BLOG: Navigating Uncharted Waters – Transition Planning in Special Education

Hayley Degnan, ACNJ legal intern

Before going to law school or coming to Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) as a legal intern, I worked as a teacher at a residential school for students between the ages of 10 and 14 with severe autism and other developmental disabilities. Many of my students were nonverbal or had limited verbal abilities, had little to no self-preservation skills and engaged in problem behaviors ranging from self-injury and aggression to environmental destruction.

Shortly before I left this position to pursue my legal career, one of the parents came in to speak with the team about her experiences with the special education system. The mother explained to us that she feared for her son when he first entered special education because she didn’t know what to expect. Then, she was relieved to discover her son was in a program that helped him progress academically and make strides socially. However, now that same fear she once felt returned even more menacingly than before. It was time for her to plan for her son’s transition out of the special education system. For the first time, she was forced to confront what her son’s future looked like beyond the four walls of our school, and she couldn’t imagine what his role in the real world would be, given his limitations.

During my time at ACNJ, I have worked on many special education cases, and I have seen parents reflect this same sentiment regarding planning for their child’s transition to high school and beyond. As one mother explained, planning for the future seemed absolutely impossible when she and the school were still trying to work out their plan for her son’s day-to-day.

While transition planning may seem frightening or scary, parents should understand how the law governs transition so they are in the best position to set up their child for success in their post-secondary pursuits. Staying informed on how this process works can also make planning for this crucial phase feel less unsurmountable and overwhelming. Under the law, when a student reaches age 14 or is in the eighth grade, the school, the parents and the student (if appropriate) must plan for his or her transition into high school and beyond. At this time, students should be given the opportunity to participate in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, if it is appropriate for them to do so, and they may even run the transition portion of the meeting. Students should be encouraged to share their interests and future goals, and parents and schools should fully consider their points of view. Additionally, schools must conduct evaluations of students to help determine their interests, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. These evaluations may be helpful for cases where students cannot self-advocate and speak about their own interests.

When transition planning occurs, a student’s IEP must include elements of the transition plan so that all individuals involved in implementing the student’s education are aware of his or her goals and understand what the school will do to help achieve them.

The elements are:
1) a statement of the graduation requirements the student must meet;
2) a statement of the student’s strengths, interests and preferences based on what the student has self-identified and the results of evaluations;
3) a description of a course of study intended to help the student develop goals related to vocational training, education, or employment plans, and independent living; and
4) a description of the need for consultation from other agencies that provide individuals with services.

Once the student reaches age 16, this transition plan must be implemented. N.J.A.C. 6A:14-3.7(e) sets forth requirements schools must meet once the plan goes into effect. Schools must provide transition services, which are coordinated opportunities for students to help with their progression into the real world. Transition services can include instruction, community experiences and additional evaluations that promote students’ goals. All transition goals should be detailed and measurable, specifically demonstrating the skills that a student is intended to master. As part of the IEP, a student’s transition plan can be amended at any time if the parent makes a written request or the IEP team feels the amendment is warranted.

Understanding how transition works in special education, listening to students advocate on their own behalf, as well as using evaluations designed to assist with transition planning, and treating the transition plan as part of a student’s individualized plan can help a parent prepare for this turning point. Although the mother I previously mentioned felt it was impossible to plan for this next phase, parents are able to offer the school information on a student’s interests. The mother in this case was able to tell her advocates about in detail and speak with her son about his aspirations. She can use these strategies to help him through high school and prepare him for his future, whatever that may be. The interests students have today and their current learning are all tied in their transition and future success tomorrow.

For more information about transition and specific types of programs students may wish to pursue, parents can access A Basic Guide to Special Education at acnj.org.

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