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Transition Goals: What are they and why do they matter in the IEP process?

By September 24, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist

As an evaluator and consultant, I spend a lot of time in team meetings. Usually, I expect to be invited to more of these at the beginning of the school year when teams meet to review assessments or important changes that have occurred during summer months. This year, there will be an unprecedented high number of team meetings early in the school year as families and schools strive to make up for time lost during COVID-19 related school closures. Therefore, it seems timely to write my blog on transition goals and their role in the IEP process.

For all students with individualized educational programs (IEPs), teams are accustomed to writing and implementing annual goals. But, for students 16 and older across the country (or students in Massachusetts who will be turning 14 and older during this IEP period), their IEP process also needs to include transition goals. What is confusing about transition goals is that we commonly used this verbiage to describe a few different components of the IEP for transition-aged students.

In my opinion, the most important transition goals, are the measurable postsecondary goals, that are included in the IEP and which describe the outcomes that a team expects for the student to achieve after exiting public education and which are based on the student’s own strengths, preferences, interests and vision. Every IEP across the country must include measurable postsecondary goals. In Massachusetts, postsecondary goals are documented in the student’s vision statement. Before the student became transition aged, the vision statement typically described the family’s and team’s expectations and dreams for the student over the next 1 to 5 years. For IEPs of students turning 14 and older, the vision statement needs to include explicit statements about the outcomes that are expected for the student in transition planning areas. Postsecondary goals for education or training as well as employment are required for all students on IEPs, and many students will also have independent living and community participation goals.

Below is a formula for writing a postsecondary goal that is adapted from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT):

Within 2 months of graduation, Joseph will participate in supported employment training and community-based training with assistance from MA Department of Developmental Services.A few examples of measurable postsecondary goals are included below:

  • After earning her diploma, Sarah will attend a four-year college in Massachusetts or New Hampshire (and major in education or child development).
  • After graduation, Tom will work part-time at TJ Maxx with support from his coworkers and supervisor.
  • After high school, Joseph will use public transportation (e.g., subway, bus) to get to and from his apprenticeship.

Unlike annual goals, measurable postsecondary goals are not goals that will be achieved in the calendar year or even while the student is on an IEP. However, there is another type of “transition goal” that is closely related. Once an IEP team has clearly defined a student’s postsecondary goals, they are required to identify transition services that the student will need to make progress toward these goals. When the IEP is developed, the IEP must include annual IEP goals that clearly and directly relate to the student’s postsecondary goals and transition service needs. For example, a student who wants to attend college may need annual goals related to building executive functioning, self-advocacy and college-level academic skills; while a student who wants to use human service supports for community-based employment may need to build communication, self-regulation and work readiness skills. Annual IEP goals should be based on the student’s disability-related needs and also their postsecondary goals—Given the student’s disabilities, what skills does the student need to build this year to be able to attain their postsecondary goals in the future?


Special education is about preparing students for future education, employment, independent living and community engagement. Measurable postsecondary goals are how we make sure that special education is individualized for each student, and transition-related annual IEP goals are how we make sure we are progressing toward the postsecondary goals. When we know what the student wants for their adult postsecondary life, we can use the IEP process to help the student build academic and functional skills that can support the student in achieving that vision.

The next time you look at an IEP, take a look at the vision statement (or the section where your state records measurable postsecondary goals). Can you clearly tell what the student wants to do after high school? Are there both employment and education or training goals included? What about independent living and community engagement? These measurable postsecondary goals are the guide posts that provide direction for the IEP process and ensure that the team is working together in support of results and outcomes that will support the student throughout their lifespan.

For more information about postsecondary goals and annual IEP goals in Massachusetts, check out Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2013-1: Postsecondary Goals and Annual IEP Goals in the Transition Planning Process from MA DESE:

This link to a presenter’s guide for a presentation on Improving Secondary Transition Services from NTACT is also a great resource for understanding the role of postsecondary goals and annual goals in the IEP process as outlined in IDEA:


About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.