Transition Services: A Comprehensive Guide for Special Education Leaders

Transition services are intended to prepare students for life beyond high school. Encompassing preparations for what comes next in terms of academics, community living, vocational and career pursuits, and independent living, special education leaders play a key role in orchestrating effective planning to maximize services available and thereby students’ potential for the post-secondary years to come.

Defining transition services

Students enrolled in special education who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will have a transition plan as part of their IEP by age 16 (or sometimes even earlier, in the case of many states). 

The purpose of this plan is to capture goals, which are decided by the student and other stakeholders, that are important to reach in preparation for life after completing their education. In line with each of these goals, the transition plan outlines the strategies and activities which will be used to support them and names the service providers who will be responsible for implementing them with fidelity according to a timeline.

Legislation and compliance impacting transition services

IDEA and Part 300

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) encompasses transition planning and related guidance. In particular, Part 300 mandates that state is responsible for providing “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, to each child with a disability. These responsibilities include providing special education tailored to each student’s needs to prepare them for education, the workplace, and independent living. The latter includes recreation, leisure activities, community participation, and domestic life. 

Part 300 further specifies 16 as the age when transition planning must begin and 18 for the transfer of parental rights, though both ages may differ depending on the state. IDEA also covers federal funding uses for transition, including the use of funding to develop and implement transition programs and coordinate services among agencies working with students with disabilities.


No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was passed into law in 2001, brought changes that directly impacted students with disabilities. The new law required data for students with disabilities to be disaggregated from the general student population so that test scores and other educational outcomes could be reported separately. This would help identify any gaps or disparities in the educational system as well as opportunities to implement accommodations for this group.

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB. The primary change made was greater state control over standards-based reform, while not doing so at the expense of certain standards, including requiring that students with disabilities have have the same math, reading, and science attainment levels as other students. Furthermore, Alternate Academic Achievement Standards (AAAS) and the Alternative Diploma concept were introduced as an option for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities, but with similar requirements for teachers to demonstrate progress and meet the standards for FAPE.

Other laws

Several other laws beyond the above-mentioned education-specific legislation also had consequences for students’ post-secondary readiness. In 2015, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 was amended to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). With this amendment, services were expanded to also include students with disabilities. Also, schools and adult service providers (e.g. vocational rehabilitation) were to collaborate to improve post-secondary outcomes for those with disabilities.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, or Perkins V, followed in 2018. The most recent iteration of the federal Perkins Act underscores the importance of data disaggregation requirements: states are to develop local school system evaluations that capture specific needs and employment gaps for special populations, including individuals with disabilities.

Litigation has been a powerful force in further shaping how these laws are and should continue to be enacted. Knowledge and experience determine special education leaders’ ability to ensure compliance and advocate on behalf of their students.

4 Key focus areas for effective transition services

Stakeholders in the transition planning process collaborate to determine the range of special education services across four key areas: academics, vocational training and career exploration, community engagement and independent living, and social and emotional well-being. These services support students in reaching their post-secondary goals.

1. Academics: Course selection and pacing

Curriculum and course selection are important considerations for achieving post-secondary goals. For example, if a student takes a general studies curric ulum, as frequently happens with students with disabilities, they may not meet the requirements to attend a four-year college. Course waivers can also limit higher education options. It is therefore imperative to thoroughly understand students’ post-secondary educational goals and make decisions based on these in order to increase instead of limit their options.

Course pacing is another area to carefully consider, since the ability to be flexible can be beneficial to lifelong success. For example, taking four and a half or five years to complete high school rather than four may better prepare students in terms of knowledge, skills, and positive self-concept for post-secondary success, allowing students to take the time to understand and absorb the material rather than merely aiming for completion.

2. Vocational training and career exploration

According to the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, employment goals are shaped by four elements as part of transition planning:
  • Pre-employment transition services allow students to explore the broader landscape of work, often through workplace visits and interactive workshops showing the variety of potential jobs and careers across different industries, with a view to helping them envision a place for themselves in it.
  • Job exploration counseling aims to motivate students and encourage them to research career paths to make more informed decisions. Counselors work with students to identify their strengths, interests, and values, and how these align with different career paths.
  • Job development involves not only helping students gain valuable work experience through internships or part-time jobs, but also providing specialized, supported employment opportunities. Supports include offering additional guidance in the job application and interview processes.
  • Workplace readiness training goes beyond basic job orientation to include comprehensive skill-building for workplace success, ranging from job-hunting skills such as resume writing to learning to meet employer expectations such as adaptability and punctuality.

3. Independent living and community engagement

This component emphasizes the development of self-management and inter-personal skills to prepare students to be able to live independently and contribute effectively as members of the wider community. 

Independent living covers essential areas like daily living, personal health, and financial management skills, teaching students how to handle everyday tasks, look after themselves, and budget their resources respectively. 

Community engagement encompasses effective communication, empathy, and teamwork, which are vital for building relationships, resolving conflicts, and collaborating with others in community projects and initiatives.

