Understanding Transition Services:  A Parent's Guide to Legal Standards and Effective Practices

Gretchen L. Jefferson
May Institute

Robert F. Putnam, Ph.D.
May Institute
Harvard Medical School

May Institute
One Commerce Way
Norwood, MA 02062

This article is a result of a collaborative project of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, the Ashburnham-Westminster School District, and the May Institute.

Table of Contents

What are transition services?

Transition services are systematic, purposeful actions that are specified in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to prepare and support students with special needs in their transition from the school community to adult community living (Wehman, 1996). Federal and state laws mandate transition service planning for students with special needs who are 16 years of age. The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA-97), a statute with a set of federal regulations that established guidelines for the delivery of special education services, defines transition services:

a coordinated set of activities for a student, designed within an outcome- oriented process which promotes movement from school to post-school activities including post-secondary education, vocational training, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation (Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 602.30).
  •  Assess: Individual needs, preferences, interests, aptitudes
  • Inform:  A coordinated set of activities
  • Motivate:  Desired Post-school outcomes 

These activities should be:

based upon the individual student's needs, taking into account the student's preferences and interests; and includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation (CFR Section 602.30).


Check Point 1

1. Is your son or daughter currently receiving special education services?

Back to Table of Contents

What should transition services "look like"?

Transition services are considered to be a balance of teaching everyday living skills in combination with vocational skills. This balance in teaching life and work skills has come from research that shows that students with disabilities are at a much higher risk of dropping out of school and being unemployed post-school than their nondisabled peers (Edgar & Levine, 1987).

Several studies report that the unemployment rate for students with disabilities ranges between 50-75%. One of the predictors of student unemployment is a lack of "on the job" experience prior to leaving school. Those students with work-study and paid work experiences tend to have higher rates of employment, better adjustment to the workplace, and higher incomes. Each student's ability to remain gainfully employed and to acquire other critical skills (social, daily living) has a direct impact on their success in independent living (Wehman, 1996).

The primary purpose of transition planning is to prepare students with disabilities to be competent in each of three skill areas in order to maximize integration into their communities: a) personal and social skills, b) daily living skills, c) occupational and vocational skills. Examples of the skills taught in each of these skill areas are presented below:

Transition Services

 Personal/Social Skills

Daily Living Skills

Occupational/Vocational Skills
  1. Maintaining hygiene/appearance
  2. Accepting praise/criticism
  3. Situationally appropriate behavior
  4. Interpersonal skills
  5. Adequate communication
  6. Problem-solving skills
  7. Decision-making, self-advocacy, self-protection, rights
  1. Managing finances
  2. Maintaining a home
  3. Caring for personal needs
  4. Buying/preparing food
  5. Buying/caring for clothing
  6. Recreation/leisure pursuits
  7. Community mobility
  1. Understanding and exploring occupational and vocational alternatives
  2. Appropriate work habits/behavior
  3. Marketable vocational skills
  4. Job-seeking skills
Check Point 2

1.Does your son or daughter need additional training in any of these three skill areas?

Back to Table of Contents

How is the transition plan formalized?

The transition plan is explicitly stated in the student's individualized educational plan (IEP). Because the IEP will act as the blueprint for all services, it should be carefully developed. Although IDEA requires that transition services be formally implemented when students reach the age of 16, the student's IEP should be annually updated at age 14 to contain:

a statement of the transition service needs of the child under the applicable components of the child's IEP that focuses on the child's courses of study (such as participation in advancement-placement courses or a vocational program)....beginning at age 16 (or younger, if determined appropriate by the IEP Team), a statement of needed transition services for the child, including, when appropriate, a statement of the interagency responsibilities or any needed linkages (CFR Section 614, emphasis added).

Transition service needs should be explicitly stated in the IEP as functional, measurable goals and objectives. Goals should target skill areas that are critical to successful transition (social, daily living, vocational). Functional goals and objectives include those that are based on the demands of adult life across a variety of settings. Measurable goals and objectives clearly state the criteria for success or "how far....by when".

