3 Steps to Boost Your Transition Planning

One of the age-old fears of being a special educator is the reality that you may make a legal error in your service and engagement in the transition planning process. Whether you are in your first or thirtieth year, the anxiety associated with the copious amount of legal requirements stipulated by the IDEA never goes away. When even a minor oversight can lead to progressively tougher penalties, it’s important to stay up to date with changes in legislation and to be aware of the most common legal pitfalls of the IEP process. To best prepare you to anticipate these hurdles, we’ve consulted with Dr. Kurt Hulett, P.h.D – a leading expert in special education who advises teachers and districts across the country on how to navigate the labyrinth of legal intricacies in IEP.

key takeaways :

Legal action related to IEP cases is on the rise and the penalties for schools and districts are becoming more severe. The most common legal errors in transition planning include insufficient parental involvement, lack of appropriate assessments, failure to develop SMART goals and more. For the transition planning process to be legally compliant and effective the principles of IDEA must be adhered to.
The rise of transition planning-related legal actionAccording to Dr. Hulett, legal action is becoming more widespread and penalties more severe when it comes to the transition planning process. “With recent U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Circuit of Appeals cases, the frequency of cases – along with the degree of consequences (Perez v. Sturgis, 2023) – are only increasing.”
In the case noted by Dr. Hulett above, the Supreme Court ruled that students with disabilities and their families do not have to exhaust the administrative adjudication procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in all circumstances before filing a lawsuit seeking compensatory damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other federal anti-discrimination laws. In other words students and parents can now file cases without going through all the usual administrative processes, meaning a further increase in legal actions may be coming in the future.
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In addition to a general rise in litigation in special education, Dr. Hulett also notes “a spike in transition planning-related state complaints, IEP due process filings, and litigation.” This surge in legal challenges raises significant red flags and underscores the critical importance of understanding and adhering to the legal requirements surrounding this crucial phase of a student’s educational journey.Drawing on his extensive experience working with teachers and districts across the country, Dr. Hulett has prepared a list of seven most common errors made by educators that lead to FAPE violations specific to transition planning.

7 widespread legal errors to avoid during IEP transition planning

Insufficient Parent Involvement

Failing to include parents or guardians in the transition planning process or not considering their input and preferences can be a legal error. Parents are key members of the IEP team and should be actively involved in decision-making.Moreover, their insights into their child’s strengths and challenges are invaluable for ensuring the successful transition of students into adult life.

Lack of Appropriate Assessments

Inadequate or outdated assessments can lead to an incomplete understanding of the student’s needs, strengths, and areas requiring further development. It’s crucial to conduct comprehensive assessments to inform the transition plan effectively.

Social Emotional Learning Curriculum: A Simple Definition

Ori’s transition curriculum includes Formative and Summative assessments built with UDL principles ensuring you get the most accurate picture of student progress while also remaining legally compliant.

Failure to Develop Measurable Post-Secondary

Post-secondary goals in the transition plan should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). Failing to develop meaningful and measurable goals can undermine the effectiveness of the plan and expose institutions to legal action.As per IDEA legislation, schools must demonstrate how they plan to achieve the goals they lay out in the transition plan and include details on timelines and performance measures they will use in the process.As per IDEA legislation, schools must demonstrate how they plan to achieve the goals they lay out in the transition plan and include details on timelines and performance measures they will use in the process.

Inadequate Transition Services and Supports

The transition plan should include a range of appropriate and individualized transition services and supports necessary to help the student achieve their post-secondary goals. Failure to provide adequate services or address specific needs can be a legal error. To meet FAPE requirements, schools must provide students with education that is tailored to their individual needs and benefits them in a meaningful way.

Insufficient Documentation

It is essential to document all aspects of the transition planning process, including assessments, goals, services, accommodations, and progress monitoring. Incomplete or insufficient documentation can create compliance issues. This is not only crucial for ensuring clear and transparent communication within the IEP team but also creates a trail of records that demonstrate the school’s adherence to federal law.

Lack of Timelines and Monitoring

Transition planning should include specific timelines for implementing the plan and monitoring the student’s progress. Failing to establish timelines or regularly monitor progress can impede the student’s successful transition. This is why it’s important to choose a transition curriculum that allows you to accurately measure the success of each individual student.

