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Mar 20, 2018

5 Ways to Support Youth with Disabilities in Transition Planning


By MCIE Staff: Kit Mead, B.A. (Communications Specialist); Betsy Tornquist, Ph.D. (Professional Learning Facilitator); Tom Robbins, M.A. (Professional Learning Facilitator)


All students go through transitions: from grade to grade, school to school, and from school to life in their communities. For youth with disabilities, families and schools work together to plan the students transition from school to work or continuing education. Many different people support youth with disabilities in the transition period to develop self-advocacy, independent living, and career skills.

Families play a critical role in achieving positive outcomes for youth with disabilities after high school. But it’s often difficult to know the steps to take, and how to support youth to pursue their interests. This post offers five methods to center your youth's voice as you help them develop the skills to achieve their goals.

1. Support and Amplify Your Youth's Voice

When they leave school, students will be expected to take the lead on advocating for themselves and what they need to succeed. These needs could include accommodations and modifications at work, college, or transition programs. It could also mean supports to develop skills and strategies for living on their own. It is important that your youth has effective communication tools to get any needed support, and if necessary, uphold their rights.

Students can practice self-advocacy skills when they actively participate in planning for their future, setting their own goals, problem-solving, and asking for the accommodations that are due them at school or in the workplace. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Encourage students to express their opinions and that they can ask for help when they need it.

  • Support your youth to communicate effectively in the best format (including alternative and augmentative communication).

  • Provide opportunities for your youth to set and achieve goals at home and in the community.

  • Equip your youth with more understanding of themself and their disability by:

    • Discussing their disability and exploring with the student how it impacts them

    • Providing your youth with materials created by others with their disability or similar disabilities, such as Roadmap to Transition: A Handbook for Autistic Youth Transitioning to Adulthood from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network

    • Providing opportunities for your youth to engage with the disability community and their peers.

  • Ensure that your youth is an active participant in IEP meetings. If necessary, make sure your youth can take part in a Person-Centered Planning Process.

2. Presume Competence

Students need to have confidence in their ability to meet life’s challenges. That confidence is strongly impacted by their family’s perceptions of the youth's abilities. Families and teachers should should have high expectations set for them, particularly if their communication or expression is different than their peers. 

Instead, presume your child is competent and will develop even more capacity for new skills and abilities. Presuming competence doesn’t mean ignoring impairments or difficulties. It does mean recognizing that your youth knows themselves. Work to instill confidence in your youth by showing them that you believe in them and are invested in helping them achieve their goals. Here are some specifics on ways you can help:

  • Believe your youth will be successful in school/work/community, and communicate these beliefs to your youth.

  • Have functional (and academic) skills as a part of your youth's IEP as necessary. These include reading, writing, finance, math, communication, and technology skills.

  • Provide your youth with responsibilities at home that will allow them to practice and improve their skills. Give opportunities to practice these skills in the community.

  • Convey your expectations to school staff working with your youth.

  • Request and understand transition assessments from the school that center the youth's strengths, goals, and ambitions for life after high school.

  • Familiarize yourself with supports after high school that your youth may qualify for so you and your youth can plan accordingly, such as those listed in the PACER guide Accessing Accommodations after High School.

3. Stay Involved

A key factor in a youth's success after high school is the continued involvement and support of family during middle and high school. You and others in the family can offer unique insights into your youth's strengths. These insights can bolster their confidence as they explore possible continuing education or employment opportunities. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Engage school staff to further understand your youth's strengths and interests.

  • Discuss life after high school with your youth during high school to increase preparedness.

  • Attend IEP meetings and parent conference opportunities.

  • Ensure that your child attends the IEP meetings and is supported to take an active role.

  • Encourage your child’s IEP team to provide them with leadership opportunities.

  • Ensure that communications between you, your youth, and the school are in a format that work best for you and your youth.

  • Learn about and be aware of the school’s supports. Try to maintain the same or similar supports at school and at home.

  • Provide - or work with your school to provide - your youth with exposure and access to different job experiences (tours of businesses, volunteer opportunities, asking about internships, etc.).

  • Emphasize the importance of work skills being in their IEP, including ones that build off their interests.

