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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

The Special EDge

Summer 2015 Volume 28, Number 3

Topic: Student Involvement and Transition

Article List


Planning for Transition to Adult Life: The Time is Now!

by Mary D. Mazzoni, EdD, Educational Consultant for the Individualized Education Program

Whatever a child’s age, skills, needs, or dreams, one thing is always true: the time for transition planning is now. This may surprise you—especially if you’re the parent or teacher of a young child. Isn’t transition something we do when kids turn 16?

It’s true that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes explicit transition provisions for secondary school students. But let’s remember that the purpose of IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” (20 U.S. Code § 1400 [d] [1] [A], emphasis mine).

Under IDEA, every school-age child has the right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which serves as the roadmap for securing this education and delivering these services. But we can’t develop an effective IEP for a child of any age, or even begin to meet the purpose of IDEA, unless we continually ask ourselves how we are preparing this child for the future—and what that future might be.

It takes years for children to learn the skills they need to realize their future goals. Their IEPs must prioritize the skills most important for their future. As Ben Franklin famously said, “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” Our children’s future depends on transition planning starting today.

The End in Mind

To “begin with the end in mind” is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it is the key to what we mean by successful transition planning. From the earliest possible age, a child’s family and teachers will want to assist him or her to articulate a vision for the future. This vision should drive the team’s shared work. At first, this vision will be very general: “having a job, and living in a place of my own,” for example. For all children, specific career goals will change often and range widely. They may want to grow up to deliver pizza, or be an astronomer, or a carpenter, or a professional basketball star. With adult support, a child’s vision will evolve and become more specific and grounded in reality as the child gains skills, experience, knowledge, and awareness of his or her specific strengths and needs. This vision for the future takes a clear and achievable shape over time through intentional experiences and conversations with the important adults in the child’s life—parents, family members, friends, and teachers. It is never too early to have these conversations. The challenge is to understand what underlies the child’s dreams—and to assist the child in making a connection, over time, between these dreams and viable career options that match his or her skills.

At age 5, a girl announced that she wanted to be a nurse. When asked why, she said she wanted to “help people.” Throughout her elementary years, she read books, watched movies, and sought out experiences related to many different “helping” careers. Her teachers explained how all the academic and functional skills she learned in school related to her future goal as a woman employed in these kinds of careers.

When she was 14, she volunteered as a candy striper and learned that she didn’t like the tasks and smells in hospitals. But through job shadowing and volunteering, she discovered that what she truly wanted to do was work with children. By researching careers,1 she learned about the requirements of specific jobs that matched her interests and her skills. She decided that she wanted to become an assistant in a childcare center. Her IEP team helped her develop a plan to prepare for that job.

This vision took years to shape, and it was begun with the end in mind.

Mind the Gap

Travelers on London’s underground rail are continually reminded to “mind the gap” as they step between the platform and the train. We need that reminder, too, because there is a major gap between the legal protections, instruction, and supports guaranteed under IDEA and the realities of life after high school.2 When we understand this gap and prepare children to navigate it, our children will travel more smoothly and successfully toward their goals.

Students with disabilities face a number of changes once they leave high school. “From IDEA to ADA”3 provides detailed information on how to prepare and plan for many of those changes that take place on entering adult life. For example, after graduation, youth are no longer entitled to a free, appropriate public education. Long before graduation, the IEP team will want to identify the services for which a student may be eligible. Applying for these services early can be critical, since waiting lists are sometimes long.4

There are no IEPs after high school. In college or other postsecondary learning environments, modifications to curriculum, assignments, and tests are not required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with disabilities may be eligible for “reasonable accommodations” if they disclose and document their disability. This process varies from one postsecondary institution to another. Youth must find out for themselves the particular accommodations available and the required disclosure and documentation process required by the postsecondary schools of interest to them. (See article, page 13.)

The “reasonable accommodations” offered in the workplace and in postsecondary programs are often very different from those a student knew under IDEA. Too often, youth become dependent upon such supports as verbal prompts, intensive reinforcement, and physical assistance, which simply may not be available to them after high school. Long before graduation, parents and teachers will want to help students become increasingly less dependent5 on these types of supports and help them learn to use skills, technology, and “reasonable accommodations” to increase their level of independence.


Students with strong self-determination skills are generally equipped to navigate challenges. (See article, page 16.) A person with strong self-determination skills6

Studies by Michael Wehmeyer7 and others consistently show that youth with these kinds of skills are significantly more likely to reach their personal goals for employment, postsecondary education, and independent living. This is true for all young people, whether they have a disability or not. It takes many years for a child to learn these skills. Young children begin when they say “No” for the first time. As parents and teachers, we encourage self-help, decision-making, and independence through small things as well as large, even allowing a child to suffer the consequences of choosing not to do something relatively important. All of these decisions—and learning that there are consequences to what they decide—lead to strong identity formation and, over time, the ability to make bigger, more important life decisions and to intentionally determine the direction of their own lives.

We ensure this learning by providing guided practice at home and in school, beginning in early childhood and gradually lessening our support as the child gains independence. Youth with complex needs may always require some support, but their quality of life will be greatly enhanced if they are given real and developmentally appropriate opportunities to exercise self-determination as they grow up.