IEP Goal and Objective Examples

  Functional and Measurable Nonfunctional and NonMeasurable
Goal The accuracy of Johnny's community banking skills will increase 50% over baseline levels. Johnny will improve his banking skills.
Objective When Johnny makes a purchase using his debit card or checkbook, he will balance his checkbook immediately with 100% accuracy across five opportunities. Johnny will complete banking worksheets with 80% accuracy.

To develop functional and measurable goals, begin with the student's present level of performance in all the targeted skill areas (PLEP). Including the student's present level of performance (PLEP) in the IEP is imperative because it will be the baseline against which all progress will be measured. A comprehensive assessment of the student's skills is needed to determine PLEP. Assessment should include evaluation of performance in social, daily living, and vocational skill areas (Bateman & Linden, 1997).

Once the functional and measurable goals and objectives have been specified on the IEP, the issue of how instruction in these skill areas will be provided must be addressed. To the greatest degree possible, instruction should occur in natural settings such as a particular job site, grocery store, or bank located in the student's community. When selecting these natural instructional settings, identify and use locations/facilities/job sites that the student is most likely to access post-school. Attending to this detail will help provide a "seamless" transition when the student has completed school.

Check Point 3

1. If your child is 14 years of age or older, does their IEP contain a statement of need for transition services?

2. If your child is 16 years of age or older, does their IEP specify which agencies will provide post-school services for them?

3. Is it clear from the IEP who is responsible for promoting progress toward transition goals?

4. Review each of your child's transition goals and objectives:

  • Are goals stated in functional, measurable terms?
  • Is PLEP based on recent assessments and is it clearly stated?
  • Are the criteria for success clearly stated?
  • Is training set to occur in natural environments (i.e., the community)?
Back to Table of Contents

When should you begin to plan for transition?

It is important to consider the number of agencies involved in the student's care and the expected level of support through adult life when deciding when to begin the transition planning process. If multiple agencies are involved in the student's care and you expect this involvement to continue through adulthood, begin transition planning early in their school career. If the student is at risk for dropping out of school or has severe disabilities, it is critical to begin the planning process at an early age.

Check Point 4

1. Is your child currently served by multiple community agencies?

2. If you child is 14 years of age, do they regularly participate in vocational activities in the community?

3. If your child is 18 years of age, do they hold a work position in the community?

4. If your child is 20 years of age, are they settled in their residence, job, and community activities that they will maintain as adults? 

Back to Table of Contents

Who should be involved in the transition planning process?

Families play an invaluable role in the transition planning process in that they contribute knowledge of their children, affect their child's values and decisions (i.e., career, residence), and usually have continuous contact with their child throughout the transition. The research has shown that parent involvement is key to successful transitions. Student involvement also is essential to effective transition. Students should be invited and encouraged to participate in transition related meetings with the primary goals of participation to teach students that: a) transition is a process, b) self-advocacy skills are valuable, and c) priorities and personal vision are important to the transition process (Wehmeyer & Sands, 1998). 

A transition planning team may consist of any of the following individuals: Student, family members, school psychologist, general, vocational, and special education teacher(s), school principal, vocational rehabilitation counselors, speech/language pathologist, community agency representatives, and other related service personnel. A critical component of transition success is student and family involvement throughout the planning process. Non-school personnel who will be involved with your child after school should be involved in the process at least two years prior to school exit.

Check Point 5

1. As parents or guardians, have you regularly attended your child's IEP meeting?

2. If your child is at least 14 years of age, have they regularly attended their IEP meeting?

3. If your child is at least 14 years of age, do they have a team of both educational and community professionals to assist in transition plan development?

Some researchers suggest that vocational assessment - a critical component of transition planning - begin in the elementary grades through helping students develop: a) interpersonal and decision-making skills and by b) ensuring that students have the opportunity to explore vocations and careers. This transition extends into middle school where initial efforts are made to formally assess the student's: a) interests, b) aptitudes, c) work habits, d) career maturity, and e) development of job exploration and interview skills (Bates, 1990). 

