8 Tips for Engaging Students in the Transition Planning Process

Transitioning from school to the next stages of life is a pivotal moment for students with disabilities. Once a comprehensive transition curriculum has been put in place, it’s important that educators employ targeted strategies for effective engagement with the transition process to ensure students are not just passive participants, but active directors in shaping their futures.

In this article, we offer eight such strategies which have been proven to help with student engagement in the transition planning process: from employing Self-Directed IEPs and practicing visualization techniques, to integrating experiential learning opportunities and promoting self-advocacy.

1. Adopt a student-centered approach

The transition planning process is made with the student’s interests, preferences and ambitions at heart, so they should feel empowered to share their opinions and inspired to take an active role in making decisions about their future. Special educators are perfectly positioned to help them achieve this as both facilitators and advocates during the transition planning process.

One good example of putting students first is Self-Directed IEP, a methodology used to promote the active participation of students in setting their own goals and the wider agenda for their IEP meetings. Arndt, Konrad, & Test (2006) have demonstrated that there is a functional relationship between the implementation of the Self-Directed IEP and increased student participation in IEP meetings. 

By transforming the traditional student-teacher dynamic and placing students in the driver’s seat of their own IEP and transition planning meetings, they can become a bona fide stakeholder in their own personal and professional development and learn to steer it in the direction that they envision for themselves.

2. Use age-appropriate materials and resources

Continuing in the vein of approaching transition planning from a student-centered perspective, teachers need to be familiar with and mindful of the developmental stage of their students, which can vary greatly within the same class, and thus should set goals and provide materials that are both accessible and appropriate for the age and ability of the individual student. The use of a differentiated instruction approach can be a particularly effective way for educators to tailor the transition planning process to the student: they could provide younger students with introductory activities that explore broad concepts of work and study while, in contrast, older or more advanced students could engage in detailed career research projects or coursework. Meeting students at their appropriate edge will increase the chances of sparking an interest in considering their options post-graduation rather than overwhelming or overburdening them.

3. Perform a strengths and interests assessment

Assessments help identify and pinpoint a student’s strengths, interests, and abilities, and as such are foundational in transition planning. Note, however, that a standardized, “template” approach won’t cut it: the assessment should instead provide a detailed, personalized roadmap which is unique and specific to the student for it to be meaningful to them.

Consider using tools like interest inventories and surveys to capture insightful information about a student’s preferences and expectations, which could even lead to uncovering potential career paths. Conducting informal interviews, on the other hand, allows students to elaborate further on what they already know and express themselves more freely.

Students are more likely to feel that their time has been well-spent if they learn something new about themselves in the transition process rather than simply having to jump through hoops, while teachers will obtain a more nuanced picture of the student based on qualitative data that standardized tests might otherwise miss.

4. Work on improving self-advocacy skills

Self-advocacy is all about cultivating a sense of autonomy and having the confidence to express your needs. This is particularly important for special education students because of the unique nature of the challenges they face when navigating real-world scenarios, in which others don’t or aren’t able to always accommodate their specific needs.

Educators must therefore play an active role in providing a practical framework in which they can incorporate exercises like role-playing so that students can practice articulating their goals and preferences in a safe environment. This method not only reinforces the importance of self-advocacy as a skill in adult life, but also offers a tangible way for students to see the impact of their decisions and actions and empowers them to shape their own experience.

Elevate Your Team’s Approach to IEP Meetings

Our Transition Planning Rubric is designed to support district leaders and educators in guiding their teams towards excellence in transition planning.

It provides comprehensive criteria that cover the breadth of transition planning, from gauging student engagement to evaluating post-secondary goals and services.

Why Use This Rubric?

  • Tailored Feedback: Utilize a structured scoring system to evaluate and enhance individual transition plans.
  • Fillable Format: Conveniently fill out the rubric digitally or print it for hands-on collaboration.
  • Action-Oriented Guidance: Benefit from a clearly defined path towards creating robust and legally compliant IEPs.

Expand your team’s capabilities and improve the success of IEP meetings.

