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  • Writer's pictureJeff N. Eckert

Transition Planning is an Overlooked Part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Updated: May 5, 2021

Picture of school building with one bicycle at the bike rack.
Once the school house doors close, other doors should open.

The purpose of the IDEA is to prepare students with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living.

When Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, it sought to improve postsecondary results for students with disabilities by requiring public schools and local school districts to provide better transition planning. This emphasis on life after K-12 school was both a recognition of the traditionally lower expectations for students with disabilities and the link between higher graduation rates and meaningful post-school education and employment. Congress further recognized that improving educational results for children with disabilities aligned with the public policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

Congress also made significant changes in the legal definition of "transition services", which now means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that -

  1. is designed to be 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 post-secondary 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, when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) confirms that both the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act make it clear that transition services require a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability within an outcome-oriented process. This process promotes movement from school to post-school activities, such as postsecondary education, and includes vocational training, and competitive integrated employment.

Man in wheelchair at desk with co-worker standing beside him.
Disabled workers need equitable access to jobs and pay.

The IEP team should help students with disabilities to focus on the transition to life after school based on their needs, strengths, preferences, and interests.

Unfortunately, statutory law does not always translate to practical application at the ground level. Under the IDEA, the school-based Individual Education Plan (IEP) team is the fulcrum that the student's transition planning and services pivot on. This means that parents and students are dependent on the IEP team to have thoughtful discussions, careful deliberations, and allow meaningful input and participation in the transition planning process. Too often, students are only given an inventory or survey to mark or check their preferences without a comprehensive probing of their true interests and preferences. Or their interests and preferences are dismissed as unrealistic or too ambitious. Parents and students can request a functional vocational evaluation be completed by the school or an outside provider. In fact, evaluations, whether public or private, are still a critical tool for informing the IEP team of a student's needs and abilities, just as they were during the initial identification and eligibility process to receive exceptional student education (ESE) services.

How many of us knew exactly what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives at age 18-21? How many of us were given the freedom to explore different jobs, education, or career tracks? Is the home you live in now the same as your first apartment after high school or college? So too, should students with disabilities be given the time and space to explore different opportunities and options. As a matter of law, the Supreme Court raised the bar in the Endrew F. v. Douglas Couny School District (2017) case for what is considered an appropriate IEP, when it held, "a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court further explained that an IEP must be "appropriately ambitious in light of the student’s circumstance," and "every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives," especially students with significant cognitive disabilities. In other words, the benefit to the student must be more than de minimis or trivial.

Taken together, Congress's intent, federal law, and case law make clear that students with disabilities' transition plans should be "ambitious" and "challenging," yet individualized to each students' unique circumstances. Parents should also understand that this means IEP teams should go beyond merely providing "opportunities" or "experiences" for post-school employment or education. Depending on the nature and severity of the student's disabilities, she or he will still need direct instruction, related services, supplementary supports and services, or assistive technology to acquire needed or relevant skills and achieve their objectives. For some, an appropriate transition plan may mean a focus on preparing for college or vocational training; for others an appropriate transition plan may mean a focus on independent living and real world, life skills. Or a hybrid of different goals and objectives may be needed to enable the transition to post-school life.

Some examples of extended transition programs (for students 18-22 years old) are:

  • Project SEARCH

  • Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID)

  • District Specific Community Based Instruction (CBI) and Community Based Vocational Education (CBVE)

  • District Specific Transition Programs

  • Dual-Enrollment Programs

  • Self-Determination and Self-Advocacy Training

  • Social Skills Training

  • School-Based Enterprises

  • Employability Skills Training

Group of people using sign language to communication and touch hands.
Sign language is a universal language for communication and connection.

The IEP team should connect families with services and resources in the community to promote independence and stability.

Historically, the emphasis for advocates, schools, and families has been on early intervention, identification, and evaluation for students with disabilities, and rightly so. However, this does not mean transition planning for older students should continue to be overlooked or neglected. In Florida, transition planning can begin as early as age 14, and no later than age 16. Like early childhood, the adolescent years are a crucial period for physical, emotional, and cognitive development. While some IEP teams mostly focus on graduation or the type of diploma a student will receive, the students with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) through age 21.

In Florida, this also means that students with disabilities who elect to continue in a public school through age 21 must defer receipt of a standard diploma during the year in which they are expected to meet all of the requirements for a standard diploma. The school district must send the notice in writing by January 30th, and a parent or the adult-age student must return the signed documentation by May 15th. Students with disabilities who earn a standard diploma and do not defer are not eligible for FAPE or any further services from the school district.

Families, parents, and guardians of a child with a disability have an often lifelong responsibility to advocate for the needs of their child. The IEP team should help rather than hinder these efforts. For some parents who have struggled to obtain or maintain the appropriate level of services through their child's schooling from a young age, it is not always easy to maintain a high level of advocacy in their child's high school years. It can be exhausting to have to gird oneself for another battle to get the IEP team to add or revise a critical service, goal, or placement for your child's IEP, even though you or your child's specialists know it could help them to obtain a meaningful educational benefit. Nevertheless, families and students with disabilities can and should be assured that the law is on their side in their efforts to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.



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