4. Provide Opportunities to Practice Independence 

It is important for students to practice skills they have learned prior to and during the transition period. They should be able to practice them while they still have school supports. These experiences, like volunteer and employment opportunities, are critical. With these expanded opportunities come prospects for success and morale-boosting. Students will also have the chance to utilize and enhance problem solving and communication skills. When high school students have job opportunities - with skills training and work related to their interests - they have improved post-school outcomes. These outcomes include continuing education and meaningful employment. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Create opportunities for your youth to solve problems at home and when they are out and about in the community. Allow them to explain how they approached the problem, and discuss their ideas for solutions.

  • Provide students with opportunities to work (employed or volunteer) in both individual and team-based environments

  • Provide opportunities for students to use independent living skills as well as academic skills in home environments. Examples are: measuring ingredients and cooking, household chores, making payments and budgeting, travel independence and use of public transportation.

  • Start providing practice opportunities earlier and allow more time for task completion than you think might be needed. Students may need more time to work through independent as well as assisted tasks.

  • Brainstorm workarounds or possible solutions to any barriers to the opportunities you are providing. For example,  If your youth has executive functioning issues, they might need the task broken down into smaller steps.

  • Have your youth take part in independent living training through Pre-ETS, school, and extracurricular activities

5. Help Youth Access Information and Support Networks/Tools

Greater independence is expected of your youth as they prepare to exit school. Students are often aware that they will need some level of support to do so. But they may be unsure of where and how to request it. #1 on this list is critical to allowing students to discover resources through engaging with the disability community. You can also work with your youth in other ways to find resources. You (and your youth!) can:

  • Meet with school staff to understand what school resources are available.

  • Take college campus tours to gain a greater understanding of new environments and the demands of those environments.

  • Use technology together to identify information (if necessary, your youth can learn new technology skills in the process).

  • Learn about the legal changes that happen as they become a legal adult and exit school

  • Take part in family/parent trainings (you), or self-advocacy trainings (your youth).

  • Coordinate meetings and regular contact with Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, state disability service delivery agencies, etc.

  • Follow up on outside agency participation at IEP meetings.

  • Identify community resources (social and advocacy groups, assistive transportation, etc.).

  • Connect with campus ADA Coordinator/Disability Services office if your youth is heading to continuing education.


Having a student in the transition-planning stage of their life is both a cause for celebration and apprehension for any parent. For students with disabilities, there are often more complex systems to navigate. These five methods broke down several ways you can help your youth succeed by amplifying and centering their voice and experiences. You can also check out the sources we used (below), and our FAQ page. We’re reachable at mcie@mcie.org, and there are also many parent advocacy organizations ready and able to guide you closely through these processes.



National Center on Inclusive Education (n.d.). What works: Transition planning. Retrieved from https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/64CB422A-ED08-43F0-F795CA9DE364B6BE/transition_planning.pdf

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (2012). The guideposts for success: A framework for families preparing youth for Adulthood (Issue Brief No. 36). Retrieved from http://www.ncwd-youth.info/sites/default/files/infobrief_36.pdf

Weber, S. (2015, July 14). Five steps for supporting college and career readiness [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://inservice.ascd.org/five-steps-for-supporting-college-and-career-readiness/

Boyington, B. (2014, November 5). Seven essential life skills for high schoolers to build before college. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2014/11/05/7-essential-life-skills-for-high-schoolers-to-build-before-college

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (2012). Helping youth build work skills for job success: Tips for parents and families (Issue Brief No. 34). Retrieved from http://www.ncwd-youth.info/sites/default/files/infobrief_issue34.pdf

Garskof, J. (2009). 6 life skills kids need for the future. Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/thinking-skills-learning-styles/6-life-skills-kids-need-future

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (n.d.). Guideposts for success. Retrieved from http://www.ncwd-youth.info/sites/default/files/Guideposts-for-Success-(English).pdf

Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Mustian, A. L., Fowler, C. H., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidenced-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 23(3), 160-181. Retrieved from http://sites.bu.edu/miccr/files/2015/03/Evidence-based-secondary-transition-predictors-for-improving-post-school-outcomes-for-students-with-disabilities.pdf

Petcu, S. D., Van Horn, M. L., & Shogren, K. A. (2017). Self-determination and the enrollment and completion of postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional individuals, 40(4), 225-234.

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6810 Deerpath Rd, Suite #300, Elkridge, MD 21075 / 410.859.5400 phone / 410.859.1509 fax / mcie@mcie.org

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