The main goal of transition planning is the same for all students, regardless of their abilities or goals: preparation for the world of work. For most students, high school graduation marks a jumping-off point: some go straight to work, some to apprenticeships, some to community college, and some to college. But there’s nothing magical about the number 18. When your child reaches the age of legal majority, he may still need your assistance. How much help he’ll need will depend entirely on the severity of his symptoms, and on how well you have been able to plan for the future.

In this chapter, we’ll look at transition planning: the process of smoothing your teenager’s transition into the adult world through careful educational, vocational, financial, and medical preparation. There are two kinds of transition planning: a formal process that will be part of your child’s IEP and that will concentrate on school and employment issues, and a family process that covers legal, financial, and personal concerns.

Transition Planning as Part of an IEP

Within the special education system, transition planning should begin by age 13 or 14, when your child’s peers are beginning to gain basic work skills and amass credits toward high school graduation. Special education students have a right to also be prepared for graduation, higher education, and work in ways that fit their needs. For many, extra support will be needed.

Your teenager’s transition plan should address high school graduation, higher education, and work skills and opportunities. It may also include preparing the young adult to apply for public assistance, supported housing, and other necessary benefits; helping her learn how to self-manage medical and psychiatric care; and instructing her in life skills such as budgeting, banking, driving, and cooking.

A high school student’s IEP must include an area for transition planning. Because this is an area that has received little emphasis in the past, you may need to keep the IEP team on track. Make sure your child’s transition plan involves all relevant life areas, not just education.

Preparing for Work

Preparing for the world of work means gaining appropriate basic skills, such as typing, filing, driving, filling out forms, writing business letters, using tools, or cooking. These skills may be gained in school-based vocational-technical classes, in classes taken at a community college or vocational school while the student is still in high school, in a union- or employer-sponsored apprenticeship program, via job shadowing arrangements or internships, or on the job. Vocational planning is mandatory for special education students in the US by age 16, and should start much earlier.

Transition-to-work services may include moving into the public vocational rehabilitation system, which trains and places adults with disabilities into jobs. However, in many states the vocational rehabilitation system is severely overloaded, with wait times for placement ranging from three months to as much as three years. Typical opportunities range from sheltered workshop jobs (splitting kindling wood, sorting recyclables, light assembly work) under direct supervision, to supported placement in the community as grocery clerks, office helpers, chip-fabrication plant workers, and the like. Often the person works with a job coach who helps them handle workplace stresses and learn work skills. In some cases, the job coach actually comes to work with the person for awhile.

We had never even heard of vocational rehabilitation when Jakob left the hospital. His therapist at community mental health sent him there. They had a job counselor who worked with him on his first resume, how to dress, and what interviews were like. They placed him in a part-time file clerk job with a hospital near the community college, and they checked up on him regularly for quite awhile. That was perfect: he’s been there two years, and now he’s taking classes part-time also. –Pam, mother of 20-year-old Jakob (diagnosed bipolar I disorder)

School districts may sponsor their own supported work opportunities for special education students, such as learning how to run an espresso coffee cart or working in a student-run horticultural business. Many schools have vocational programs that give students a chance to have a mentor in their chosen field, possibly including actual work experience with local employers. Not all vocational programs are for low-wage or blue-collar jobs. Vocational options in some urban districts include health and biotechnology careers, computing, and the fine arts.

Some public and private agencies may also be able to help with job training and placement. These include your state employment department; the Opportunities Industrialization Commission (OIC); the Private Industry Council (PIC); and job placement services operated by Goodwill Industries, St. Vincent dePaul, and similar service organizations for people with disbilities.

All students with disabilities should receive appropriate vocational counseling, including aptitude testing, discussion of their interests and abilities, and information about different employment possibilities. Parents need to ensure that capable students are not shunted into dead-end positions that will leave them financially vulnerable as adults.


Most students with bipolar disorders will be headed for a regular high school diploma. This usually requires passing a certain number of specified courses. If the student needs changes in the graduation requirements–for example, if your child has been unable to develop proficiency in a foreign language due to cognitive deficits caused by medication, or if he was hospitalized during a required course and needs a waiver–now’s the time to arrange for these changes.

Some students will need extra coursework to make it through high school, such as special instruction in keyboarding or study skills. These abilities will also help with higher education or work later on, and you can make them part of your child’s transition plan.

Some students will need more than the usual four years to complete diploma requirements. This can be a problem–most teens have a strong desire to graduate with their class. It is sometimes possible for a student who is still short some requirements for graduation to participate in the commencement ceremony with her class, if a plan has been made to remedy the deficits over the next few months.

Katie had to be hospitalized during her senior year. She was only two classes away from graduating, so we worked out a deal with the school counselor for her to finish those classes by correspondence over the summer. She walked across the stage in a cap and gown just like her friends. After a year that had been very difficult, that really meant a lot. –George, father of 18-year-old Katie (diagnosed bipolar I disorder, anxiety disorder)

Some students will not be able to earn a regular diploma. They may choose (or be forced) to pursue a GED, as noted in Chapter 8, School. A special form of graduation called an IEP diploma is also available. If a student earns an IEP diploma, that means she has completed all of the objectives set out in her IEP for graduation. This option is usually reserved for students who are unable to master high school level work, such as students with severe mental retardation. However, it could be the route to a creative graduation option for your child.

Students who are headed for college may want or need to go beyond the basic high school diploma. If your state has a special diploma for advanced students, such as Oregon’s Certificate of Advanced Mastery or New York’s Regents Diploma, check early on about any accommodations that may be needed for the examination or portfolio process. Some states (including Oregon, as of this writing, but not New York) have refused to permit accommodations. This is patently illegal, and will surely be successfully challenged. If you don’t want to be the one to bring a lawsuit, ask instead for special tutoring in advance of the test.

In the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, special help may be available to help teens pass their level exams, including modified exams in some cases. Talk to your LEA or education department for more information about options in your area.

Higher Education

If your child has been evaluated and judged eligible for special education services, the school district’s responsibility for his education does not end with the GED or high-school diploma. Students planning to attend trade school, a two-year community college program, or a four-year college program need information far in advance on which high school courses will be required for entry. This is especially important for those students with di sabilities who carry a lighter course load, as they may need to make up some credits in summer school or via correspondence courses.

Transition programs should address the move from high school to higher education. Disabled students are eligible for publicly funded education and/or services until age 22 if needed. In some cases this assistance will include tuition; in all cases it should include setting up mentoring and counseling services in advance at the student’s new school. Special education services and help for students with learning disabilities are available on campus and in the dorms at many colleges.

It’s against the law to deny admission to students based on disabilities; of course, other admission criteria generally must be met. Public universities and community colleges may waive some admission criteria for disabled students on a case-by-case basis if the student can show that they are capable of college-level work. Standardized test requirements might also be set aside if high school grades or the student’s work portfolio look good.

Schools that normally require all freshmen to live on campus may waive this requirement for a student with special needs. If living at home is not an option, a group home or supervised apartment near campus might be. Before your child leaves for college in another city, make sure that you have secured safe and appropriate housing, and found competent local professionals to provide ongoing care. You’ll also want to work out a crisis plan with your child, just in case things go wrong. She will want to know whom to call and where to go. The freshman year of college is a very common time for symptoms to flare, as well as for the first onset of obvious bipolar symptoms in previously undiagnosed teenagers. The stress, the missed sleep, and the attractions of newfound freedom (such as drug and alcohol use) all play a role.