How to transition plan with your learners with calm and confidence

There is no section of the IEP more maligned, or neglected than the transition plan for students fourteen and older. With so many things to teach and track, this section can feel like just one more thing to do.

And that my friends, is a shame because this section has the potential for so much magic.

For many students, especially with an IEP, school can feel like a sentence. They’re doing work that is very difficult for them 8-12 hours a day, including homework. They didn’t get to choose their classes, teachers, start time, or what they learn. They had no agency in the process whatsoever. 

The transition plan is where you can give them a light at the end of the tunnel, and give meaning to what seems to them, meaningless. 

Students are more than potential workers, but their dreams often take the shape of things like careers or college. We need to honor those dreams as best we can. 

For some students, the transition plan is an assurance of what their lives can look like after school: a life they are actively choosing.  

Many people with profound disabilities can become socially isolated after high school. For them, a transition plan can be a pathway to a meaningful life. 

Here are 8 ways to build transition planning into your curriculum without making it feel like just one more thing to do. It might even free up some time for you to do other things.


1. Transition plans make great assignment topics 

There are many things in teaching out of your power but topics tend to be open to teacher discretion. 

There are many kinds of assignments that may require research such as presentations, essays, and projects. 

You may be actually teaching students how to use PowerPoint, or how to write a 3 paragraph essay but you can use it as an excuse to have students look up their ideal career. 

I often would have them look up specific information such as job outlook, education requirements and the average salary for their planned adult job.

These assignments had great buy-in since students were curious about what was needed to move from high school to adulthood. 

Career One Stop is a great resource with information on almost any career you can think of. 

Outside of researching their own possible post-secondary career, you can fold readings into your class that highlight a variety of different careers that students might not have even heard of. Newslea has a series on exciting jobs that people have, and like all things on Newslea they are available in many different grade level difficulties. 

Creating a home budget is a great idea for a math class, as it involves many math skills and helps with a transition goal that many kids (and adults) don’t get a chance to practice. 

Science and cooking lessons can often go hand-in-hand. 

There are many places in the existing curriculum to place transition skills that also move forward the stuff you have to teach them. 

Remember: a transition plan is not just the destination (career, college, etc) but the small life skills that a student needs to be able to achieve those bigger goals. 


2. Take a campus resource tour 

Many campuses have tons of useful resources for students. I worked at many schools that had career centers that were often rarely used by students. 

Usually, when students are not using a resource, it is because they don’t know where it is or how to use it. 

When I taught a freshman strategies class, we took a day and toured the campus. I took them to the career center, media center, social worker, resource officer, counseling office, nurse’s office, and main office. I allowed those offices to explain what they were to be used for, and how to get appointments if needed. 

This empowered students. Who knew that social worker could help them get a job in the cafeteria? Well, me, and after the tour, my students too. My campus even offered working in these offices as an elective for job experience in upper-grade levels. Touring them sowed the seeds for some students of plans for later on. 

Sure, the tour took 1 day of my instruction but it saved me mountains of time later. Students knew where they needed to go and who they needed to see, and could advocate for themselves without me. 

No matter what supports your campus makes available to students, familiarizing them with those services early makes it much easier for them to utilize them. 

Bringing it back to transition planning, when I suggested the student attend the career center to practice for the ASVAB test or to help them apply to colleges, they knew where to go and why. Knowing where to go was often the difference between completing a transition activity and not. 


3. Transition surveys and aptitude tests

Got a short day coming up? Is it the end of the semester and the kids are too squirrelly to really concentrate on anything? Great! Have I got the activity for you! Transition assessments. 

Since transition assessment is required in all IEPs that include a transition plan, this is a great time to kill two birds with one stone.

We offer a pretty comprehensive transition survey. It covers all the main transition need areas. Since it’s based on preferences you can give it year after year, more than once a year if you would like. I gave one at the beginning of the year and the end of the year to see if the student made any changes to their plans over the year.  

Another great use of time is an interest inventory or skill inventory. Again, Career One Stop has this covered. 

This all gives you helpful data about your student’s interests, skills, and goals, which can be used in their IEP. It allows your student time to think about what they want to do after graduation, and what they need to do to make it to that goal.  


4. Make those transition activities work for you 

Transition activities can seem daunting. They don’t have to be. Think of them as helpful suggestions for team members. 

One of the more obvious things to include in the transition activities are classes or programs students can attend to gain the experience and knowledge they need for their future plans. 

You don’t have to be responsible for all of these activities. I usually took this chance to name the student as the party responsible for the goal. If a student was hoping to be a pro athlete, I’d make trying out for a school version of that sport their responsibility. 

Parents and guardians can also be responsible for helping students have experiences that help them explore transition. Having a student interested in veterinary sciences volunteer at the humane society is certainly not something that the school can provide, but families certainly can. 

Never forget that an IEP team is a team. Everyone can contribute something, and the transition activities are a great place to include students and families. 

These suggestions can really help a student decide if a certain career is for them. You can get a lot of information out of transition activities, without putting in a lot of effort. 


5. Have enlightening conversations with students  

People don’t always know what they actually want. 

This is true of students and adults. 

Too many students leave school with dreams and goals that have nothing to do with what they actually need or want. 

