As a practitioner focusing on assisting families with navigating through the special education system, transitioning planning probably poses the most challenges. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) provides guidance to both families and school districts on preparing for life after high school, but the implementation of a transition plan is not always executed in the manner required by law. In fact, several years ago, the New York State Department of Education provided school districts with a memo indicating that many school districts were not compliant with the regulations.
Requirements Under the IDEA
The IDEA requires local educational agencies (e.g. school districts) to create a transition plan for students no later than the year the student turns 16 (15 in New York state). Under the regulations, the school districts must develop an Individualized Education Program for every student with a disability that includes a description of a coordinated set of activities such as instruction, related services, goals and objectives which are focused on facilitating the child’s movement from school to postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, and independent living. The regulations also require the completion of a functional vocational evaluation when appropriate.
While these requirements appear well defined and certainly manageable, the development of even a well-coordinated transition plan in many instances falls far short of both the minimum requirements under the regulations and what, in reality, is needed for a student to succeed after high school.
Developing a Good Transition Plan: Tips For Parents Caregivers, and School Districts
Although the regulations require the development of a plan no later than the year a student turns 16, I encourage families to start thinking about transition planning no later than age 12, while keeping in mind the student’s strengths, challenges, and goals for the future. Whenever possible, the student should be included in the planning process by discussing the plan with them on a regular basis in order to assess whether their aspirations are reasonable, rational, and/or attainable. While parents always want to encourage their children “to reach for the stars and beyond,” there is a point where they, as well as caregivers, and the school district, must consider whether the student’s goals align with their level of functioning. For example, a student with a documented intellectual disability may articulate that she wants to be an astronaut or an engineer. After a review of evaluations, assessments, etc., it may be clear that this particular goal is not attainable or suitable as the basis of a good transition plan. Perhaps there is, however, an alternative route to supporting the student’s vision of the future in such cases. With the assistance of a vocational coach, supported work in an engineering firm, or even a classroom assistant position in a science class, may be a viable alternative. The purpose of the transition plan is not to dash the student’s hopes and dreams for the future but to create a plan that leads to greater independence and success in the community.
The Important Participants
As parents, caregivers, and school districts begin to identify the steps necessary to develop an appropriate transition plan, identifying the participants to develop and execute the plan becomes crucial. It is the responsibility of the members of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) and/or the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to determine the proper persons to assist with implementing the plan. Transition teams should also include representatives from outside agencies such as the Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities (NY-OPWDD) or the equivalent, or agencies that provide vocational training or that have transition coordinators that know how to apply for government supports and what to do once a student reaches the age of emancipation. Finally, the IDEA requires that the student be invited to participate in any IEP/CSE meetings regarding transition planning. As the parent of an adult with significant disabilities who realistically could not participate in the transition meetings, I nevertheless always attempted to include my daughter Jordan (now 30 years old with a full life at the Center for Discovery in Harris, New York) in those meetings in order to ensure that the CSE would acknowledge the individual for whom they were advocating. The best transition plans under the IDEA are the ones that consider the student’s needs, preferences, and interests.
Other Important Considerations for Transition Planning
While the IDEA certainly provides a basis for planning for the future of students with disabilities, there are other steps both elder law and special needs planning attorneys should take when advising clients with loved ones with disabilities. A discussion including guardianship, supported decision making, and/or the need for advance directives, is crucial in providing parents and caregivers with mechanisms to assist with supporting students reaching the age of majority, as is analyzing the plan to ensure the individual’s eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, and Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities (NY) or its equivalent in other states.
As the parent of two students who received special education services, the importance of good transition planning cannot be underestimated. The process is unique to the individual circumstances, and the development and execution of a well-thought-out plan can play a crucial role in a young adult’s success after the “yellow school bus stops….”