Transition Planning: The Missing Link Between Special Education and Successful Adulthood

By January 15, 2018NESCA Notes 2018
What is Transition Planning and Why Does it Matter?

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

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) is the law that guarantees students with disabilities an equal opportunity for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). For professionals and parents supporting youth with special needs, and for the children we love, this is a powerful law. IDEA 2004 guarantees that no matter what a young person’s struggles, they have the right to learn and grow and be provided with the specialized instruction necessary for their individual progress.

While many people are aware that IDEA 2004 guarantees the right to special education for academic learning, the concept of “transition services” is still catching on. In addition to requiring that public schools educate our students, IDEA 2004 mandates that special education services are designed to meet a student’s unique needs and to prepare them for further education, employment and independent living. According to this influential federal law, it is not enough that students be included in learning core academics (reading, writing, math, science, history). Rather, we are mandated to ensure that students with disabilities make progress toward being able to manage learning, working, and daily living activities in their postsecondary adult lives.

In December, I was excited to see the Huffington Post (see link below) publish an article emphasizing the importance of transition services and the challenges for students both during and after public education if this part of special education is ‘forgotten.’ The article was written by Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader and published in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. The authors profiled two young people who participated in public special education: Kate and Peter.

Kate’s educational program did not include meaningful transition services (e.g., career planning, homework activities) and was primarily driven by parent goals rather than person-centered activities. The initial outcome for Kate after special education was unemployment; after two years, her parents secured work for her using their own personal networks but not in an area of true interest or strength. Kate’s father summarized, “It was my absolute goal to have her not fall off the map. It’s unfortunate, she kind of has.”

Peter, however, was an active participant in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. While career testing indicated possible aptitude in food services, Peter wanted to be a Supreme Court justice and his team supported his enrollment in community college courses utilizing his school’s dual-enrollment program. With this experiential learning activity, Peter realized he was not interested in college and changed his goal, enrolling instead in vocational technical classes related to office administration. When Peter finished high school, he immediately went to work in an office and continued to full time employment as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit organization.

For so many students with disabilities, experiential learning is a critical component of their development of career, classroom, community living, and home living skills. This is best achieved when students have a collaborative IEP team and good transition services. Butrymowicz and Mader interviewed 100 parents, students, advocates and experts across the country and found that the best transition planning requires several things:

  1. An accurate and thoughtful assessment of a student’s abilities and interests
  2. Clear, measurable goals related to his or her postsecondary aspirations
  3. Appropriate support and services to help them achieve their goals

NESCA has provided person-centered transition services since 2009 and this article beautifully captured what we see every day in our work. What I love about being a transition specialist is helping young people to find their voices, to figure out what they love most, and to create small successes that can ultimately build into a meaningful postsecondary adult life. While many parents and educators I work with can find team meetings challenging or stressful, this is often my favorite part of the job — working collaboratively with the student, parents, educators, and community members to think creatively and build a unique strength-based transition plan.


Butrymowicz, S., and Mader, J. (2017). This ‘Forgotten’ Part of Special Education Could Lead To Better Outcomes For Students: Many former special education students struggle to find good-paying jobs, and high schools are partly to blame. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from 

About the Author:
Kelley Challen, EdM, CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She 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 also 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. While Ms. Challen has special expertise 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. She is also 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.