One important way for students to practice self-determination is to be actively involved in their own IEP process (see article, page 8) from their very first IEP. In some states,8 this is general practice. Yes, it does take some time to support a student’s meaningful involvement in the IEP process. But there are excellent tools to help you, and this involvement is a key strategy for students to learn essential skills for success in both school and adult life. Through involvement in the IEP process, children learn to understand and articulate their own skills and preferences, their progress, and their need for support. They also learn to connect their personal vision for the future to the skills they will be learning in school. As one eight-year-old boy put it: “I should be part of this; it is all about me, right?”

Essential Skills

IDEA requires that we assess and teach both functional and academic skills. From a child’s first IEP onward, we need to prioritize those skills that are essential to the child’s post-high-school goals. The “I” in IEP emphasizes the importance of an individualized plan that is based on the child’s skills, preferences, needs, and goals for the future.

Functional Skills

Functional skills are those everyday abilities we need to acquire in order to live in the world: clean, feed, and clothe ourselves; cook and keep house; stay healthy; get and keep a job; shop; navigate the streets in our communities
. . . there are so many skills to learn! Prioritizing them and determining the sequence of instruction may feel overwhelming.

Daily routines at home and school are valuable opportunities for practicing functional skills, decreasing dependence on verbal prompts, and increasing independence generally. For example, we can teach our child to organize his binder, to complete chores, to use a checklist to pack a lunch, or to evaluate her work before turning
it in.

Academic Skills

Among academic skills, reading (decoding, fluency, and comprehension) is the highest priority. The stronger a student’s reading and communication skills, the more options become available (see article, page 3). For all academic skills, a student’s postsecondary goals should guide us as we engage in strategic “gap analysis.” For example, if a middle school student plans to attend the local career and technology high school, we assess her math skills in relation to the skills she needs for success in that program. If another student plans to attend a community college, we use the community college placement test in the same way.  If a high school student is struggling with making change after years of instruction, we teach the “next dollar up” method. A child’s time in school is limited and precious. In order not to waste it, we want to always keep the end in mind and work together strategically—child with parents and teacher—to move toward the future, one step at a time.

Transition Planning: Strategic Planning for Life

Transition planning must be strategic. Over many years, we help our children set ever-more-specific and informed goals for the future, and we teach the skills needed to reach those goals. We teach our children to speak, plan, and act for themselves. With our children we set goals, monitor progress, and adjust the goals and the plans as needed. This is exactly the strategic process every adult uses to adapt to life’s changes and move forward. Truly, all of life is a transition.

It takes years for our children to learn the skills they need for success in life. The sooner families and schools begin to consider the future, the more time we will have to prepare our children for “real life” after high school. The time to get started is now!  

Notes and Resources



Letter from the State Director

By Fred Balcom, Director, California Department of Education, Special Education Division

Transition: “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” This is California—a state of transition. We are transitioning from a solely compliance-based focus to one that now also considers results in making determinations of effectiveness. We are addressing issues raised by the Statewide Special Education Task Force, whose recommendations demonstrate that the whole educational system must transition to a new way of doing business in order to improve the results of students with disabilities. We are responding to demands of the Superintendent’s Blueprint 2.0 to again consider education as a single enterprise, with the necessary supports and services provided to all students as needed. And we are changing leadership.

We must begin with the end in mind. From the state to the local district to the teachers and ultimately to each student, transition—knowing where we will be when we change from one condition to another—is critical. Transition must be done thoughtfully. And it takes some effort. For me, the end is a high-quality state Special Education Division that supports school districts to meet the needs of students and to ensure for them positive school—and, more importantly, post-school—results. I believe that, in this transition, we have come very close to achieving that end.

The Special Education Division is continuing to create and refine one coordinated system that helps students develop the skills and acquire the knowledge they need to live as productive, creative, and independent adults who can participate in the larger community and be responsible citizens.

To create this system, one designed to ensure student success and maintain high expectations for all students, we must continue to insist that “all” does mean “all.” We must be vigilant in ensuring access for students with disabilities to opportunities for further education and employment after they leave high school. In fact, personal, educational, and employment success and civic involvement in adult life represent the ultimate goals of public education.

After high school, the American with Disabilities Act takes over from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While the protections of ADA are invaluable, they are protections for adults, assuming and requiring certain adult capacities and competences. It is the responsibility of public education to ensure that students are prepared for this adult world.

The topics addressed in this issue contribute in different and important ways to a student’s access to and potential success in the core curriculum as well as to a student’s preparation for adult life. Students need to be encouraged to become aware of their own goals—and to change those goals as they grow. Students need to be empowered to have their own voice; to know their own abilities and disabilities; to be able to articulate what they want, need, and are able to do. They need to have experiences from kindergarten through high school that allow them to practice—to succeed and to fail and acquire—appropriate levels of independence. And they need to know about and be prepared to navigate the world they will face as adults. As importantly, they will need to know where to go for support and how to ask for what they might need in order to meet the inevitable challenges of life.

Ensuring successful transition is a moral, economic, and civic imperative. This is difficult work. This is our challenge. And those of us transitioning know there is nothing more important.

