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Column: District 518 planning for students with special needs

By DEB STOLL, District 518

WORTHINGTON — It may be November, but senior students are already focused on May — graduation, and what is next in life. Students are being asked, “What do you want to be?” “What do you want to do after graduation?” “Do you need to begin your planning, apply for a program and make some decisions?”

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These inquiries from adults are often difficult for students to answer, but parents, teachers, principals and counselors are there to help navigate and prepare students for the complexities of life after high school. This is also true for students with special needs; there are numerous people to help and guide students with their decisions.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) directs schools to provide “Secondary Transition Planning” for special education students, which is simply preparing for the future.

Beginning in 9th grade or no later than age 14, all students on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) must have a transition assessment, which begins the process of assisting the students to examine their interests, strengths and aspirations. In many schools in Minnesota, the transition process begins at the middle school level — as it’s never too early to encourage students and their families to think about the future and begin to plan.

Secondary Transition Planning is the development of a plan to prepare students for life after high school and includes preparing for postsecondary education/training, employment and independent living. This proposal is created by a team that understands the student’s disability, keeping in mind the student’s strengths, occupational aspirations and academic achievement. The team, which includes the student and parents, examine which skills would be beneficial for the student to gain/learn while still in school in order to reach their potential and be successful in life.

The plan often includes training in the areas of life skills, self-determination (making choices appropriate for self), self-advocacy (having a voice in decisions) and independence skills (taking care of self), keeping in mind that students with disabilities should practice these skills on their own behalf to the best of their abilities. Additionally, the schools work closely with community agencies to assist the student with the goals of the plan.

Often Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Community Services, and other key agencies combine their efforts to support the student and team in the decisions for after high school. These pooled efforts repeatedly have amazing results and students find the support goes beyond their graduation, receiving continuous backing into adulthood.

Planning ahead is always a good idea, and Transition Planning services by schools are designed to guide special education students and parents to prepare for the future. Whether graduates are non-disabled or disabled students, early planning is important and can play a vital role in helping students achieve their goals.

If you would like to learn more, the Minnesota Department of Education has information on Secondary Transition Planning along with an excellent document, “Planning Guide for Students Entering Postsecondary Programs.” Visit

Deb Stoll is assistant director of special education for District 518.