5 Reasons to Care About Transition

The Transition Dilemma

An individual Education Program (IEP) doesn’t exactly excite feelings of joy in your average teacher. These pieces of paperwork are long, tiresome to read or write, and chocked full of legalese. Fun!

An IEP has many sections that your average teacher-type sees as perfunctory, none more than the transition section. For those not in the know, this is the part of the IEP that talks about what the student will do after they graduate and how the IEP will help them get there.

Typical reaction to this: “Who cares what this kid is doing when they grow up? I need to teach them all of the maths before they graduate and they can barely count now!”

I sympathize. We often get all caught up in all of the state mandates and school mandates and personal mandates we have, but that’s a real same because the transition section can be magical.

Think of the hat as a good transition plan.

How does it produce this magic? Here’s how:

1. Gives your kids a light at the end of the tunnel.

Its nice to know something is waiting for you at the end.

If I am the one to break this to you for the first time, I’m sorry, but most kids, and especially those with IEPs, hate school. School is difficult and tedious.

Imagine going to a place everyday to have people ask you to do something that you don’t know how to do, aren’t very good at and see no point to; let’s say whittling. These people then reprimand you for not showing proper interest or enthusiasm for whittling. You’re graded against the work of people who DO know how to whittle and on top of all that you have to follow an arbitrary set of rules that change depending on the room you’re sitting in.


You have been sentenced to go to this place involuntarily. There is no escape for another 4-8 years. There is no trial, and no appeal. You’ll whittle or die trying.

It sucks.

What we can do with the transition section is: at least make that hard time meaningful.

The transition provides the student with a reason to try and care. It makes this struggle a pathway to something more. We can even suggest things for them to do in their free time that helps them move towards their dream as well. This can provide a needed stress valve for these students.

They may still hate school but we can make all that struggle productive. It can be tailored, such as “you need to write because police officers need to write reports all the time” or it may be more general such as, “you need to graduate because a diploma is necessary to go to trade school”.

Whatever it is, they need to know all that whittling is getting them somewhere.

2. Provides the WHY for the whole team

Because it’s on the test?

The IEP is no picnic. Students with a disabilities are likely to be behind their typical peers. They may be missing work. They may be missing tons of school. Every teacher is concerned. They want the kid to be successful. The parent is concerned, they too want their kid to be successful.

Wait a minute though, why?

Why do I want this kid to write 10 sentences in a paragraph? Why do I want them to properly shade an apple? Why do they need to be able to write a proof? Sing a song? Read at grade level?

I think for many team members the answer is simple: so they can pass the class.

There are many ways to accomplish this though. We can provide accommodations of various kinds. We can modify the curriculum. We can place the student in a different class. How do we decide which path to take?

Most of the time we think of what will do the job in just that class, but that’s a disservice.

A student who is college-bound can really be hurt by a modification to the curriculum. They can come away thinking that the level they are being asked to achieve to is acceptable in college for a similar course. It sets them up to fail.

Is their ambition to be an artist or designer? If not, electives that are more aligned, like business or language classes may be more appropriate than art.

If the team knows what the end game is for this student, they can make all their decisions aligned with that goal. We can set appropriate expectations that set the student up for success when they go on to their planned next steps.

3. Tough conversations should start early

Sorry, but it’s not going to work out.

So, I heard you thinking above, “what if the kid or parent have an unreasonable transition goal?”

This happens all of the time. A kid who has a cognitive impairment and reads at the second grade level in 10th grade wants to be a brain surgeon. It’s pretty unlikely to happen, but no one wants to shoot down a dream. What kind of monsters are we!

The good kind of monsters as it turns out. The kind which help a dream live, by patching it up, but its best to start this process early.

I teach high school now, but I used to teach middle school. Transitions were rarely written and almost never talked about. However, that’s a pity because when we start early it makes shaping a dream much easier.