Most special education teachers have met a student whose ideal job is being in the NFL, but they have never played football for a team. 

There is a disconnect between what they actually want (to make money, to be active at a job, to be involved in sports) and what they don’t want (to wake up early, to work out all the time, to take orders). 

Remember those transition activities, and assessments you’ve done? This is where you can use that data. 

Help students see early on the real tasks involved in the jobs they’re looking into early on. This conversation may seem hard, as if you’re “killing their dream” but really you’re just showing them what their dream entails to make it a reality. 

During high school and after, students may have more access to resources that can help them start down a path that they end up loving much more than that ill-suited early dream. 

You can also help them to make intermediary steps to a larger career. Some students I had might have their hearts set on becoming something like a doctor. I would often encourage them to take smaller steps on their way, such as starting as a medical assistant to help them get experience in the medical field. 

These hard conversations can help students to think of pathways they have never even heard of before. They don’t have to be dream killers, they can be dream modifiers or even new dream builders. 

A great resource I found that helps students to see there are many more careers in the world than they’re probably thinking of are these great free posters. They’d also make a nice packet or research starter if you don’t have space for them in your class.


6. Use transition goals to frame other IEP conversations

Transition plans have a double superpower. They are not simply great ways to help students focus on the future, they can also help focus an IEP team. 

I started every IEP I held with the transition plan. We started by discussing what the purpose of everything else we would cover would be. It helped focus the entire conversation on what would help a student get closer to achieving their goals. 

This helped us clarify many things. If a student was four-year university-bound, we may want to move them towards only relying on accommodations that would be available to them in college as they went forward in school. If a student was not headed in that direction, sometimes more intensive accommodations that wouldn’t be allowable at a college campus would be a better idea. 

Having an end goal in mind can cause the team to be more creative and flexible. It also takes the focus off of things like standardized tests for their own sakes and makes the conversation about that student’s needs. 


7. Foster growth mindset and curiosity

Many students have an answer when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up. It’s one of the most frequent questions a kid gets asked outside of “how’s school going”. 

Not all answers come from a place of passion. Often, they’re telling you what they think you want to hear or parroting some job other people seem to think suits them. 

Many students don’t think they can do other things and may not even know about other paths

That’s where you come in. 

In your class, stress things like productive struggle. Be open and honest about how “failure” is part of the process and proof a student is trying. These beliefs (along with many other things) make up “growth mindset”. Students should be taught that ‘intelligence’ and ‘talent’ are not “fixed” traits. They can be cultivated through work, practice, and patience. 

Make your feedback to students process-oriented, about the work and where they are mastering skills and which need more work. Try to avoid “you are” statements, such as “you are so smart!”. These make skills a matter of who you are, instead of what you did. Give feedback that focuses on the work itself.

This goes a long way towards students feeling comfortable practicing transition skills. 

In tandem with making your classroom a growth-mindset friendly environment, also allow it to be curiosity-driven. Whenever possible, let students follow their curiosity. Allow them to select their own topics for projects. Allow them to fold their own interests into your work. 

Take time in class to look something up with the students if a question arises. Share questions you find fascinating. Have class discussions.

School is not often a safe place to be curious. Students are told their questions don’t pertain to the subject at hand and that sends a message that their question isn’t as important as what you’re teaching. They’re told, “that’s just how things are”. None of this encourages exploration or investigation. 

One way to help students think about what they want to do in the future is the question: “What problem do you want to solve?” If students aren’t free to explore the problems and challenges of the world that interest them, how can they ever hope to answer it? 

An open, exploration-based classroom, is the best transition plan generator you can provide as a teacher. 


8. Focus on social skills 

No matter what your students are looking to grow to become in the future, their social skills and self-advocacy will be paramount. 

Transition assessments, for me, often included data from classroom interaction. I would include observation data about how and when students interacted with one another. 

Every time you teach a student to be kind to others, you are increasing their transition skill set. Every time you teach students to see the value in their teammates, you are increasing their transition skills. Every time you teach them to respectfully stand up for their needs with teachers and staff, you are giving them a transition skill. 

We have many great team and class builders you can use to create a more cooperative classroom environment in all of our social-emotional learning units

We have a helpful email template for helping your students communicate in a productive way with their teachers. 

These are all skills that will help students to transition no matter what their goals are. 

A final thought

A transition plan is someone’s dream. It is ok for dreams to change. If you write a new transition plan every year because a student changes their mind that often, that is not just ok, it’s proof they’re exploring, that they are not allowing themselves to be limited. 

If you do some of the things in this list, hopefully, their world will continue to expand with possibilities. 

Never scorn or malign someone else’s dreams, even if they’re improbable or far-fetched. You have no idea what the future will look like. 

Your job as an educator is to help people picture their ideal future, help them see a path in that direction and arm them with the skills to be successful on that path. It’s a pretty special job, truly a superpower. Cherish that charge and keep on doing right by it. 

Also, make sure to give yourself the same care and consideration you give your students. Dream as big as you want. Change along the way, change often, and change your mind. We’re all transitioning all of the time. 

Oh the places you'll go

Looking for some tools to help you transition plan with your students? Try our transition bundle with everything you need to help your students plan for their next steps!

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