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Rachael Wurtman
BY Rachael Wurtman

U.S. Department of Education Publishes New Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities

Transition planning is a mandatory aspect of special education service delivery, according to federal special education law (IDEA 20 U.S.C. 1400). Federal law requires that school special education teams engage in transition planning for each student’s transition to adulthood — that is, from high school to college or employment.

The law states specific requirements for transition planning. These requirements include timing, assessment, goals, and services. In January 2017, the United States Department of Education published “A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities,” which explains IDEA’s requirement for transition planning and its relationship to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Transition Guide also highlights the department’s values and its recommendations for inter-agency collaboration and for implementation of the laws. The laws and the Transition Guide are complicated and lengthy; in writing this blog entry, the author intends to provide a brief overview of the subject. She invites readers who would like additional informational to read the Transition Guide or to contact her at [email protected]. You can also visit her website at

Age Requirements for Transition Planning

Parents who have children ages 15 or older are advised to pay attention. The first requirement is that transition planning must occur no later than a specific age; however, special education transition teams have the discretion to engage in transition planning at an earlier date.

Federal law states that a team is required to initiate planning for transition to adulthood when developing the IEP that will be valid on a student’s 16th birthday. Some states require districts to participate in transition planning when they develop IEPs that will be in effect when students turn 14. Districts should update students’ transition plans on a yearly basis.

Assessments for Transition Planning

The next requirement for transition planning is assessment. Assessment guides the transition planning process. The law states that transition assessments should be “related to training, education, employment and, where appropriate, independent living skills.” Of the multiple means by which to collect data, there are two main categories:

Formal assessments are standardized test, such as achievement tests, the Meyers-Briggs, career inventories, and intelligence tests.

Informal assessments come in many types, including curriculum-based tests, parent observation, interviews, and impressions reported by a sports coach or clergy.

School special education teams are required to develop “measurable” IEP goals and services based on the assessment results.

Prior to the team meeting for the IEP that will be in effect during the year in which the student will turn 16, the school team and the student’s parents (key members of the team) should assess the student. The data collected should provide a complete picture of the student’s skills and areas of challenge.

The team should have started to investigate the student’s individual goals with respect to post-secondary education, employment, and independent living. The student should plan to attend that meeting and also subsequent annual transition meetings in order to discuss personal goals. The team should document those goals in a section of the IEP called the “vision statement.”

Developing Measurable Goals

The student’s goals, in conjunction with data about aptitude, should guide the team when they formulate measurable goals. Many parents identify self-determination and self-advocacy as essential transition goals for their students. “Self-determination” refers to the ability to make choices; “self-advocacy” is effectively communicating those desires.

Other goals include obtaining skills necessary to navigate post–high school academic or vocational environments and to live independently. Those skills may be in the academic, social, physical, communication, self-regulation, travel, or other domains. After discussing assessment results and goals, special education teams are required to develop plans for the delivery of transition services.

End of Eligibility for Special Education

Eligibility for transition planning and all other special education services ends when a student completes the school district’s requirements for graduation and accepts a diploma or when a student reaches age 22. Parents and students may not realize that eligibility for public education will end regardless of whether or not the student is ready to transition from high school.

The Transition Guide provides suggested — not mandatory — guidance for school districts and families. It describes the policies of the Department of Education and provides the following recommendations:

School districts should start the transition process early, and the process should be data-driven.
There should be coordination between school districts and agencies: state vocational rehabilitation, colleges, social services, and career centers.
School districts should encourage students to attend college and to work. The Transition Guide suggests many variations on both options, including early college–high school programs and career mentorships.

Students who plan to attend college are encouraged to prepare while in high school by seeking challenging courses, investigating careers, and look for colleges that provide support for special needs. The Transition Guide describes the process of requesting accommodations for special needs. The authors advise school districts and parents to assist students in making their own decisions and to encourage social-emotional growth. One strategy suggested is role-playing.

Transition planning is very complex, because it encompasses the academic, social-emotional, communicative, and other domains of functioning. The “Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities” from January 2017 is a valuable resource in clarifying this subject.

Rachael Wurtman

Written on February 7, 2017 by:

Rachael Wurtman J.D., M.S, is a Special Education Attorney. She graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University and the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania, and she has a master’s degree in child development from Wheelock College. Prior to starting her Special Needs Consulting practice, she worked as an attorney and as an early intervention developmental specialist. She is also an experienced family mediator. To learn more or to request a consultation, see her website at