Successfully Transitioning Students with Disabilities to a Post-Secondary Setting: What Parents Should Know


Whether it’s with the support of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, or “Every Student Succeeds” Act (ESSA) in 2015, students with disabilities should be prepared with academic and workforce skills tasks in line with the general population at an increased rate. This preparation should enable students with disabilities to transition into various types of post-secondary careers and education. But for most of us, change, whether it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new school, can be a frightening thing and difficult to manage. In 2013, the Council for Exceptional Children determined 16 evidence-based predictors for post-school success for students with disabilities. This article will focus on one of these factors, self-determination, which is a critical component in successfully navigating change. Our perception of our ability to determine the outcomes in our lives includes the awareness and appreciation of our own decision making skills, the ability to set and attain goals, recognition of situations and needs for self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-advocacy. These skills are teachable. These skills provide individuals with the ability to be a primary agent for change in their own life, positively identifying and affecting change.

A primary way by which we learn about the skills in our self-determination toolbox is by practicing and using these skills in real life situations. By being involved in activities that require self-assessment, the student and parent are provided the opportunity to observe, assess, discuss, and plan. These activities provide information that continue the development of our self-perceptions, which in turn gives a new level of performance for future involvement. By involving the student in the planning and decision-making processes related to their own education and career goals, we see an increase in engagement during the education and career preparation process itself. Further, when a student with disabilities is involved in the planning process, the motivation of the student to set and complete goals also increases. Positive experiences in self-determined actions bring feelings of competency and empowerment, which in turn increases internal motivation, allowing the student to engage deeper in learning and transitioning activities. Parents can support and accomplish this type of development by involving their child in the decision-making process on a frequent basis. By allowing the child to be an active part of the decision-making process, whether it is selecting which electives to take in school, assisting with the development of an organizational system, or what to schedule and how to schedule the activities that need be accomplished each afternoon, we provide the tools and the skills to develop our self-determination.

While participation in IEP-style meetings to determine activities can provide motivation and self-determination, it is also the actual involvement in the activities that provides the student with the “live” opportunity to implement and test their own knowledge, skills, and awareness. One method allowing such participation is workplace programs frequently available while in secondary education. The activities required to participate in the jobs associated with these programs develops skills for students so they are better able to successfully navigate the changes that will abound in their lives. Programs that showed the best improvement in performance and personal skills for the student were those where expectations for performance—personal, social, and career—were outlined, taught, monitored and expected. Through participation in a work setting where students must meet reasonable expectations and perform alone and with others, students are offered the opportunity to identify, implement, practice, and refine their skills. But they are also given the real-world opportunity to immediately solve problems as they are encountered. Students who participate in programs such as this show an increase and improvement in functional skills, teamwork, respect, communication, independent and group- solving, as well as making suggestions for their improvement. There are two primary avenues through the school setting for gaining real-world career experiences. The first is Career and Technical Education (CTE), where all students are exposed to various courses and careers in the 16 career clusters. Secondly, students with disabilities have the opportunity to participate in Community-Based Vocational Instruction (CBI), which is a program selectively implemented for students in special education. Parents should actively engage in dialogs with their school districts to understand and prepare their students for these programs early in the schooling process.

Programs such as “I’m Determined” in Virginia and the Think College initiative and tools used in these programs such as the Life Design Model and the “Life Line” lesson plan, offer assessment methods to help the student and others involved discover, discuss, and assess past performance, plan for the future, as well as identify possible difficulties in the path ahead. By planning and setting goals and participating in programs where steps toward the goals are acted upon, the experiences encountered provide even more fodder for discussion and analysis. This cycle of “discuss”/”encounter”/”discuss” allows us to determine what has happened, why it happened, and how we can prepare for possible things to come. It also allows us to set goals for completion and refine those goals, seeing positive progress and addressing less than desirable outcomes during change. However, it is known that special education teachers and others involved in the learning process for these students exert greater influence on the vocational decision making processes than do general school teachers. The presence of that second individual, such as a teacher or parent, in providing involvement, reward and feedback, strengthens the interplay of motivation and self-determination. This is important because the team of student, family, and educators can work together to allow the student to experience the best chances for success. This will, in turn, increase the student’s motivation as it relates to college and career goals.

In short, it is never too early to prepare for transitioning a child with disabilities. Parents can take the following actions:
1)Help the child to develop self-determination skills:
     a. Teaching them how go through the decision making process
     b. Build on success
2) Engage in conversation with your local school district about programs such as:
     a. Career and Technical Education (CTE)- General Education Classes
     b. Community-Based Vocational Instruction (CBI)- Special Education Classes
3) Keep reading literature about current trends in the field of career development and transitioning students to the postsecondary setting (such as this article.) •

John Spoede, Ph.D., LPC-S, LCDC, NCC, CSC is Director for the Center for Research and Doctoral Studies, and Assistant Professor Houston Baptist University.
Ruth Cutting, Ph.D. is with the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, School of Education, Houston Baptist University.

Almazan, Selene, and Denise Stile Marshall. School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., 2016.

Blackwell, William. “An Era of Charter School Expansion: An Examination of Special Education in Massachusetts’ Charter Schools.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp.75-87.

Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The ABCs of School Choice: The Comprehensive Guide to Every Private School Program in America. 2016.

United States Department of Education. Charter School Enrollment. National Center for Education Statistics, 2016.