The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:
Transition from School to Work and Community Life

What is transition?

For students receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), transition is preparing for and moving from school to work and community life. This is an important rite of passage for all young people. It is a significant milestone for youth with disabilities as well. Work in particular helps define a personís self-concept and sense of participation in society. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law requiring a free appropriate education for children with disabilities, recognizes that schools play an important role in preparing students for this transition.

What does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act specify about transition services?

Beginning in 1990, the IDEA required schools to prepare students for the transition to adult life by incorporating a statement of needed transition services into the student's individualized education program (IEP) no later than age 16. The 1997 amendments to IDEA require that a statement of transition service needs begin to be included by age 14. Transition services are defined as "a coordinated set of activities for a student, designed within an outcome-oriented process, which promotes movement from school to post-school activities." Post-school activities include "post-secondary education, vocational training, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living or community participation."

IDEA also states that "the coordinated set of activities shall be based upon the individual student's needs, taking into account the student's preferences and interests." These activities include "instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation."

Why is preparation for transition so important?

Young people leaving the school system frequently find there is no coordinated adult system of services and supports to help them find work, housing and recreational and leisure activities. Many have difficulty finding jobs because they have not learned the academic, technical, and social skills necessary to find and/or maintain employment. Too many young adults end up sitting at home with very little involvement in their communities. The transition requirements of the IDEA are designed to help students successfully leave school to live and work within the community. Transition planning and activities cover the student's school years from age 14 until school completion, which may be through age 21 if there are continuing educational needs.

How are transition services determined for each student?

The IDEA mandates that transition services be addressed for all students with disabilities, and as such, transition planning must be part of the individualized education program (IEP) meeting held annually for each student. The IEP is developed in a team meeting in which all members of the IEP team decide what transition services should be included in the student's IEP. The specific needs of the student for post-secondary services should determine who is invited to the IEP meeting. As the student approaches graduation, representatives of community agencies and organizations that provide adult services should be invited to the meeting. The student should always be included as part of the team. Some students may even be able to chair their IEP meeting, especially those who have been prepared to take the lead (Wehmeyer & Kelchner, 1997). All students should be supported to enable them to express their preferences in developing their own transition plan.

What happens to the IEP process when the student reaches the age of majority?

When a student reaches the age of majority (age 18 in most states), the state may provide that all rights accorded to the parents under Part B of the IDEA will transfer to the student, with the exception of the right to notice which is both retained by the parents and transfers to the student. Beginning at least one year before the student reaches the age of majority, the IEP must include a statement that the student has been informed of those rights under the IDEA, if any, that will transfer to the student on reaching the age of majority. The school district must notify the student and the parent of the transfer of rights one year prior to the age of majority.

These requirements do not apply to students who have been determined to be legally incompetent under state law. If the state has a legal means to determine if a child who has not been legally determined to be incompetent is not able to provide informed consent, that state may establish procedures for appointing a parent or other person to represent the educational interests of the student. The regulations clarify this to apply only if the state has additional laws and procedures that allow for a lesser determination of competency for specific purposes. Like the guardianship procedure, however, these "lesser determinations of competency" are legal processes leading to some legal judgment about the individual's capacity to provide informed consent.

What school practices promote transition from school to work?

All students need to acquire the skills necessary to live in their communities. They need to know how to shop, use the post office, go to the doctor or clinic and participate in recreation and leisure activities. Students need to learn to drive or use public transportation. They need to learn how to manage their personal finances. They need to learn the skills for living in their own place and for maintaining personal health and safety. Schools can provide these learning opportunities to students with mental retardation, at least in part, by providing an individualized education program that is functional and based on the student's unique characteristics and preferences.

Students with mental retardation also need to be prepared for future employment. Several school practices support the student's preparation for transition from school to work:

What can parents do to prepare their son or daughter for transition from school to work and community life?

The road leading to a successful transition from childhood to adulthood begins much earlier than the teenage years. It starts when children learn about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses and, so doing, begin to value themselves. It ends when, as adults, these same children can take control over choices and decisions that impact their lives and take responsibility for their actions. This is called self-determination (Davis & Wehmeyer, undated).

Parents can be effective educators in communicating to their children the value of work and by teaching behaviors that develop their childrenís employment potential. Parents can provide opportunities for enjoyable community activities that allow children to see people at work in different settings. Parents can allow as much independence as possible, assign children responsibility of certain chores to help instill a positive work ethic, promote appropriate behavior at home and in social situations, assist their children in practicing good grooming skills, and emphasize the importance of physical fitness.

Parents can also support their childrenís development of self-determination skills by helping them learn to work toward goals, setting realistic but ambitious expectations for their achievements, and allowing them to take responsibility for their own actions. Parents should not leave choice-making to chance, but provide many opportunities for their children to make choices, ranging from what to wear to helping the family decide where to go on vacation. By being allowed the opportunities to make choices and decisions, to explore and take risks and to learn from experiences of success and failure, children will develop the abilities and attitudes necessary to be self-determined adults.

What is the parentsí role in collaborating with the school for their childís transition?

Parents can hold high expectations for their child when the IEP team meets for planning the transition aspects of their individualized education program. They can also assure that the IEP team considers all aspects of their childís future, not just work. The IEP team should consider where the student would like to live, how the student will manage transportation, how the student will manage financial affairs, and what types of leisure activities the student might pursue. Future supports the student might need should be considered. This information will assist the team in developing the studentís educational goals. The focus on functional, life-centered education for learners with disabilities requires information pertaining to the studentís home and community experiences and skills. Parents have a wealth of information in this regard and should be active participants in defining the transition services to be provided to their son or daughter.

What can schools do to help students as they prepare to leave school?

Schools can develop cooperative relationships with employers and adult human service agencies, so that students leaving school receive support in making the transition to their new life in the community. Vocational rehabilitation agencies, employment and training programs, transportation systems and other agencies should be included in the transition process. As the studentís needs for supports and services are identified, services from each agency can be arranged and included in the studentís transition plan. Many states are converting to systems designed to give the person with a disability the control over how funds are spent for adult supports. States are using the term ďSelf-DeterminationĒ to describe this new way of providing funding for what the person needs.


Davis, S. & Wehmeyer. M. (Undated). 10 Steps to Promoting Independence in the Home. Silver Spring, MD: The Arc of the United States

Wehmeyer, M.L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (1998). Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities: Basic skills for successful transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Kelchner, K. (1997). Whose Future is it Anyway? A Student-Directed Transition Planning Program. Silver Spring, MD: The Arc of the United States.

Wehmeyer, M.L., Morningstar, M. & Husted, D. (1999). Family Involvement in Transition Planning and Implementation. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

For more information:

The National Transition Alliance for Youth with Disabilities, Transition Research Institute, University of Illinois, 113 Childrenís Research Center, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820. Phone: 217/333-2325. Web site: This web site contains information on promising transition practices and programs and provides transition resource state sheets listing relevant agencies.

National Transition Network, Institute on Community Integration (UAP), University of Minnesota, 103-U-Tech Center, 1313 Fifth St., SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455. Phone: 612-627-4008. Web site: This web site has a variety of publications on transition, including a series of parent briefs.

The Arc thanks Michael Wehmeyer, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor, Life Span Institute, and Director, Self-Determination Projects, The Beach Center on Families and Disability, The University of Kansas, for review and advice on this fact sheet.

Revised June 2000