Life is full of transitions, and one of the more remarkable ones occurs when we get ready to leave high school and go out in the world as young adults. When the student has a disability, it’s especially helpful to plan ahead for that transition. In fact, IDEA requires it.

IDEA’s Definition of Transition Services

Any discussion of transition services must begin with its definition in law. IDEA’s definition of transition services appears at §300.43. It’s rather long but see it in its entirety first, and then we’ll discuss it in parts.

§300.43 Transition services.

(a) Transition services means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that—

(1) Is designed to be within 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 postsecondary 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 includes—

(i) Instruction;

(ii) Related services;

(iii) Community experiences;

(iv) The development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives; and

(v) If appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation.

(b) Transition services for children with disabilities may be special education, if provided as specially designed instruction, or a related service, if required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.

Considering the Definition

A number of key words in the definition above capture important concepts about transition services:

  • Activities need to be coordinated with each other.
  • The process focuses on results.
  • Activities must address the child’s academic and functional achievement.
  • Activities are intended to smooth the young person’s movement into the post-school world.

You can also see that the definition mentions the domains of independent and adult living. The community…. employment…. adult services… daily living skills… vocational… postsecondary education. This clearly acknowledges that adulthood involves a wide range of skills areas and activities. It also makes clear that preparing a child with a disability to perform functionally across this spectrum of areas and activities may involve considerable planning, attention, and focused, coordinated services.

Note that word—coordinated. We italicised it above because it’s very important. Transition activities should not be haphazard or scattershot. Services are to be planned as in sync with one another in order to drive toward a result.

What result might that be? From a federal perspective, the result being sought can be found in the very first finding of Congress in IDEA, which refers to “our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” [20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(1)] Preparing children with disabilities to “lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible” is one of IDEA’s stated objectives. [20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(5)(A)(ii)]

Students at the Heart of Planning Their Transition

For the students themselves, transition activities are personally defined. This means that the postsecondary goals that are developed for a student must take into account his or her interests, preferences, needs, and strengths. To make sure of this, the school:

  • must invite the youth with a disability to attend IEP team meeting “if a purpose of the meeting will be the consideration of the postsecondary goals for the child and the transition services needed to assist the child in reaching those goals under §300.320(b),” and
  • “must take other steps to ensure that the child’s preferences and interests are considered” if the child is not able to attend [§300.321(b)].

As you keep reading below, keep the importance of student involvement in mind, because there are many excellent materials and guides available to help students become involved in their own transition planning…and many good reasons to do so.  The Center for Parent Information and Resources has an excellent resource page called Students Get Involved! that can help.

When Must Transition Services Be Included in the IEP?

What’s not apparent in IDEA’s definition of transition services but nonetheless critical to mention is the timing of transition-related planning and services: When must transition planning begin?

The answer lies in a different provision related to the content of the IEP. From §300.320(b):

(b) Transition services. Beginning not later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP Team, and updated annually, thereafter, the IEP must include—

(1) Appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills; and

(2) The transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals.

So, the IEP must include transition goals by the time the student is 16. That age frame, though, is not cast in concrete. Note that, in keeping with the individualized nature of the IEP, the IEP team has the authority to begin transition-related considerations earlier in a student’s life, if team members (which include the parent and the student with a disability) think it is appropriate, given the student’s needs and preferences.

A Closer Look at What to Include in the IEP

Breaking the provisions at §300.320(b) into their component parts is a useful way to see what needs to be included, transition-wise, in the student’s IEP. This is also where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, because what’s included in the IEP must:

  • state the student’s postsecondary goals (what he or she hopes to achieve after leaving high school);
  • be broken down into IEP goals that represent the steps along the way that the student needs to take while still in high school to get ready for achieving the postsecondary goals after high school; and
  • detail the transition services that the student will receive to support his or her achieving the IEP goals.

Writing goal statements can be a challenging business, because it’s not always obvious what needs to be included in a goal statement. Goal-writing is a topic worthy of an entire discussion on its own.  To connect with info and examples on writing transition goal statements, visit The Center for Parent Information and Resources’ Transition Goals in the IEP. They’re drawn from the work of NSTTAC, the National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center.

The Domains of Adulthood to Consider

The definition of transition services mentions specific domains of adulthood to be addressed during transition planning. To recap, these are:

  • postsecondary education,
  • vocational education,
  • integrated employment (including supported employment),
  • continuing and adult education,
  • adult services,
  • independent living, or
  • community participation.

These are the areas to be explored by the IEP team to determine what types of transition-related support and services a student with a disability needs. It’s easy to see how planning ahead in each of these areas, and developing goal statements and corresponding services for the student, can greatly assist that student in preparing for life after high school.

Types of Activities to Consider

Remember that IDEA’s definition of transition services states that these are a “coordinated set of activities” designed within a results-oriented process? Specific activities are also mentioned, which gives the IEP team insight into the range of activities to be considered in each of the domains above:

  • Instruction;
  • Related services;
  • Community experiences;
  • The development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives; and
  • If appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation. [§300.43(a)(2)]

Confused by all these lists? Putting them together, what we have is this: The IEP team must discuss and decide whether the student needs transition services and activities (e.g., instruction, related services, community experiences, etc.) to prepare for the different domains of adulthood (postsecondary education, vocational education, employment, adult services, independent living, etc.) That’s a lot of ground to cover!

But it’s essential ground, if the student’s transition to the adult world is to be facilitated. A spectrum of adult activities is evident here, from community to employment, from being able to take care of oneself (e.g., daily living skills) to considering other adult objectives and undertakings.

Resources for Parents

Wondering what path your child will take after high school?
This brochure was created to help families understand the basics of transition planning, including its purpose, who is involved, and the process as a whole.

Supporting the dynamic development of youth with disabilities during transition
The title says it all about this guide for families.

Parent transition survey
This survey was created by a local transition council to help parents and family members identify preferences and thoughts for their son/daughter for life after high school.

Be a full participant in developing your child’s IEP
Take a look at Developing Your Child’s IEP and learn how to effectively work with schools to meet the needs of your evolving child.

Parents’ guide to the transition of their adult child to college, career, and community
An online module from the HEATH Resource Center, now part of the National Youth Transitions Center.

Transition-age students and SSI: What parents should know
How does receiving Social Security affect families as their children move into adulthood? This brief shares families’ experiences and suggests ways that families can manage SSI and use it to help a young adult prepare for his or her career.

Employment 101
There’s a wealth of info about jobs and “getting employed” in this resource.

Youth and disability disclosure: The role of families and advocates

Resources for Students

A toolkit for youth, by youth
The PYLN is a team of youth leaders with disabilities from across Pennsylvania with a purpose to develop the self-determination, empowerment, and leadership of youth that promotes successful post school outcomes in the areas of education, employment, independent living, and health and wellness among youth. They would welcome you to their transition toolkit.

Stories of transition to the adult world
Meet four young people with very different strengths, gifts, interests, and concerns. They all share the desire to live full, productive adult lives where they can contribute to their communities. All of them also can point to key people who have been instrumental in helping shape their dreams into reality.

Caleb’s story
This 11-minute video highlights the work and home experiences of a young man with very involved health, cognitive, and physical disabilities.

HEATH is now the National Youth Transitions Center.
The HEATH Resource Center specializes in postsecondary education options for individuals with disabilities. Among other resources, you’ll find online learning modules focused on various aspects of life after high school.