Noncompliance with Legal Requirements

The special education transition planning process must comply with applicable laws and regulations, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.Failing to adhere to the mandates outlined in laws like IDEA and Section 504 can not only jeopardize the student’s access to appropriate education and support but also expose educational institutions and professionals to potential legal liabilities, including costly litigation and reputational damage.More about legal issues in the IEP transition planning process
A substantive violation of IEP occurs when the services provided by the program are deemed as inadequate based on the requirements for Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Examples of include failure to properly assess the child’s needs, not having clear annual goals for their progress, failing to provide them with a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Courts have generally viewed violations as substantive when they involve IEP compliance, the least restrictive learning environment, or the adequacy of the individualized instructions and educational supports contained in an IEP.
Federal IEP regulations stipulate that parents must be involved in the transition planning process along with teachers and other special education professionals; a clear roadmap must be created including SMART goals for each child and IEP plans must be implemented for all children with disabilities in a particular school or district, at the beginning of each school year and without any exclusion.
Three key legal concepts related to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguard. FAPE stipulates that students with disabilities must have access to an education that is tailored to their unique needs and that is provided at no cost to the family. Each child’s individual circumstances must be taken into account to ensure compliance with FAPE. Moreover, there must be clear objectives and benefits of providing special education to the child. LRE means that students with disabilities must as much as possible be educated within the general education settings. In other words, such students have to be able to interact freely with their non-disabled peers with minimal restrictions in their learning environment. At the same time all the necessary supports and services must be in place for students with disabilities. Procedural safeguards guarantee the rights of students with disabilities and their parents and mandate they must be involved within the IEP transition planning process and receive prior written notice of any proposed changes to it. Moreover students and parents are free to request an independent educational evaluation and to dispute decisions made by the school district.

How to avoid legal errors in the IEP process?

By placing a priority and focus on these seven areas, you can markedly decrease your chances of landing in hot water and meaningfully increase the quality of each child’s transition plan. As Dr. Hullet remarks: “Remember to place the individual needs of each child at the center of the transition planning process and legal compliance will likely follow.”When we begin each element of the IEP process with a genuine focus on the individual child, a focus on his or her specific data, measure priority areas regularly and reliably, and utilize evidence practices and approaches to serve the child, legal compliance tends to follow in short order. In the words of Dr. Hullet: “When the spirit of IDEA is adhered to in the IEP transition planning process, the letter of the law is often met.”With Ori’s transition curriculum your school or district can enjoy the peace of mind of having access to an easy-to-implement, comprehensive program that allows you to report on progress and demonstrate compliance. Find out how our curriculum can help you meet IEP goals safely and consistently.

When I have the opportunity to speak with special education directors, I ask as many questions as time allows. I find many of the questions result in responses that are consistent and predictable; whereas, other questions often yield a far greater diversity of answers.

For example, most special education directors name time restrictions, overwhelming paperwork, compliance issues, and teacher shortages as the greatest challenges of their everyday work life – or some close resemblance to these issues.  

Conversely, when asking these same leaders about what steps they would take to significantly improve their transition planning processes and programming, I am most often met with a lengthy pause which is quickly followed by a look of consternation. 

At first, I was surprised at the variance in responses, but then it began to make sense. The tangible issues that slow us down and make our work lives harder are often right in front of us on a daily basis.  

It is not hard to identify blocks, barriers, and challenges. That said, the ability to revamp, change, markedly improve, or re-imagine a given practice or program is much harder. 

I once had a clever special education director coyly respond to my question with “If I knew how to do it, don’t you think I would have done it by now?”  With a sheepish grin, I replied, “Touche, my friend.  Touche.” 

All too often the barrier to change and growth isn’t a willingness or desire to do so, it is the lack of a clear path, resources, and a blueprint.

To that point, as a professional community of people who support special educators in the transition planning process, we need to spend more time reviewing trending research, talking to experts, observing leading approaches in the schools and communities, and sharing our findings with the field.  

In that spirit, and after lengthy conversations with professionals and experts who serve the special education community, I came up with the following 3 steps to boost and markedly improve your transition programming.

Step 1: Do Your Research

Interview and survey your parents, students (current and former), special educators, general educators, local leaders of community-based employment service programs, transition experts at local and state universities, members of organizations like CEC and DCDT, and anyone else you believe has important information on the topic of transition planning in your community to share.  

Beginning with feedback from key stakeholders not only achieves buy-in for your transition initiatives but also: 

  1. Increases the overall quantity of intellectual inputs, 
  2. Maximizes ideas and resources, 
  3. Provides a number of perspectives from different lenses, 
  4. Helps you to see beyond your professional blinders and biases, and 
  5. Creates a more collegial and inclusive work environment.  

