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How to Help Students with Disabilities Transition to Adult Life

Ways to make transition a positive, success-oriented experience.

Planning for Life After High School 

Perhaps one of the most challenging times in a young adult’s life is when he or she is ready to leave the routines of high school and transition to adult life. This can be even more daunting for students who receive special education services. They are leaving secure supports that are mandated by law and moving into a system where services are less certain.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990 ensures that all children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education that prepares them for transition to further education, employment, and adult living. Some key components of services under the act include:

  • Transition planning beginning at the age of either 14 or 16, depending on the state
  • A coordinated set of activities
  • A results-oriented process
  • Instruction, community experiences, planning for employment and other outcomes, daily living skills, and vocational evaluation.
Photo of people standing on a large map of the Boston subway system
Students learning about the Boston area subway system.

Once transition planning begins, the roles of special education teachers, students, and families shift. School transition services are provided by secondary special educators, transition specialists, guidance counselors, and others as identified by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. Families and students are also a critical part of the process. What can each participant do to ensure a good outcome?

What Schools and Teachers Can Do

  • Engage in person-centered planning, where a group of people focus on a student and help him or her plan for the future
  • Give students in inclusive high school environments access to the general education curriculum
  • Identify someone who specializes in transition services, such as a transition specialist
  • Support students in developing self-determination, leadership, and self-advocacy skills
  • Teach communication and social skills across a variety of settings
  • Encourage student involvement in current and future IEP, assessment, or transition meetings
  • Learn the available adult services, and educate students and families about those services
  • Teach students about the options for employment, continued education, and community and recreational activities
  • Develop a program of further study and activities

What Families Can Do

  • Attend transition planning meetings
  • Participate in transition assessments
  • Assist in focusing the planning on student and family needs
  • Provide information to the team, as relevant, on medical, social, financial, or guardianship issues
  • Support your young adult child in self-determination and self-advocacy

What Students Can Do

  • Record each experience in adult-related activities in school, at home, and in the community, such as internships and jobs, group and leadership roles, and sports and other recreational activities
  • Build a resume
  • Lead your IEP and transition planning teams
  • Understand the accommodations that are helpful for your disability
  • Prepare to talk about yourself, to share your passions and what you want and need
  • Set goals for exploration and learning

Together, schools, families, and students can work toward the best possible outcome for a successful future for students with disabilities.

Learn More about Transition Planning


The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Student-Driven Transition Model

National Technical Assistive Center on Transition

The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth)