IEP Transition Planning: Preparing for Young Adulthood

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

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

  • Under federal law, transition planning must start by the time your child turns 16.

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

For teens with learning and thinking differences, thinking about life after high school can be daunting. If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), however, the school is required to help her plan for the future.

Read about IEP transition planning and how it can help prepare your child for young adulthood. If your child doesn’t have an IEP, learn how vocational rehab can help prepare your child for life after high school.

What Is IEP Transition Planning?

Transition planning is a formal process for helping kids with IEPs figure out what they want to do after high school and how to get there. It’s required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IEP transition planning is more than just a hopeful exercise or brainstorming session. During planning, your child will work on specific goals. She’ll also receive services to help her achieve these goals.

Under IDEA, a student’s IEP must include transition services by the time she turns 16. However, planning often starts earlier. Many IEP teams begin working with students as early as middle school to help them explore their interests and possible careers.

The purpose of transition planning is to help your child prepare to be an independent young adult. She’ll be encouraged to attend IEP meetings and to play a leading role.

In fact, the law requires the IEP team to invite your child to meetings where transition planning is discussed. If she can’t attend, the team must make sure her interests and desires are considered. And at least a year before she turns the age of majority—18 in most states—the team must start preparing for the transfer of IEP rights to her.

Some transition services can only be provided by outside organizations—not the school. So during transition planning, the circle of people involved in your child’s IEP meetings may expand to include people from the community. These may include counselors, employment agency staff and job specialists.

The IEP Transition Plan

At the heart of the transition process is the transition plan. This is a required part of a student’s IEP. To develop this plan, the IEP team will work with your child to identify her strengths and interests. These, in turn, will guide planning.

The transition plan has two parts: postsecondary goals and transition services.

Postsecondary goals

These goals state what your child 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 have to be able to know if the goals have been accomplished.

Goals may be more general for kids in middle school and starting high school. They become more specific as kids 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.

What does an IEP transition plan look like? Download a sample plan and goals.

A goal should’t just reflect a hope or desire. And it must specifically refer to after high school. For instance, the following transition goal isn’t appropriate because, even though it reflects a desire, it could apply to high school: I really want to work with cars.

One way to make sure your child has appropriate transition goals is to see if they are “SMART.” This stands for specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-bound. (For more help with writing transition goals, visit the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education.)

Keep in mind that your child’s transition goals may change several times as her interests develop. Transition goals are reviewed and updated every year, along with the rest of the IEP. When she graduates or leaves high school, she’ll get what’s called a summary of performance. This document lists her academic and functional skills, and offers recommendations for achieving her postsecondary goals.

Transition services

Once transition goals are set, the IEP team will decide what services your child needs to meet her goals. The range of possible services is very broad. It can include:

  • 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 your child’s transition goals. Again, services may change over time to reflect her developing interests. In addition to services, the IEP team may list accommodations, too.

Most communities have a variety of resources to help students with the transition process. Examples are local youth employment programs and summer jobs for youth programs. Local vocational centers also offer training in many occupations.

The team may also use IEP goals to support the transition plan. For instance, if your child wants to attend auto mechanic school, she may first need to learn specific math skills. As a result, 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 are provided at home or in the community. Or they may require activities outside of school.

Transition goals related to independent living may involve having your child take on responsibilities. Here are some examples of what your child may learn to do in preparation for adulthood:

  • Open a bank account and learn to manage money.

  • Shop for groceries and plan and prepare meals.

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

  • Use public transportation.

  • Schedule her own appointments with the doctor and dentist and choose health insurance.

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

Similarly, your child may explore college, career and job options in the broader community. Here are some activities she may do:

  • Research and visit local colleges and training schools she’s interested in attending.

  • Meet with other students who have gone on to college or career. If they also have learning and thinking differences, talking with them may be extra helpful.

  • Go to work with you, taking a tour or shadowing you or another role model.

  • Network with friends and relatives about their careers. This can also include touring the workplace and going to informational interviews.

  • Look into local internships and apprenticeships.

Transition planning is the key to making school relevant to your child’s future life as an adult. Together, the IEP team and your child will set postsecondary goals, choose activities, and connect with the necessary resources and services.

For more information, watch as an expert shares tips for working on your child’s transition plan.

Read more about how to help your high-schooler think about careers, and explore the many different paths kids can take. Learn about vocational education in high school. And watch Being You, a documentary that follows young people with learning and thinking differences as they explore their future paths.

Key Takeaways

  • Under IDEA, transition planning is required for students with IEPs.

  • IEP transition goals must be results-oriented and measurable.

  • Students assume leadership roles on their IEP teams as part of transition planning.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Analisa L. Smith, EdD 

serves on the national board of directors of LDA. She is an education consultant and a distance education professor.

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