—Fred Balcom



Successful Transition to Adult Life: Communication Is Key

The ability to communicate is arguably the most important skill a student can learn; it is certainly central to a successful transition from high school to employment, continuous learning, independent living, and adulthood. Not surprisingly, communication is featured first in the National Center and State Collaborative’s list of the most important functional skills in the 21st century.1

While we all struggle in some way to learn how to express ourselves well and for different purposes, children who are blind or visually impaired, children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and children with significant cognitive disabilities all face communication challenges beyond what most of us can begin to imagine.

Communication as a Right

“Everyone communicates,” says Amy Haggardy, assistant professor of special education at CalState Northridge. “If we’re alert or asleep, pinching someone or screaming—intentionally or unintentionally we’re communicating. What we all need to learn, however, is to communicate competently. Our goal [as educators] is to help students become better communicators. For students with disabilities, access to typical peers and typical settings is so important in developing this competence, because students need models of behavior and of communication if they are going to develop the level of competence they need in order to succeed.”

Haggardy points to the Communication Bill of  Rights, written in 1992 by the National Joint Committee for the Communicative Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities. This document remains a radical—and profoundly important—set of guidelines for students as they prepare for adult life and for their teachers and parents as they seek to provide the most effective education, guidance, and support to students. These rights include “the right to request desired objects, actions, events, and people; the right to express personal preferences and feelings; the right to reject offered choices; the right to be in environments that promote one’s communication as a full partner with other people, including peers.”2

As fundamental and important as these rights are, securing them for every student remains a daunting challenge—in part because there exists no clear formula. Communication needs vary widely from student to student, both individually and across disabilities. Children who experience significant cognitive challenges need vastly different learning and technological supports than those needed by children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Needs and requirements differ even within a single disability category. A child who is blind from birth requires a different set of supports and educational options than those needed by a child who lost his sight at age three, for example. Complicating the process, as children grow and change, the goals and challenges of communication change as well.

Where to Begin?

Elena Gomez’s parents were living in Cuba after the revolution of the 1950s. They were planning a move to Spain when her mother contracted Rubella—and then discovered she was pregnant. Gomez was subsequently born with significant hearing loss.

Now a deputy director at the California Department of Rehabilitation, Gomez learned from her experiences growing up in Southern California, and from her work as a professional, the importance of the following for parents and teachers of students who face communication challenges:

Intervene Early

The ability to communicate and use language competently and effectively is acquired, and that acquisition begins even before a child is born. Nancy Sager, consultant at the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, writes, “If we want to improve adult outcomes for individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH), then we must focus on improving services to DHH infants and toddlers and their families.” She applies this principle to any child with a disability. “We know from research that when children [with disabilities], including those who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, are identified and enrolled in appropriate Early Start services by six months of age, they can develop language and communication skills at the same rate as their peers, and commensurate with their cognitive abilities.” Adding perhaps the most compelling argument for “starting early,” Sager continues, “Children who are identified after six months of age tend to have language delays that impact their language development, and their academic, vocational, and social success later in life.”3

Inform and Involve Families

The more families know about their child’s disability and the more involved they are in the child’s schooling, the better the child’s post-school outcomes. However, for parents of children who have communication delays or challenges, this knowledge and involvement takes its own unique path. Anne Linville, director of transition at the California School for the Blind, counsels parents to first “accept their child’s disability. They even need to accept what they can’t imagine. There are things that students can achieve that [parents] can’t even begin to contemplate.” Fears, she says, can easily cloud an awareness of the possibilities. “It’s not easy to face our fears for our kids, but parents need to do it as much as possible.”

Gomez also advises parents to “be open.” She has seen some families insist that their child learn one “language modality” and be equally insistent that the child not learn another. From her experience, “what’s most important is that the child acquires language and the ability to communicate—in the manner that best suits
the child. In any modality.”4 The more tools that are introduced to children, the more choices they have. And no one would argue in favor of limiting the choices of children with disabilities.

Few parents enter family life prepared to provide, find, and secure the best services and supports for a child with a communication delay or challenge. One of the most helpful supports for them and for their children can come from meeting parents who have raised children with the same disability. Through these encounters, parents learn some of the things they can expect their children to accomplish and can begin to imagine promising and fulfilling futures for them.5 Research shows that most parents are much more confident and optimistic about
the future for their child when they connect with other parents who have had similar experiences.6

Model What Is Possible

When a child is born with or develops a disability, Linville says that the “parent’s dreams for the child have to change. That’s why it’s so important for both parents and students to see models of successful adults who have the same disability as their child.”

Gomez advises, “Don’t make exceptions” just because a child has a disability. “Patterns of dependence get habitual, and you want children to be able to encounter barriers and challenges on their own. This develops problem-solving and self-determination skills.” She encourages parents and teachers to require of children with disabilities the kinds of things they would require of any child. All children can and must learn to handle responsibilities and challenges in order to feel capable; responding to struggle is an important part of growing and learning.