Once the student has reached high school, transition planning focuses on specific job training and obtaining employment with evaluations of student performance at the work site and through work samples. The objective of transition planning at the high school level is to promote the "seamless" transition mentioned earlier. In order to make the transition from high school to community living seamless, students should spend increasing amounts of time in the community as each school year passes. By age 20, the transitioning student should be settled into their: a) living arrangement, b) employment position, and c) community activities that they are expected to access at age 22. This goal is accomplished by systematically including the student in the community early in the educational process (Martin, Mithaug, Agran & Husch, 1990).

Back to Table of Contents

What is the transition planning process?

The transition planning process can be thought of as a series of phases: a) planning and development, b) implementation, and c) outcome evaluation. Planning begins with establishment of a transition team. The team is responsible for carrying out all three phases of transition. Their initial task is to develop long-range community living goals with the interests and preferences of the student and their family being given priority in goal development. Once goals have been established, comprehensive assessments of student needs in all goal areas (social, daily living, vocational) should be conducted in order to determine the student's PLOP in these areas. In addition to these assessments, school and community professionals and agencies that may be involved in the transition process should be identified. 

Upon completion of all assessments, coordinate an IEP planning meeting to include all team members. The purpose of this meeting is to establish functional and measurable goals and objectives as previously discussed. Clearly state in the body of the IEP what type of vocational experience the student will have and how many hours per week they will be working at the job site. Specify within the body of the IEP, the natural environments to be used for training. Also specify in the body of the IEP which team members are responsible for implementation of training in each of the goal areas (Bateman & Linden, 1997).

Implementation of the transition plan is the responsibility of all team members. Remember, to the greatest degree possible, transition skills should be taught in the environments where students will be expected to use them as independent adults. Throughout implementation of the transition plan, progress toward transition goals should be measured daily, weekly, or biweekly. Through progress monitoring at these short time intervals, team members will have the information necessary to adjust instructional programs to ensure that the rate of student progress is sufficient to meet the transition annual goals. Changes to transition goals may include an increase or decrease in the level of support given to the student, especially in the area of employment (i.e., supported employment or additional coaching at current site). Transition goals and objectives also should be adjusted to meet changing community living goals of students and their families (McCrea, 1993). 

Outcome evaluation is best accomplished through ongoing data collection on progress toward transition goals. Ongoing data collection allows team members to track progress on a daily, weekly, or biweekly basis. Progress data should be used to change instructional programming, modify goals, and to establish new goals. Outcome evaluation also should include tracking progress toward the major milestones of effective transition services described in the next section. How quickly and effectively a program adjusts to the needs of a student is an indicator of the quality of the program.

Check Point 6

1. Does my child have a transiting team?

2. Do the assessments to be given evaluate areas of need for transition?

3. Are PLOP, functional and measurable goals, responsible persons, and time in the community clearly specified in the transition plan?

4. Have outcome measures and the frequency of progress monitoring been specified in the plan?

5. Are we as parents satisfied that this transition plan meets the transition needs of our child?

Back to Table of Contents

Are current transition services effective?

Programs associated with successful post-school outcomes typically include: a) outcome-based evaluation, b) inclusion in school and community, c) community referenced instruction/curriculum, d) person-centered transition planning, e) job placement prior to graduation, and f) family involvement. These services should produce measurable progress during the post-school years in the individual's success in the following areas: a) the ability to use community resources (e.g., bank, transportation), b) establishment of employment, c) participation in a social network (e.g., friends, acquaintances), and d) independence with lifestyle choices (Wehman, 1996). 

A critical component of effective services is the determination of measurable objectives and the assessment of whether the interventions are effective in achieving progress towards the objectives. Staff working with these students will need to be able to develop measurable objectives as well as use data collection and task analytic strategies to determine the efficacy of the interventions provided. Further, standardized adaptive behavior assessments such as the Scales of Independent Behavior-Revised or the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale may be conducted on an annual basis. 

