fluff jobs like flower arranging

I am NOT knocking any of this. But what if it is not what your child wants to do? Our kids have the right to choose their career and vocation just like anyone else.

I once had a client, and her entire transition section of her IEP had one sentence. “She likes to braid hair.”

I swear, I am not making this up! That’s what it said. What the heck is that? That is downright lazy and uncaring. Especially when there is actually so much you can do with it. Training programs, cosmetology, working in a salon—the opportunities are endless! Thank goodness I became involved when she was 15, so not all was lost.

A hairstylist is blow-drying a client's hair using a round brush as part of their IEP Transition Plan.

Transition Plans

The main issue I see with transition planning is this. The school informs the parent(s) of what transition programs they have set up. Again, most of it will be in food, filth, or flowers.

The parent thinks that they have to choose one of the offered IEP transition programs for their child.


Like every other part of the IEP, it’s based upon the student’s and parents’ priorities and areas of need. IEP Transition Evaluations should be done. That may be a functional skills assessment, a vocational assessment and much more.

Together, the family and the team should come up with what adult life will look like for the child and create a plan that helps get them there. For some families, that may include a variation of adult guardianship, which may be just supported decision making up to full guardianship of your disabled child.

Two individuals collaborating on an IEP Transition Plan at a computer in a well-lit room.
A Mother And Teenage Daughter Looking At Laptop Together

IEP Transition Planning

IEP transition goals are a little bit different from what you’re used to with IEP goals. That’s because the school has little control over whether or not that goal is achieved.

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They help steer the child toward the goal, but they cannot do it all.

For example:

  1. After graduation, STUDENT will enroll in XYZ college to pursue XYZ degree.
  2. After graduation, STUDENT will maintain part time employment in XYZ field and live at home with parents.
  3. After graduation, STUDENT, with the help of his parents, will pursue a supported living arrangement in XYZ town with XYZ agency.
  4. After graduation, STUDENT will pursue a job at XYZ and will get to/from that job using public transportation.

Using IEP transition goal 4 above, the team would assess what is needed to get that job (training, a job coach, interpersonal skills, a job application, and interview skills) and what is needed to access public transportation.

That might be connecting the parent with the transportation agency, travel training, personal safety inventory, learning to read a bus schedule and more.

The IEP transition services and supports are put in place to steer the child toward the ultimate goal.

However, as you notice, the school cannot ultimately be responsible if these goals are achieved. That ‘feels’ different to many families but this is how IDEA transition planning works.

This post is not only an older post that was reworked, but it was also written by a friend who works in the field.

independent living

When does IEP Transition Start?

Time and time again, the main concept I hear is: Do it yourself. Do not wait. Many parents are unaware of available services, thinking that five to seven years is a long time away.

But it’s not! Planning is not a one-time event and deserves time and attention to assure the smoothest possible transition for your student when leaving the school system. While this list is not comprehensive, perhaps these ideas will help you

You have to build your own and help your child build their own social capital.

Network. No one is going to create opportunities for your child, and the ones that already exist are very limited. It is going to be on you, moms and dads, to do this. Think outside the box. An overworked phrase, I know. But if you don’t take initiative, your child is likely to be the one sitting in your basement playing video games.

IEP Transition Plan Requirements

IDEA 2004 outlines how transition in secondary education for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) is to work, and how transition plans are to be written as parts of your adolescent’s IEP.

Below I have the link to the actual portion of IDEA that talks about transition. If you read through it, you will see that it is actually much more thorough than what happens in many IEP meetings.

The specific requirements for transition from high school to adult life are listed here.

transition services in IDEA

IEP Transition

Your child should have IEP transition goals listed once they are official transition age (14 or 16 in most states). What those goals look like will depend on your child’s specific needs. Some kids with IEPs will go on to college, some to vocational skills, some to live and work in the community.

Once again, I cannot stress enough how important it is to do the Vision Statement activity with your child. The Vision Statement is the destination, and the IEP is the road map. How can you make a road map if you don’t know where you’re going?

Tips for a Successful IEP Transition

Although the requirements listed above are set out within IDEA by the federal government, this does not mean that all schools follow and complete them. Or they may follow them, but not completely or utilizing best practices. Suggestions for how to work with your student’s IEP/Transition team include the following:

  1. Start early. It can be hard to picture a 12-year-old who has a disability preparing for adulthood. But research shows that the earlier transition goals are focused on the better. The earlier the IEP/transition team takes on the perspective of “will this help this student be more successful as an adult”, the more successful a student may be in the long-run. My experience working with many students with a range of intellectual disabilities supports this idea. If questioned by the members of the meeting, remind them that IDEA states that transition planning must be started by the year the student is turning 16, but it can be started before that age.
  2. Self-determination and person-centered planning are vital concepts as your adolescent becomes an adult. This includes being self-determined with parents and families. This can be hard for families, as it can be easy to assume what a young adult with disabilities and a range of issues and needs wants for their lives. Both professionals and family members alike often do not ASK the youth and young adults what they want as adults. And, even when asked, often it is just assumed that their “dream” is unattainable, rather than trying to find a way to embrace their dream in some way. My experience has been that even if the young adult’s dream is communicated via their behavior and facial expressions, we should do all we can as professionals and family members to embrace their dreams, and help them come true. We may have to help them understand that they may always live at home, but we can help explore their dream of more independence from their family, for example, by working with Medicaid and Insurance to find a way to provide an outside caregiver. They may not be able to play on an NBA basketball team, but we could work with them to help them go to an NBA basketball team game or help them explore working in a sports arena. A student may only be successful at auditing a college class, but we can help them find those classes to take and help them to take the courses. Young adults may try to take the drivers’ test but still aren’t able to pass. We could help them learn to drive something else like a golf cart. We can always believe that the impossible can be possible. I’ve seen determined young adults achieve their goals such as taking the drivers’ test over and over again. And after years of trying, pass it and get their license. I’ve seen young adults with significant disabilities design bags, wreaths, and art that can be sold as parts of their own micro-enterprises. Partial participation, assistive technology, and exploring all options can make so much more possible!
  3. Much of the early years should be spent exploring. It is very easy to stereotype or assume about a young person with a disability by focusing on what they can’t do, instead of what they can do. The IEP team should focus on strengths and needs. And as your adolescent’s advocate, you may have to emphasize that the team focus on both instead of focusing only on one.
  4. Keep an open mind and learn about what is possible for young adults with disabilities. In this day and age, very much is possible that was an option even a decade ago. Young people with significant disabilities are ever-increasingly finding supports and assistance with their own dreams. These may include anything from owning their own micro-enterprise to attending college, to working in a job with a job coach, to living in a supported but very home-like environment. It’s very easy to see one’s 12 or 13-year-old, and assume they will always need to live at home, or in a segregated setting. But in this day and age, this does not have to be so. Making connections as early as possible, and learning about the options available in your area, can help families make the best decisions with their adolescent. Focus on the student’s dreams, strengths, and needs. Person-centered planning should be the focus of those young adults with even the most significant disabilities. You can request that the IEP team incorporate person-centered planning within your student’s transition planning.
  5. Guide the IEP team to know what agencies you want to be included in the process. Often education teams mean well but do not have time to research and engage with more than a few agencies. Learn about your rights with agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation, Developmental Disabilities Services, Medicaid, Social Security, community support services, Independent Living Centers, etc. You might be told “Only XYZ is available” but that is not always the case. Find out for yourself–do not rely upon others’ interpretation of services.
  6. Understand that adult services are eligibility based. Once your adolescent is out of public education, adult services in all states are eligibility based. This is very different than the entitlement type services that are typically received in public schools.
  7. Revisit your adolescent’s transition goals more than once a year. Especially if transition planning is started younger than 16. Adolescents change very much in just months, so your adolescent may be very interested in one type of future plan for a while, and then they may gain experience in that area, and change their mind. Or, a goal could be achieved and then should be changed. The transition plan (just like the IEP) is not set in stone and should be updated and changed to meet the student’s individual needs. A vision statement may help you guide your transition plan.
  8. Transition plans can include all areas of transition. It is important to focus on academics that can assist your adolescent to be a successful adult, but also functional goals such as life goals, adaptive skills (cooking, budgeting, getting up to an alarm, self-care skills, etc.), social skills, communication skills, job skills, independent living skills, and so forth. Goals in these areas should be included and worked on at school for your adolescent and individualized for your adolescent’s needs. Also, consider how academics are parts of functional skills, so practicing skills together is important.
  9. Personal experience is best for students to determine their strengths and interest areas. Certainly, in earlier grades, your adolescent should be exploring what kind of jobs they may like, where they may like to live, and basic skills to help them with adulthood. But as they get to 16, skills should move from the classroom to life. This may mean working to arrange a schedule where the adolescent can benefit from as much inclusion as possible in school, as well as included in the community. It really should be individualized for your adolescent. Explore all options. Could your youth explore an internship with a para-educator acting as a job coach in a near-by business? Could your youth gain traveling experience by learning how to use the community bus services? Yes, for some youth an “in school” type job may be worthwhile if the youth is interested in working in a cafeteria or with the football team, but avoid allowing your teen to be stereotyped into a certain skill or job! And make sure that the school is not using your student to do jobs that are stigmatizing. Your adolescent may have very significant physical and intellectual disabilities, so assistive technology should be utilized as much as possible. My greatest suggestion is to keep one’s mind open and explore as many options as possible. I know youth and young adults with very significant disabilities who have person-centered transition plans and personal experiences that have helped their whole team make decisions with them which have led to their successful and happy transition to adulthood without being pigeonholed into segregated settings, or settings where they were limited rather than growing and happy.
  10. Finally, “Their last day of school, should look like the first day of the rest of their life!” I once attended a training in the district I worked. I cannot take credit for this quote, and I am not sure who said it—but will share it here. The ultimate idea behind this quote is that if a young adult attends a school beyond 18 or 19, and continues to 21, that “their last day of school, should look like the first day of the rest of their life!” Thus, a yellow school bus should not be the bus picking them up. The day after their last day of school, a yellow school bus won’t be picking them up. So, that day there better be more than a transition plan on paper, but a transition plan that has truly helped to create “the rest of their life.” So that last day of “school” is truly the first day of the rest of their life.
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Make sure you do the IEP Vision Statement workbook. Good luck with your transition planning!

References: President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002). A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and their Families.

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