Linville points to one of the teachers at the School for the Blind who is completely blind and who graduated from San Francisco State. “She teaches our daily living skills,” says Linville. “When one of her students says ‘I can’t do this because I’m blind,’ she responds with ‘And your point is?’ She believes—and shows her students how—they can take care of themselves, go to college, live independent lives—in short do everything they would be able to do if they weren’t blind. Parents don’t always know the full potential of their children. Having adult models helps them begin to imagine that potential.”

Consider Options

Linville and Gomez both talk about the importance of parents and teachers also being open to the continuum of services available to students—and to providing those that best serve the child. Some students may learn to communicate best in general education classrooms alongside their general education peers; others may need a special school in order to reach their IEP goals.7 And others may need something else entirely.

Self-confidence and self-esteem often depend upon school climate. When growing up, Gomez attended a junior high school that had no climate of support for students who were deaf or hard of hearing, and her stellar academic performance plummeted until her mother moved her to a school that was simply more accepting of students with hearing loss. Available adult and peer support and acceptance must be considered alongside educational opportunities.8

The Future

The ability to communicate effectively is central to nearly every part of life. Nurturing and fostering this skill fundamentally benefits all students as they grow and become adults.  

Notes and Resources



Transition Teaming

From the moment a child is identified as having a disability, parents and teachers have the legal right to assemble a team of people who are qualified to provide the special services the child needs in order to benefit from schooling. Who these people are typically varies with each child—they could be speech and language therapists, physical and occupational therapists, or medical specialists—and their involvement depends on the child’s disability. But whoever becomes part of a child’s IEP or transition team, each needs to collaborate closely with classroom teachers and parents to contribute specialized knowledge and skill and to support the child in preparing for adult life and reaching his or her goals for the future.

The following series of general questions can help to guide decisions about who becomes a regular part of this collaborative effort:

The first two questions may change over time—which make them the most important questions to continually ask!



Successful Transition to Adult Life: Student-Involved IEPs

The young man sitting at a table introduces himself and welcomes the assembled gathering—teachers, principal, school psychologist, specialists, and his mother—“to my IEP meeting.”

That young man in the video is Ethan Grecian, an almost-18-year-old high school student with autism who is leading his own Individualized Education Program meeting. He talks about his strengths and then asks if anyone has anything to add to his list. He talks openly about his disability and what makes learning difficult for him. He fields questions. He talks about the future: his vocational goals and dreams.

Ethan is just one of a fast-growing number of students with disabilities who are being encouraged to lead all or part of their IEP meetings, often long before their appearance at the meeting is legally required. Research shows that when students with disabilities become active participants, rather than passive recipients, in the IEP process, they acquire the self-awareness, self-determination, and self-advocacy skills they will need to transition successfully to the postsecondary adult world.1

But for this active participation to be possible, educators say, the students must own their disability and understand how it will affect their future: what limitations they may have and what accommodations they will need. And it demands the support of the whole IEP team.

Starting Early

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students attend IEP meetings dealing with their postsecondary transition beginning no later than age 16. But Gina Grecian, program manager at the Rowell Family Empowerment center in Redding, began taking Ethan to his IEP meetings when he was in third grade. “With little verbal language he didn’t stay long,” she recalls, “but since we were talking about him, it was important for him to be there.” With speech therapy as part of his educational program, by the time he was ready to transition to high school, “he started to blossom,” she says.

Others urge parents to start even earlier. Barbara Schulman, who teaches the adult transition program in Mission Viejo, has always taught students with moderate to severe disabilities. Yet she says, “There’s no reason a five-year-old couldn’t sit in an IEP meeting and introduce ‘Mommy.’ He doesn’t have to stay for the whole meeting, but that would start the involvement. Involve the students a little at a time. By third or fourth grade they can talk about what they like or that they are having a tough time in math.”

And Joyce Childs, a resource specialist at F.C. Joyce, a K–8 school in the Twin Rivers Unified School District, says that by second grade her students “can present what they do well. By fourth grade, I have them introduce the people at the table that their parents don’t know. They talk about their goals; and if they have the cognitive ability, they share their progress. In seventh and eighth grade, I’ll turn to the student first and ask, ‘How are you doing in English, Zack?’ They have to own up. And then I’ll ask the teacher, “Does your opinion match up with Zack’s?’” 

Owning Their Disability

“When students understand the nature of their disability and recognize their limitations, they are able to say what they want and need at meetings,” says Ed Amundson, a special day class teacher at McClatchy High School in Sacramento.

All students at McClatchy have to present a senior project. He tells the story of a student with a learning disability and a strong personality. “She had problems accepting her disability, but once we worked through that, she saw her potential. She saw that her strengths and weaknesses led to limitations but not to barriers.” The student presented her senior project on cosmetology at her IEP meeting. “In her IEP, she was actively preparing for her future,” Amundson says.  

“It’s extremely important for [students] to realize they are in special education,” adds Childs. “The sooner they understand their disability and learn to advocate for themselves, the better able they will be to handle transitions.”

Participating and Leading

Not every student with a disability will be able to lead an IEP meeting. The level of participation may be determined by the nature and severity of the disability.  “Students with visual or hearing impairment or cerebral palsy who are academically up to speed and have reasonable expectations of college are much more likely to participate in—and possibly lead—their IEPs,” says Amundson. A nonverbal student may bring his screen to the meeting in order to communicate his interests and needs and to demonstrate how he uses it in class. Others may read sections of the meeting that have been scripted in advance. The important thing, educators say, is to allow the student to participate to his or her level of comfort and ability.