In order to ensure that the student is assisted in reaching the greatest level of self-sufficiency and involvement in his or her own community, it is crucial that practices with a documented history of effectiveness be used. For this reason, it is recommended that staff working with students with developmental disabilities develop competencies in the use of applied behavior analytic procedures. Applied behavior analysis is a highly individualized method of instruction based on scientific principles of learning theory. It is used to design student-specific programs that are implemented systematically, evaluated empirically, and introduced within natural environments. It matches teaching and intervention strategies to the unique learning style of each student. Because data are reviewed continually and adjustments are made in a timely manner, this procedure helps to ensure that the interventions are effective and tailored to the needs of the individual. This method has been validated by more than 25 years of research as the most effective way for individuals with and without disabilities to acquire skills, increase socially useful behaviors and reduce problematic ones (Matson, 1990; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).

Students with developmental disabilities do not automatically generalize skills from one setting to another. Research ahs shown that, in order for generalization to occur, you have to program for it; this means that parents and staff across settings will need to be trained in order to help the student acquire skills. Educational services are only truly effective if they produce benefits in other settings and with other people. In order to increase the student's ability to generalize skills outside the classroom it is important that teaching occur in a variety of natural settings where the student is expected to use the targeted skills (e.g., restaurant, grocery store, bank, etc.). Therefore, it is important that instruction is community-referenced. This will be critically important in determining whether the student has successfully mastered the skill. The acquisition of skills may be enhanced by eliminating the steps needed for generalization.

Effective services promote social inclusion and the rights of the young person. This means that the student's learning experiences should include instruction in decision-making, self-advocacy, self-protection, and training in their own rights (Powers, Singer, & Sowers, 1996). Again, this will require the use of effective instructional strategies.

Effective transition services require an extensive amount of staff training to ensure that staff use the most up-to-date techniques available. Research in staff training has demonstrated the effectiveness of competency-based training and the limitations of using just workshops and didactic instruction (Christian, 1987). Staff training should include both didactic instruction and case-based, competency-based consultation to ensure that staff develop measurable competencies rather than simply receiving hours of training (Jenson, Walker, Clark & Kehle, 1991). Competency-based training means that the skills needed by staff are task-analyzed into a checklist. Ongoing training is provided to ensure that staff can demonstrate competence in the needed areas and staff performance is monitored continually to ensure that, once achieved, competence is maintained (Reid & Green, 1990; McConnell & Hecht, 1991). Given the challenges presented by individuals with developmental disabilities, staff training needs to be provided by professionals who are qualified in applied behavior analysis and have a specialty in the area of a particular individual's presentation. (For information about how to identify qualified professionals in applied behavior analysis, please refer to Identifying Qualified Professionals in Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism edited by Maurice, Green, and Luce (1996)). Also, there is a behavior analyst certification board and their website is www.bacb.com.) 

When evaluating a secondary school's transition services, information about a program's success with implementing all of these effective practices should be gathered. Schools that use the most effective instructional strategies and staff training methods are likely to achieve the most positive, measurable student outcomes. The Effective Practice Transition Planning Checklist may be used to evaluate how closely your child's transition services reflect both legal standards and "effective practice."

Back to Table of Contents

Effective Practice Transition Planning Checklist

Outcome-based evaluation

  1. Goals and objectives are written in measurable terms.
  2. Data collection systems are in place to measure progress toward each of the goals/objectives.
  3. These data are reviewed at least twice monthly to evaluate progress.
  4. Changes are made to instructional strategies or goals as indicated by the data.

Inclusion in school and community

  1. Educational activities occur in natural settings.
  2. Each year, the time spent in the community increases.
  3. Community agencies are active participants in the transition process.
  4. Barriers to community living are addressed in the transition plan.
  5. If our child is 20 years of age, they are living, working, and involved in the community activities that we expect them to be living, working or involved in at age 22.