By reviewing articles, trending research, and expert organization documents, you will uncover innovative and new initiatives, expand your repertoire of ideas for new programming, likely uncover and adopt more evidence-based and research-based practices, and spark new and progressive ideas.

After this step, you should have the following:

  • Inputs and insights on current transition planning from your full continuum of stakeholders.
  • Buy-in from your stakeholders on advancing new transition initiatives and concepts.
  • Awareness of trending research, new approaches, perceptions of current programming, constituent needs and concerns, and desired outcomes.
  • Awareness of other transition programs that are having positive impacts in special education.
  • Awareness of websites, organizations, and individuals that have resources and tools to advance your transition programming.

Step 2:  Program Evaluation 

With an objective and analytical eye, review the continuum of transition services and the overall quality of the programming you currently provide.  

Since its late addition to federal law via the 1997 IDEA reauthorization, transition programming has often not received the focus and extensive efforts afforded to other substantive areas of the IDEA.  

Over the last few decades, the need for transition planning has only become more important and present in due process hearings and litigation. However, as we discussed in a previous article, our collective focus and effort in this area have not increased at the same pace.  

For that reason, a number of districts in the U.S. do not have a broad array of transition services and supports – and those services are often provided at various degrees of quality dependent on the severity of the disability.

Pro Tip:  Keep Your Chin Up.  

After collecting input, objectively evaluating your current programming, reviewing research, speaking with experts, listening to parents, and receiving input from students, you may find the following:

  • You have very few distinct programs or resources for transition;
  • You have far more transition options for moderate to severe students than you do for mild students;
  • Most of your caseload is enrolled in the same transition programs and have the same goals;
  • You lack a valid and reliable way to measure progress in essential areas of the transition process; and
  • You don’t have physical evidence or documentation of the transition annual goals each child on your caseload has engaged in.

Pro Tip: Don’t Sweat It and Take Action.  

If the five listed statements above resonate loud and clear with you, please know that you are absolutely and unequivocally not alone.  

So, with that said, let it go and give yourself some grace.  

The key to improving practice in special education is simply to identify the area of need and make a firm commitment to addressing it.

After step 2, you should have the following:

  • Insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your current transition program.
  • Awareness of the gaps in your programming and options.
  • Awareness of the appropriateness of programmatic coverage by topic and disability.
  • Awareness of what work needs to be done to improve the overall transition program.
  • A better idea of what metrics to follow and measure.
  • A strong sense of what needs to be in your new blueprint.

Step 3. Create the New Blueprint

Remember, an architectural blueprint only provides the overall design and measurements of the structure. It does not go into the detail of how to actually build or bring the structure to fruition. Similarly, you don’t have to solve all of the questions and provide extensive detail today. Let’s first start with your vision and the general design of your new program.

The most important element of launching a new program is determining what needs to be done, how it is going to be done, what you need to get it done, and how you know when it is done.  

I have developed a simple, yet efficient process with sample priority areas. You can find more details in the checklist below.

Transition planning checklist


Check 1: Identify the specific focus areas for your blueprint.  

  • Think of these as the pillars or foundations of your new home.  
  • The Focus Areas are your new, high-priority areas of need and improvement.
  • Generally speaking, you will have between 5-8 focus areas.

Check 2: Create S.M.A.R.T. goals for each new focus area.  

  • You should have 3-5 goals for each focus area. 
  • Completing these goals would mean you’ve successfully improved that focus area. 

Check 3: Identify the resources needed to successfully implement your new focus areas and each subsequent goal.  

Check 4: Develop discrete action steps that need to happen in order for you to accomplish your goals and fulfil the expectations of the focus area.  

  • You may have anywhere from 5-10 action steps per goal.

After going through this checklist, you should have the following:

  • A set of specific areas of focus on which to drive programmatic change.
  • A set of S.M.A.R.T. goals to successfully grow and develop your areas of focus.
  • A set of action steps in order to take the right and sequential steps to achieve each goal.
  • A method for measuring goals and evaluating the overall success of improving each area of focus.

What Else Can You Do to Boost Transition Planning? 

Now that you have an extensive amount of information from your most important stakeholders; rated, ranked, and reviewed your current transition programs; reviewed the literature base in transition planning; and consulted with experts and expert organizations, you are more than ready to re-imagine your transition program. 

Still not sure if your transition planning is the best it can be? Get in touch with us today to discuss how implementing Ori Learning’s solution can help you markedly improve transition outcomes across your school or district. 

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