In his transition IEP meeting, Ethan Grecian was able to articulate his strengths—he likes to operate copy machines and work in an office. The resource teacher and other members of the team heard what he was saying and matched his skills to an off-campus vocational training position.

The level of participation also depends on how well the students and parents are prepared in advance, says Amundson. Research shows that when teachers provide students with focused coaching before the meetings—for example, helping them understanding their disability and limitations as well as practicing what they will say— their students are able to lead most of the IEP meeting. But parents must be on board, too.

Including Parents

Gina Grecian says it’s important to talk to parents before bringing a student to the IEP meeting and to explain that you are teaching students the self-advocacy skills that will help them succeed later in life.

 “We try to have a child attend the IEP by the time they are in junior high,” says Amundson’s colleague Tami Fein, program specialist in the Sacramento City Unified School District. “But some parents don’t want that. If we don’t have their buy-in, [student participation] is harder to implement. And if the parents dominate the meeting, the student is less likely to speak.”

But if the parents understand the disability and are realistic about limitations, then the students are freer to speak. “And if you allow a student to say something,” adds Schulman, “you will learn what they want.”

It’s not just parents who have to be prepared to let a student take the lead. “There should be a section on student-led IEPs in college classes for teachers,” says Schulman. “School psychologists and principals need training, too.”

Benefiting All

When students are active players in their own IEP meetings, they have a greater role in their education and in planning their transitions. They learn about their disability, their strengths and weaknesses, their needs for supports, and how to be self-advocates. They can overcome the fear of talking about themselves, and they can do all of this in a controlled, safe environment.

This involvement also gives teachers a better understanding of their students. Not surprisingly, when students speak, teachers become better informed about students’ interests, goals, and needs. And research suggests that inappropriate classroom behavior is reduced among students who lead all or part of their IEP meetings.2 Another benefit: parents who encourage their child’s leadership role in IEP meetings see the self-advocacy skills the child has developed and often feel less anxious about the child’s future.

Educators emphasize that none of this happens in one meeting or even in one school year. A student’s role in IEP meetings builds over time. Ethan Grecian is 21 now. He earned his high school diploma and works as an office tech, operating complex copying machines. The interests and skills he was able to articulate in his high school IEP meetings led to the vocational training that led to his job. And he’s paying that experience forward: He and his mother jointly present “Student-Led IEPs: Bringing the Team Together,” a training session for professionals and parents.

Notes and Resources



Successful Transition to Adult Life: Student Portfolios

One study of high school dropouts1 found that 47 percent of the young people who chose not to complete high school did so because they saw no connection between school and their future goals. Actively involving students in planning for their life after high school helps them understand how school relates to those larger goals and can motivate them to stay in school. Transition portfolios can be an important way to secure this essential connection for students with disabilities. Portfolios serve numerous additional—and very practical purposes—as well.

Portfolios can break the often complex transition planning process into discrete, manageable steps, which adults can then help students understand and accomplish.

Teachers and parents can use a portfolio to guide short, frequent planning sessions with the student rather than schedule one big (and often overwhelming) conversation once a year during the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting.

Throughout the year, students can add examples of their work to the portfolio and can check off completed tasks, so they can see the progress they are making toward their goal. As students see incremental progress, they become more motivated to take the next steps.

Portfolios can serve as cumulative records of accomplishments that future employers, educational entities, and services providers can use to evaluate and provide appropriate placements, services, and supports for students.

Organize! Individualize!

All students need a clear, well-organized format for their portfolios. As well, each student benefits most from a portfolio that he or she can readily access and understand. For example, a portfolio must reflect language that matches the reading level of the student. Portfolios that primarily use pictures will best serve those students who are not able to read or who are nonverbal. If a student is planning to go to a college, a portfolio should reflect that ambition along with the steps to reach it.

In short, if a portfolio is to be truly effective, its format must reflect the abilities of the individual student, and its content must align with that student’s skills, desires, needs, and future goals. Fortunately, numerous models exist for different kinds of portfolios designed for a variety of purposes—with infinite options for customizing them to reflect each student.

Organizational Portfolios

My “Must Have” Papers
Families can use the easy-to-use tool on this Web site to organize the personal documents that students will need as they prepare for all areas of adult life.  The site offers pointers on how to access, store, and organize these essential documents as well as how to protect privacy.

Transition Portfolios

Transition Planning Process
This Web site provides grade-by-grade transition planning activities and assessments—from middle school through graduation—related to employment, postsecondary education, and independent living. A downloadable checklist helps students, families, and teachers keep track of the transition planning steps that a student completes each year. 

Assistive Technology Planning
The portfolio forms on this site combine a year-by-year planning guide for transition with a detailed template to document a student’s goals, skills, course of study, and experience. The tool also features forms that, once completed, students can use to apply for jobs and postsecondary programs; and it includes a “Student Information Guide for Self-Determination and Assistive Technology Management.”