Image of the transition rubric on a yellow background with text "Download your transition rubric"

5. Explore careers through work experiences

Career paths and options should be discussed as part of transition planning, but they also need to be experienced so that students can fully understand the realities of the workplace, to try on different roles for size and, in doing so, bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical experience.  Findings from a study by Wehman et al. (2015) support the importance of experiential learning, concluding that employment training and work experience while students were still in high school were one of the main predictors for success later on. (Interestingly, this same study also found that “the engagement and enjoyment of the student were not related to competitive employment”). To bring this concept to life, educators can arrange visits to local businesses or organize internships and shadowing programs, where students can observe and participate in day-to-day operations. This hands-on experience can help connect their personal interests and skills with actual job roles; they might even lead to new discoveries and expose them to possibilities they hadn’t considered before.

6. Create mentorship and peer support opportunities

Creating a peer-support system in any area of life is vital for cultivating a sense of belonging, and can inform the way we show up at school, at work, or in our community.

For students receiving special education supports, having a network where peer interactions can take place in an informal setting can generate fruitful discussions about the challenges students face on their individual transition journeys. They can find commonalities and learn about novel approaches from each other along the way, which they can then bring back to and apply in their transition planning meetings.

Additionally, schools can facilitate career mentorship programs by pairing students with older peers or adults in their desired professional field of interest, preferably people with first hand experience of navigating opportunities while living with a disability or learning challenge. These mentors can answer questions, offer guidance, and provide feedback based on their experience, and also act as role models for students to emulate, especially for those who might not have any of their own.

7. Employ visualization techniques

The act of imagining a desirable future (or “visioning”) has been shown to provide structure while simultaneously allowing for creative expression, thus facilitating the discovery of personal meaning—an important motivator for engaging in any activity.

According to a study by Waalkes, Gonzalez, and Brunson (2019) in the context of adolescent career counseling, vision boards can be used effectively as a creative tool in educational settings, including special education, to foster and enhance identity exploration through visualization. Another technique teachers can implement in the classroom is future-planning workshops, where students can articulate their aspirations and turn them into milestones using the SMART goals methodology

These activities make future aspirations seem possible and achievable, while also highlighting the direct correlation between a student’s current efforts and their long-term goals, thus increasing students’ motivation and commitment to their transition goals.

8. Provide ongoing support and monitor progress

The transition to adulthood is an ongoing journey that necessitates long-term support and guidance. Educators and transition specialists should therefore implement regular check-ins and follow-up meetings with students to discuss progress towards their transition goals, adjust them as necessary, and provide additional resources or interventions where needed. 

This form of continuous engagement helps students to stay focused on their goals, adapt to new challenges, and secure the resources they need to navigate their transition successfully. Moreover, having consistent touchpoints in place ensures that students feel supported throughout their transition journey and navigate the path ahead successfully and with confidence.

A special educator who leads the transition planning process for students stands with her arms crossed.
Transition Services: A Comprehensive Guide for Special Education Leaders

Zoom out on the transition planning process and explore the different services that special educators need to consider to maximize students’ potential for success as adults.

Focusing on students’ interests, preferences, and ambitions empowers them to take an active role in decisions about their future, making the transition planning more relevant and effective.

Real-world work experiences allow students to understand job realities, explore different roles, and connect personal interests to potential career paths.

Techniques like vision boards and future-planning workshops help students articulate and visualize their goals, making future aspirations more tangible and achievable.

Engaging students in the transition planning process: Next steps

The success of special education students in their transition to adulthood hinges on their ability to navigate this process as informed, proactive participants in their own development, supported by educators, mentors, and peers at every step of the way. Ori Learning’s Transition Curriculum offers a comprehensive solution for supporting your school or district’s special education programs, with a consistent set of high-quality instructional materials which are designed with student engagement in mind. Collaboration boards and interactive polls allow for students to share their thoughts and react to their peers in real time, while multiple question types and interactive drag-and-drop activities offer teachers flexibility in how to conduct assessments. Receive custom support backed by rich industry experience that can help you tackle your strategic goals at scale. Request a free demo of our platform to experience first-hand its powerful accommodation and translation features, automated reporting tools, and intuitive design.
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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.

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Jon Izak
Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.