4. Social and emotional well-being

Research indicates that students with disabilities who have developed their social skills increase their likelihood of success in employment, community living, and post-secondary education, complementing the first three key focus areas and thus significantly enhancing a student’s overall quality of life. 

For students with disabilities, mastering SEL skills is crucial for building resilience, positive self-image, and navigating life’s challenges effectively. Inclusion of SEL in the transition curriculum not only prepares them for adult life’s practicalities but also for forming meaningful relationships and participating confidently in their communities.

Social emotional learning skills should be taught in a systematic, structured way as part of the transition curriculum.

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How to Avoid the Most Common Legal Errors in Transition Planning?

Navigating the legalities associated with transition can be a maze fraught with potential missteps. However, with this incisive resource, you’ll unlock the insights needed to avoid the most prevalent legal errors. We’ve distilled complex regulations into seven crucial points, helping support your school or district in staying out of common litigation pitfalls.

How to Avoid the Most Common Legal Errors in Transition Planning?

Navigating the legalities associated with transition can be a maze fraught with potential missteps. However, with this incisive resource, you’ll unlock the insights needed to avoid the most prevalent legal errors. We’ve distilled complex regulations into seven crucial points, helping support your school or district in staying out of common litigation pitfalls.

Why Download This Infographic?

  • Expert Analysis: Digest the essence of intricate legal mandates with ease.
  • Practical Tips: Implement strategies that circumvent legal traps and promote compliance.
  • Risk Mitigation: Equip yourself and your team with the knowledge to proactively address issues before they escalate.
7 common legal errors infographic on an orange background with text "Download your 7 common legal errors in transition planning infographic"

Guidelines for special education leaders to implement successful transition plans

In the realm of transition planning, special education leaders play a pivotal role: they are not only in charge of curating and refining the core curriculum, but they also facilitate access to essential resources and services like vocational training and life skills development, as well as advocating for policy changes and funding to enhance transition services. 

As a result, the professional models and frameworks they utilize will inevitably guide their expertise in creating and implementing a seamless and effective transition process, ensuring that each student’s journey from school to adult life is personalized, well-supported, and aligned with their individual goals and needs. We outline some of the main research-backed frameworks below.

Taxonomy for Transition Programming 2.0

In their Taxonomy for Transition Programming 2.0, Kohler et al. source the latest literature on predictors of student success post-graduation and synthesize it into five primary practice categories, each containing relevant strategies for fostering meaningful engagement with the transition process among special education students. These areas include: 
  1. Student-Focused Planning: Personalized planning involving students, tailored to individual goals.
  2. Student Development: Holistic development in academics, life, and vocational skills for post-graduation life.
  3. Interagency Collaboration: Coordination among organizations for comprehensive transition support.
  4. Family Engagement: Active family involvement in transition planning and implementation.
  5. Program Structure: Design of flexible, comprehensive programs meeting diverse student needs.

Ethical leadership for transition leaders

Brady et al. propose five guidelines (with frequent reference to Kohler et al.’s work) aimed at preparing school leaders to provide quality ethical leadership when working with transition stakeholders:
  • Reflect regularly on how much weight compliance, rather than the student and their needs, has in decision-making.
  • Remember that effective transition planning is not only important to student outcomes; it is also important to school outcomes.
  • Utilize the Taxonomy for Transition 2.0 as a guide to support transition teams.
  • Be consistent in how you navigate challenges that arise and make decisions.
  • Regularly assess how your school implements the components of the Taxonomy of Transition 2.0.

Individual insights and experience

While education professionals are guided by their own education and training, their personal experience, the ways in which it has shaped them and their worldview and the extent to which it might influence their decision-making, is also an important factor. Worth bearing in mind are the following:

  • Their understanding of what is just and fair (e.g. students’ rights, legislation).
  • Their understanding of and familiarity with inequities that exist among their students (e.g. socioeconomics and gender disparities).
  • Their effectiveness as leaders in general (e.g. whether they have earned their peers’ trust).
  • Their professional and personal codes of ethics.

Collaborative efforts and community engagement

The Taxonomy of Transition 2.0 specifically includes interagency collaboration, with collaboration being a theme that runs through the entire framework. Collaborative efforts need to include identifying a responsible representative or contact for each agency, adopting interagency agreements to clarify roles and responsibilities, data-sharing within the bounds allowed by HIPAA, and participating in cross-agency professional development.

The partnership between Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services (ADRS), Auburn University, and statewide schools showcases effective interagency work to prevent service duplication. A key initiative is a web-based “back-to-school” survey, co-developed with Auburn University, which gathers information from schools about their planned pre-Employment Transition Services (pre-ETS) activities. This data helps ADRS manage pre-ETS effectively. Vocational rehabilitation staff conducted 18 statewide meetings with over 300 school systems to kick off this annual initiative.