Career Portfolios

Vocational Profile
The portfolio template on this Web site is designed to help students who plan to work with an agency for job development and job coaching services after high school graduation or completion. The tool helps collect information that the student will need for a good job match and effective, on-the job supports. It also includes questions about preferred tasks and environments, a wide range of  functional skills, possible supports needed, medical and transportation considerations, and important personal networks.

Transition-to-Work Portfolio
The collection of templates on this Web site helps students organize and document their skills, interests, work experiences, community service, awards, and accomplishments. Students can print documents, organize them in a binder, and use the completed portfolio to highlight their qualifications during job interviews.

College Planning Portfolios

Going to College
The user-friendly portfolio for college planning on this site combines a year-by-year action-step guide, financial planning tools, and a document checklist. Videos of college-age students with disabilities are designed to help guide youths through the college-planning process. The portfolio pages are organized into sections and can be downloaded, completed, and printed. Additional features include “Top Ten Tips” for students planning to attend college, as well as strategies for choosing a college and deciding on the best major.

Portfolios for Students with Complex Needs

Footprints for The Future
The downloadable tool on this site is designed to be completed by all IEP team members over time. It organizes in one place all the information a student and his or her family needs to plan and manage support for a youth with complex needs, before and after high school. There are templates for documenting health history and medications, insurance, benefits, wills and trust information, conservatorship or power of attorney arrangements, relationships, support needs, and more.

Listen to Me Work Book
The workbook available on this site can capture a young person’s preferences in every area of life. It is designed to be completed over time, with support from family, school staff, and others who know the student well. The end result is a valuable, comprehensive document that can be used in partnership with adult agencies to plan individualized supports after graduation.

Photo and Video Employment Portfolios
Youth with limited communication skills face unique challenges in job interviews. They may have developed excellent work habits and job-specific skills through a variety of work experiences in high school and after. However, employers may not view them as competent if agency or school staff must speak for them in an interview. The solution? Students can develop a representational portfolio. Photographs or very brief video clips can be taken of the student completing work tasks. Through role play, the student can learn to use the photo portfolio or video presentation to interact with an employer in a job interview. The templates and other planning resources at the above URL can help to create and guide the use of representational portfolios to develop customized employment opportunities for students.

Creating Vocational Portfolios
Dr. Mary Zatta provides useful planning tips in the presentation on the above Web site: “Creating Vocational Portfolios for Adolescents with Significant Disabilities.”


A transition portfolio is an effective way to help a student find goals; see tangible progress toward those goals; learn the value, comfort, and sense of control that comes with being organized in a complex and long-range task; gain confidence through the proof of skills learned and strengths developed; and find optimism for the future in a record of accomplishments. No matter the specific goal, a portfolio is a record of progress toward independent living and adult life, and it can serve as a great support for students.


The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. .



Successful Transition to Adult Life: Preparing for and Navigating College

By Crystal Reed, MA, College Counselor for Students with Special Needs

While handing out diplomas at our local high school last week, I was struck by the contrast between the enthusiasm most of the students had for launching into the adult world and the ambivalence and trepidation I see in the college-bound kids with disabilities or special needs that I’ve been working with for the past 18 years.

Leaving the familiar safety of high school and entering the grown-up world of the workforce or higher education can be stressful, especially for those who have relied so heavily on the codified and wide-reaching net of special education. All students experience tremendous growth in the years following graduation, so we should not expect those who also have learning, emotional, attentional, or autism spectrum issues—which often cause lags in social/emotional development—to make absolute decisions while still in high school. That is often too early to commit to long-term educational plans.

The real goal of their transition planning should be to build skills and find the “right next step.” We want to enroll these students in programs where they can start establishing track records of success. Appropriate opportunities will develop naturally as a product of positive results.

Finding the Right Next Step

There are many elements to consider when evaluating the fit of any educational program after high school. Does the school teach a subject (major) of interest? Are the student’s GPA and test scores a good match for the school profile? Can the family afford it? Does the school offer the right types of support? Does it have the kinds of extracurricular activities that will keep the young person productively occupied and feeling connected? Even weather, dorms, and dining options warrant consideration.

These are all important questions. But most importantly we need to ask: Is the student actually ready to take on this particular challenge?

The student’s level of self-awareness is of critical importance in this process. None of us can find the right path for ourselves if we aren’t genuinely aware of what we want and need, of our own strengths and weaknesses. When considering education after high school, students with disabilities need to have moved beyond any denial of their disability so they can accept the need for support as part of their planning.

Self-acceptance doesn’t happen overnight; it often takes a long-term, concerted effort by the family, school, and service providers. But while it is sometimes frustrating and difficult, self-acceptance is absolutely essential if these young people are to lead happy, productive, reasonably independent adult lives.


In addition to the obvious component of academic preparation (fulfilling college eligibility requirements, taking increasingly rigorous coursework, etc.), there are other keys to helping students prepare for the transition to college.

According to the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, a leading organization for research on college students with learning differences, the most important skills students
must possess in order to be successful in college are

In fact, their research shows that academic ability only minimally impacts a student’s statistical chances of persevering in college. Granted, students with weaker academic skills may take longer to complete their program, but in terms of staying in college and progressing through a course of study, independence-related skills were infinitely more important.

