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What is IEP transition planning?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • Transition planning helps students with IEPs prepare for life after high school.

  • IEP transition planning must start by the time a student turns 16.

  • Planning is about more than just college — it covers jobs and daily life skills too.

Transition planning is a process to help students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) decide what they want to do after high school. It also helps them figure out how to get there. The purpose is to help teens prepare to be independent young adults.

IEP transition planning is more than just a hopeful exercise or brainstorming session. During planning, teens work on specific goals. They get services and do activities to help achieve these goals.

At the heart of the transition process is the transition plan. This is a required part of a student’s IEP by the time they turn 16. To develop it, the IEP team works with a student to identify strengths and interests. These, in turn, guide planning.

The IEP transition plan has two important pieces: postsecondary goals and transition services (plus activities). See examples of IEP transition plans for career- and college-bound students:

Example IEP Transition Plan: Career

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Example IEP Transition Plan: College

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Students are encouraged to take a leading role in IEP transition. In fact, the IEP team must invite a student to meetings where transition planning is discussed. If the student can’t attend, the team must make sure the student’s interests and desires are considered. 

Watch an expert give an overview of a successful transition plan.

Dive deeper

Postsecondary goals

The goals in the IEP transition plan state what a student wants to do or achieve after high school. Goals can be in four areas:

  1. Vocational training (e.g., learning a trade )

  2. Postsecondary education  (e.g., college or other schooling)

  3. Jobs and employment

  4. Independent living , if needed

Just like annual IEP goals, transition goals must be written with a result in mind. They must also be measurable. In other words, you must be able to know if the goals have been accomplished. Transition goals must focus on what happens after high school. 

Keep in mind that transition goals may change several times as a student’s interests develop. It’s not unusual for teens to explore different careers and paths. Transition goals are reviewed and updated every year, along with the rest of the IEP.

Goals may be more general for kids in middle school and when they’re starting high school. They get more specific as students enter later grades.

For example, a transition goal for an eighth grader might be: After high school, I will work full time in a career working with cars. An example of a goal for a 10th grader might be: After graduating from high school, I will enroll at ABC College (an automotive technician school) and take classes to prepare me for a career as a mechanic.

Good transition goals can be a challenge to write. Learn what an effective goal looks like

Transition services

Once transition goals are set, the IEP team will decide what services a student needs to meet goals. The range of possible services is broad:

  • Instruction (including special education)

  • Related services

  • Community experiences, like volunteer work

  • Career and college counseling

  • Help with daily living skills, if needed

These services must be reviewed and updated each year to support a student’s transition goals. Just like goals, services may change over time to reflect a student’s interests. The IEP team might list accommodations, too.

The team can also use IEP goals to support the transition plan. For example, a student who wants to attend auto mechanic school may first need to learn specific math skills. So the team may need to set IEP goals and provide school services related to math.

Some transition services can take place at school. But often, transition services occur at home or in the community, like at local youth employment programs and vocational rehab centers. During transition planning, the IEP team may invite people from the community, like counselors and job specialists, to help.

Learn about how to help teens and young adults with the job hunting process .

Activities that support IEP transition planning

Along with goals and services, nearly all IEP transition plans have activities for the student to do. The idea is to prepare teens for adulthood.

Transition goals related to independent living may involve having teens take on more responsibility. For example, teens might:

  • Open a bank account and learn to manage money.

  • Shop for groceries and plan and prepare meals.

  • Be responsible for maintaining a car and buying auto insurance.

  • Use public transportation.

  • Schedule their own appointments with a health care provider and choose health insurance.

  • Set up and use a calendar for school, work, personal appointments, and leisure time.

Similarly, a student may explore college, career, and job options. Here are examples of student activities:

  • Research and visit local colleges and training schools they’re interested in attending.

  • Meet with other students who have gone on to college or career.

  • Tour a workplace or shadow a mentor or role model at work. 

  • Network with friends and relatives about their careers.

  • Go on informational interviews.

  • Explore local internships and apprenticeships.

Learn about how to find an apprenticeship .

How IEP transition planning ends

As a student gets older, the IEP team gets ready for the change to adulthood. At least a year before a teen turns the age of majority — 18 in most states — the team must start preparing for the transfer of IEP rights.

When students graduate from or leave high school, they also get what’s called a summary of performance. This document lists academic and functional skills. It also offers recommendations for achieving postsecondary goals. 

Once the IEP ends, so does transition planning. But if transition planning is done well, the young person should be prepared to take the next steps in adulthood. 

Parents and caregivers: Read about parental rights when your child with an IEP turns 18 .

Tips for students

If you’re a student with an IEP, you can look forward to the school inviting you to be part of transition planning. It can help you plan for your future.

One thing you can do is start to think about what you’d like to do after high school. Get ideas:

It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. Or if you feel anxious about the future. These feelings are common. You can ask the IEP team to include services or activities to help you find your strengths and interests. This might mean trying out different things.

Find out how other young people with learning differences found their career paths .

Tips for families and educators

As you help a student plan for IEP transition, you’ll run into two big questions.

First, when is a good time to start? Although services must start by age 16, planning often starts earlier. Some IEP teams begin working with students as early as middle school to help them explore their interests and possible careers. It often depends on the child’s needs and maturity.

Second, what role should the student have in IEP transition meetings? In general, students should attend and take a leading role. After all, they’re the ones preparing for adult life. At the same time, not every child has the skills or maturity to play a leading role in IEP meetings.

Read more about the pros and cons of kids attending IEP meetings .

For more help with IEP transition planning, visit the  National Technical Assistance Center on Transition. The center is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

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