Community referenced instruction/curriculum

  1. Transition plan goals address all areas of need for the transition process including social, daily living, and vocational skill areas.
  2. Transition plan goals and objectives are functional.
  3. Transition services promote social inclusion and the rights of the student.

Person-centered transition planning

  1. Transition plan goals are based on our child's and our family goals in the areas of social development, daily living skills, and job preferences and aptitude. 
  2. Goals are changed to reflect personal choice changes. 

Job placement prior to graduation

  1. Opportunities to learn about future employment options are planned/provided. 
  2. Job immediately prior to graduation is same as job they are expected to hold at age 22.
  3. At age 18 and beyond, our child has an employment position. 

Family involvement

  1. As parents, we have discussed important transition issues with our child.
  2. As parents, we are invited to each planning meeting.
  3. As parents, we attend all of our child's planning meetings. 
  4. Our child attends all planning meetings.
  5. Our opinions are solicited and valued at these meetings.
  6. The transition plan reflects our input.

Trained staff 

  1. Staff training involves both didactic training and case-based (or student-specific) consultation to ensure that staff use the most effective instructional strategies.
  2. Staff are trained in applied behavior analytic procedures.
  3. Staff receive an adequate level of training from professionals who are qualified in applied behavior analysis.
  4. Staff across settings are trained in order to promote the generalization and maintenance of skills.
Back to Table of Contents


Bateman, B.D. & Linden, M. (1997). Better IEPs : How to develop legally correct and educationally useful programs. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Bates, P. (1990). Best practices in transition planning: Quality indicators. Carbondale, Illinois: Transition Project.

Christian, W.P., (1987). Effective management of human service programs for individuals with developmental disabilities. In R.F. Antonak & J. Mulick (Eds.) Transitions in mental retardation.(pp. 1-22). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Edgar, E., & Levine, P. (1988). Special education students in transition: Washington state data 1976-1986. Unpublished manuscript.

Jenson, W.R., Walker, H.M., Clark, E., & Kehle, T. (1991). Behavior disorders: Training needs for school psychologists. In G.Stoner, M.R. Shinn & H.M. Walker (Eds.) Interventions for acheivement and behavior problems. (pp. 763-787). Bethesda, Maryland: National Association of School Psychologists.

Matson, J.L., (1990). Handbook of behavior modification with the mentally retarded. New York: Plenum Press.

Martin, J. E., Mithaug, D.E., Agran, M., & Husch, J.V. (1990) Consumer-centered transition and supported employment. In J.L. Matson, (Ed.), Handbook of behavior modification with the mentally retarded. (2nd ed., pp. 357-389). New York: Plenum Press. 

Maurice, C., Luce, S., & Green, G. (1996) Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. Austin, Texas:Pro-Ed. 

McConnell S.R., & Hecht. M., (1991). Instructional problems and interventions: Training needs for school psychologists. In G.Stoner, M.R. Shinn & H.M. Walker (Eds.) Interventions for acheivement and behavior problems. (pp. 741-761). Bethesda, Maryland: National Association of School Psychologists.

McCrea, L. (1993). Frequency of job skills appearing on individualized educational plans of students with moderate mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 28, 179-185.

Powers, L.E., Singer, G.H., & Sowers, J. (1996). On the road to autonomy: Promoting self-competence in children and youth with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Reid, D.H., & Green, C.W. (1990) Staff training. In J.L. Matson, (Ed.), Handbook of behavior modification with the mentally retarded. (2nd ed., pp.71-90). New York: Plenum Press.

Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Mayer, G. R. (1994). Achieving educational excellence: Behavior analysis for school personnel. San Marcos, CA: Western Image.

Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Mayer, G.R. (1991). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Wehman, P. (1996). Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities, Second edition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Sands, D.J. (1998). Student involvement in education planning, decision making, and instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

March 5, 2001

Back to Table of Contents