Our job as parents and educators is to support all of our students in becoming the most capable and responsible young adults possible. We don’t do this by clearing obstacles from a child’s path but by teaching increasingly sophisticated methods and strategies for independently managing, overcoming, and tolerating those obstacles that will inevitably arise. This should be a primary focus across curricula and in the home in order to raise students who are ready to enter higher education or the workforce after high school.

My students confirm this from their experiences. Number one on their wish list of things that schools and parents should have done differently was to have placed more emphasis on helping them become independent; to learn to handle the challenges that they quickly came to face, largely unprepared, in the post-high-school world.

(Number two, if you’re interested, was for adults to realize that college isn’t for everybody and to be more supportive of students finding a productive alternative, if that is their choice.)

In addition, we need to teach students the differences between high school and college. Many things we might consider obvious or trivial can throw first-year college students off kilter and interfere with their successful transition. When I talk about these things with high school students with disabilities (and even with some general education students), they frequently react with surprise to each and every item. Some examples:

You get the idea. The list of small-but-important things you can teach students is almost endless.


Help in College, Part 1

Students with a documented disability should sign up with the disability services office at their school of enrollment well before their first semester starts. (All colleges receiving federal funds are required to provide reasonable accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—ADA— and Section 504, an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act.) Even if the student never needs classroom accommodations, there are usually other benefits of being a client, such as priority enrollment and decreased course load thresholds for financial aid.

Accommodations are administered differently in college than in high school, partly because after high school, typically when they turn 18, students have reached the “age of majority.” According to the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, “Age of majority is the legal age established under State law at which an individual is no longer a minor and, as a young adult, has the right and responsibility to make certain legal choices that adults make.”1 Students hold their own confidentiality, which means that the disabilities counselor cannot speak even to the parents without the student’s consent. School office staff will only disclose details about the student’s disability and approved accommodations to faculty or other support personnel at the student’s request. Any file or record related to accommodations or disability is kept separate from a student’s main admissions file, which also means that if students change schools they must apply again for services at their new college.

It is critical for students and parents to be aware of the great disparity between the support provided in K–12 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and that offered in college under ADA. A shorthand way to understand the difference is that colleges are only required to ensure that students can access the curriculum, whereas most K–12 special education programs, in addition to ensuring access, are also designed to promote student success. Practically speaking, IDEA regulations require individualized education program (IEP) plans, establish timelines for student evaluations, specify who must participate, and outline the dispute resolution process, thus shaping state, district, and school rules. ADA is less prescriptive and does not dictate how processes and supports for students with disabilities must be implemented; so there is more variation from college to college.

Consequently, college students are almost never granted all of the accommodations, supports, and modifications to which they were entitled in their IEPs. Colleges are permitted by law to determine which “reasonable accommodations” each applicant receives, based on a review of the documentation. Extended time on tests, testing in a quiet location, preferential seating in class, and possibly a copy of a teacher’s or classmate’s notes are accommodations that are often granted. Anything beyond that—relating to learning styles, presentation of material, shortening the length of assignments, or extending deadlines, for example—is often not approved.

If a student or her family believes that she will need more extensive support than is likely to be offered by a typical disabilities office, she should explore the options detailed below. Fortunately, more supportive programs are being developed all the time due to the rapid growth in the number of college-bound students with disabilities.


Help in College, Part 2

Most programs that offer additional services for learning and living support have a hefty price tag. But if the cost is manageable and the student, the family, and the rest of the support team determine that the student can handle the program (and a move away from home, when applicable), here are some options to consider:

Dorm alternatives. Instead of living in a residence hall, students live in a facility with on-site staff and a scheduled program that focuses on study skills and life skills support. College Living Experience2 and College Internship Program3 are two examples of this model.

On-campus fee-for-service programs. SALT 4 at the University of Arizona, MAAP5 and MAST 6 at Marymount California University in Palos Verdes, and Transition UP at CalState University Northridge7 all provide fee-for-service programs that specialize in supporting students with specific types of learning differences or autism spectrum disorders. In these programs, a counselor typically meets frequently with the student to make sure the student is on track to meet his or her educational and personal goals.

Community college. Many families opt to have their new grads attend community college for a while in order to stretch their education dollars. This is also often the best solution if there are serious concerns about a student’s ability to simultaneously manage the huge leap in academic expectation while navigating the vast social/emotional changes a student faces at this stage of life. Another benefit is that it’s easy to start out slowly at community college with a part-time class load, which helps reduce the risk of failure from being overwhelmed.

Precollege year. Many people are familiar with the idea of a postgrad year, but Mitchell College in Connecticut offers a unique precollege-year program called Thames Academy.8 Students live on campus but with more supervision than the regular college population, and they take foundational classes to get ready for a traditional first year.

Rent-a-buddy. This isn’t a formal program, but I have known several parents who have successfully supported their son or daughter through the transition to college by hiring a reliable local grad student as a designated mentor or buddy.

Free, on-campus peer-mentoring programs. A few colleges offer peer-mentoring programs for special needs students—and sometimes for all first-year students.

Regional Centers. If the student is a client of a Regional Center,9 that agency should be in charge of obtaining the appropriate independent living skills services (although not educational support services).