Kids start hearing about jobs early. They get feedback from family and friends about what kind of jobs are good and which are less desirable. They get an idea of themselves and what they see themselves doing. They’re unlikely to know much about the literally millions of jobs out there. They pick ones they see on TV or the movies or family members have. If we expose them to more career exploration in late elementary and early middle school that may help them see that there are many more possibilities. They may also be aware that there are requirements for these jobs.

As they grow, we can help them to see where their actual talents and interests are.

Maybe they want to be a brain surgeon because they like the idea of healing people. Maybe they’re good with children and would make the world’s greatest children’s hospital orderly. They could live independently, make an income and work in a setting they love.

See? The dream isn’t dead, its reborn! If you do nothing, and say “sure kid, you can be a brain surgeon” then the dream will die when the kid realizes that they don’t have the skills to even start towards that dream and have no idea what to do instead.

If we start these conversations early, kids may get to high school with the “why” in hand and a pocket full of acceptable dream jobs to explore as they grow. In high school we can help them see the reality of the challenges their job will take to achieve and they can adjust either the level of work they want to put in or the dream to something they feel more capable of achieving.

Basically, we never have to even have a tough conversation because we arm the kid with all the information to make an achievable, ambitious determination for themselves.

4. Keeps conversations on track

This is not where we all wanted to be.

I’ve been in many an IEP that starts out on track and quickly becomes a discussion of specific missing homework assignments. That’s a good conversation for a parent-teacher conference, but an IEP is not that.

An IEP should be a discussion of where a kid is, the skills they have, the skills they need and how that gap will be bridged.

Having that end goal, makes it easy to regroup.

You can veer the conversation back to the tracks by saying “The essay that is due is a good example of Student X’s writing deficits, a skill X will need to be an effective veterinary assistant. How can we scaffold this skill this year to help X gain these skills?” Boom! Back on topic.

5. Every kid should have one (and some adults)

I hear you cat. Me too. 

I work in a school with a ratio of 400 kids to every 1 counselor. In some places its better, but in many places its worse. Kids don’t have a ton of personal attention in the career planning department.

Some students have great families that support them and talk often about career planning and college, but many do not.

That’s where the transition section comes into play. We can provide students with ideas for how to see their job in action. I never job shadowed before I took this job, and I wish I had.

We can suggest schools they’ve never heard of. We can have them start on skills they hadn’t though about. Here’s an example, your student with ADHD who takes medication is going to college. Do they know how to get their own prescription? Do they know how to make a doctor’s appointment? That’s a homework assignment you can give the family to make this kid ready to maintain their success in a new setting.

A well executed transition plan is like having a free life coach. Your case manager asks you about your hopes, dreams, skills, likes and dislikes and thinks about all the challenges in your way. They give you things to try and a pathway to achieving what you want to achieve.

Frankly, I’m jealous since I had to do all that stuff by myself. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a well thought out transition plan.

Transition Planning Resources

So now you’re on the transition plan train, but where to start? Here are a few resources I use to help my students explore their talents and goals in your class.

First of all I adore this line of thinking:

“We need to instead ask students, “What problem do you want to solve?” That allows educators to follow up with, “OK, what do you need to learn in order to solve those problems? What blogs, what readings, what classes can you take, online and offline to really dive into and understand the problem and solve it?” That changes the conversation for students.” Jaime Casap.

Here’s how I start them thinking about themselves:

16 Personalities  First, the classic Myers-Briggs personality test. Its a little like a horoscope but it gets them thinking about what they’re good at.

Newslea  This is a great site with grade-level changing readings. I especially adore the ones about different careers for younger students because it starts to open their mind to more possibilities.

CareerOneStop This site has a ton of great resources. There are a ton of self-assessments for interests, values and skills. The thing my kids like the best are the videos of people actually doing those jobs.

EducationPlanner This is a great site with assessments and checklists. It even starts at middle school!

Happy transitioning everyone!



I co own a design and production studio, Humming Moose Studios having just decided to follow a long time dream of having at least one peaceful moment a week. I was an 11 year special education teacher who has worked in every grade level in three states. I have a masters degree in special education from Loyola Marymount University.

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