Best practices for other stakeholders in transition planning process

Education leaders Besides the student, their teachers, and their parents or caregivers, various other stakeholders should be part of transition planning. These stakeholders should include representatives of services that contribute to effective transitions and comprise one or more of the following: representatives from school-to-work transition programs, local social service agencies, counseling programs, medical care providers, and advocates

Below we outline how students can actively prepare for post-graduation life and the supportive strategies school counselors can employ to facilitate this important transition.


Students must be prepared to advocate for themselves, whether in transition planning meetings or as they navigate their way after high school. To increase the chance for effective leadership, students need to understand how they can prepare for transition planning by:

  • Reflecting on their interests, goals, and dreams, and completing interest inventories.
  • Researching potential careers to understand the education and training necessary to pursue that path. 
  • Visiting colleges of interest, including their disability services departments.
  • Seeking volunteer opportunities to experience what a job is really like.

Transition support specialists

Transition support specialists are key facilitators in the journey from high school to post-secondary life. They bring specialized knowledge of vocational and adult living resources that are specific to the needs of students with disabilities. Their role is most crucial in the following areas:

  • Developing targeted transition plans with students which focus on their interests, strengths, and career aspirations, and guiding students in career exploration activities.
  • Working closely with school counselors and special education teams to ensure a cohesive and comprehensive transition process.
  • Connecting students and their families with adult service agencies, such as vocational rehabilitation services, independent living centers, and community-based support programs. 
  • Providing regular training and workshops for students and families on transition-related topics, including self-advocacy, career planning, and navigating adult services.

School counselors

School counselors provide services to the entire student body, but in the context of special education, they ensure that their services are inclusive and accessible to students with disabilities. They further help facilitate successful transitions by:

  • Participating in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, contributing to the development of educational plans that address both academic and socio-emotional needs.
  • Promoting a school environment that is aware of and sensitive to the needs of students with disabilities, advocating for appropriate accommodations and fostering an inclusive school culture.
  • Exploring post-secondary education options with students, including colleges that offer strong disability support services, and assisting in the application process. 
  • Networking with disability services on college campuses, local organizations who support post-secondary transitions, and those in the private sector interested in partnering through job experiences.
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Transition services: Success stories

Interagency collaboration in Alaska JOBZ Club

The Alaska JOBZ Club is the product of successful interagency collaboration among the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) and the Division of Employment and Training Services (DETS), the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, and local education agencies and teachers.

With this program, current teachers are contracted to provide pre-employment training services to students with disabilities after school. This approach helps ensure students have access to these activities even if they live in remote or hard-to-reach areas of the state. The focus on soft skills also means that learning will be useful whether a student goes on to live in a rural or urban area in the future.

Inclusive schools in Mexican-American immigrant community

Six principals were chosen for a study on inclusive schools conducted by DeMatthews et. al. based on their ability to implement inclusive practices in their respective schools, which are located in a low-income district on the Mexican-American border

Prior research had demonstrated that “low-income students of color with (and without) disabilities continue to be denied opportunities to participate in schooling alongside their peers”. The chosen principals mention that a lack of adequate teacher training and proactive collaboration was to blame for perpetuating some of these negative biases.

This was what prompted them to shift their leadership towards challenging the status quo and encouraging their staff to grapple with assumptions about special education and inclusion. The study goes on to recommend conducting equity audits that examine attitudes to race and disability in schools and introducing specific instruction that enhances teachers’ understanding of intersectionality.

Effective transition services should focus on four areas: academics, vocational training, independent living, and community engagement. Transition planning should start by age 16 as per IDEA, but some states may begin earlier.

Special education leaders orchestrate transition planning, ensuring students receive tailored education, vocational training, and life skills for post-secondary success.

These services teach essential life skills and foster community involvement, crucial for students’ independence and social integration post-graduation.

Implementation of successful transition services: Next steps

Transition services are integral towards shaping the post-secondary lives of students. The multi-faceted nature of what students need to reach their full potential makes effective leadership imperative. Those in special education are uniquely positioned to draw on their education, experience, and leadership capabilities as well as evidence and best practices to rally stakeholders and drive decision-making across all levels.

Ori Learning’s Transition Curriculum encompasses modules on employability, workplace readiness, social skills and emotional well-being, and financial literacy. Designed for students with mild and mild/moderate disabilities, accessibility features enable every student to access quality learning in a way that fits their needs. Embedded data collection tools enable efficient progress monitoring. Reports can be easily generated so that they can support collaboration and evidence-based decision making by stakeholders.

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 and intuitive design based on UDL principles.

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Roz Prescott

A native of Wales, UK and currently residing in Florida, Roz received her graduate degree in Special Education from the University of Central Florida and holds a Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA). With over 20 years of experience in special education and disability and advocacy services, Roz has worked with national and international non-profits and EdTech organizations leading successful program and operational teams to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children and adults. Roz currently leads the Ori Learning team in the role of Chief Operating Officer.