The most important thing to remember is that there will be a “right next step” for each student. My advice to students, parents, and teachers is to stay positive and hopeful and keep an open mind. Maintain the focus on finding a program that will challenge but not overwhelm. Success happens one step at
a time. 

Crystal Reed has been counseling students with special needs since 1997. You can find her at

Notes and Resources



Transition and Self-Advocacy: A Student’s Perspective

by Hyla Rachwal,  Student Member of the California Advisory Commission on Special Education

“Every person has something positive to contribute to the world.” This mantra carries me through my life, as I always look for the good in others. Maybe this is because there were people who never gave up on me when I had been given a bleak outlook for success in my own life.

I was 11 years old when my parents brought me to the UCLA Hospital, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and a program for kids with severe emotional challenges. Up until this point I had struggled to control my emotions and my body. I threw severe tantrums lasting days; I had debilitating Tourette’s and difficulty sleeping. I was violent at home. Originally misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was put on numerous medications, many of which clashed and caused side effects.

I was in the program at UCLA for more than two months, exhausted all of my health insurance options—and received no diagnosis. The doctors told my parents that my prognosis for  living a “normal” life was “fair.”

Although disheartened, my parents did not lose hope. They believed that I could live a fulfilling life. My mom spent hours researching a possible diagnosis so that I could get effective help, and it was finally determined that I had Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections (PANDAS), in addition to anxiety.

Despite this new diagnosis, I was in complete denial of my disability. I was not interested in receiving any specialized help, and I refused to participate in therapy. I just wanted to be a kid like everyone else.

I remember one instance when I was introducing myself to a new student at lunch in the ninth grade at my nonpublic school. Because everyone at my school had some sort of challenge, it was common to ask others why they were at the school. When the new student asked me, I explained that my disability had healed itself over time, and I was “better now.” But since I had spent some time in the hospital, I had received an IEP for this school. My other friend sitting next to me turned to the new student and said, “She has anxiety.” I was really angry at my friend for saying that. I never told them that I had anxiety; I did not have anxiety.

I had anxiety.

Because I had been the child that other people talked about in hushed voices; who was poked, prodded, and examined; who was so drugged out on medications that I felt like a zombie, I never felt I was in charge. I believed that the only way my teachers would listen to me was through my parents. I thought that students did not—and could not—have a direct voice in their own schooling. My teachers reinforced this idea when they said things like, “bring this home to your parents,” or “you can’t do this unless your parents sign,” or “we will not believe you hurt your foot and can’t participate in P.E. unless you have a note from your parent.” So whenever there was something that I was upset about or didn’t like, I would tell my parents and they intervened.

In ninth grade, I was placed in a science class that I thought was below my ability level. I told my parents that they needed to set up a meeting with the school principal to talk about switching me to a more challenging class. On the day of their meeting I was called into the principal’s office. I was ready to sit there while my parents talked about my issue. However, my principal had different plans. She wanted me to talk, not my parents.

When I was at home it was so easy to talk and complain to my parents, but when I was put on the spot by my principal, I suddenly felt nervous. Self-advocacy was not a skill I had practiced in school, since so many of my experiences emphasized “just going along with things” and “following.” I didn’t know how to ask the principal for what I wanted, but I knew I had to say something. Thankfully my parents were there to encourage me.

At the end of the meeting my principal told me that the next time I wanted to have something addressed, I should be in touch with her directly. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t need to go through my parents to solve my own problems.

From then on I began addressing my own issues at school—without my parents. With more practice, speaking up for myself became less daunting. I began to realize that if I really thought through what I wanted to say, and if I presented my case in a logical and calm manner, I could be heard.

As my senior year began, I was faced with the difficult decision of what I wanted to do after high school. This decision stressed me out so much that I procrastinated on college tours and applications. With deadlines fast approaching, my anxiety levels grew, and I began to have panic attacks. I wanted my applications to be perfect, so every little detail became a huge challenge.

I am grateful for a wonderful college counselor who spent hours helping me decide where I might want to apply and who let me come into her office every day to chip away at these applications. It was through her guidance that I not only completed my applications on time but I finally began to assess myself and to accept that I actually do have a disability. This newly found self-awareness made me want to be more active in all conversations that were about me. I didn’t want my parents, teachers, and administrators to be making decisions on my behalf; I wanted to be involved and have a voice.

I began pushing to be a part of my IEP meetings. My parents had always invited me to these meetings so my team could see me in person and read me my goals. I would usually come in for a few minutes and then leave. But now I actually wanted to voice my opinions on my disability and to express what services I knew I would find helpful. Although I never had the opportunity to lead my IEP meetings because I didn’t know that was an option, participating in the little ways I could was empowering because it involved me in the IEP process—and that affected me every day at school.

I am now a college student at Cal State Long Beach, where I have been able to use my IEP to obtain disability services, such as taking tests in private rooms with extended time. Knowing how to speak up for myself and knowing what accommodations I need and how to get them has been instrumental to my success at college. I know that if I hadn’t practiced self-advocacy skills—and found out how to be honest with myself and believe in myself—in high school, I would be struggling rather than succeeding.





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