Transition to Adulthood Timeline
What happens to Special Education students after high school?
For students with disabilities or learning challenges, the transition from high school to adult life can be hard. But there are supports in the school and in the community. This transition timeline tells you what you can do at each point to help your middle-schooler or high-schooler prepare for what’s next, whether it’s college, a job, or supported living.
See our Transition to Adulthood Hub to read more about the whole process, or jump right to your child’s age and stage.
- Middle school and beyond
- Early high school
- Late high school
- Ages 19-21
A note about this page: this timeline was developed for families in the state of Louisiana. The language and terminology may be different if you are not in Louisiana but much of the process is the same no matter where you are.
Middle School and Beyond
Schools must begin transition planning when a student with disabilities turns 16, but many schools start a formal transition planning process in 8th grade through the IEP team. This is an opportunity to create a vision for your child’s future, learn what kind of transition support is available, and start planning your child’s pathway through high school.
Here’s where to start:
1. Talk with your child about what they want to do next.
Talk to your child as much as possible about their interests, strengths, and goals.
Will they need care or support for daily living?
How can you prepare them for life after the IEP? (Listen to the podcast)
2. Make sure their IEP meets their emerging needs.
Even if your child has had an IEP (Individualized Education Program) in place for a long time, it may need some changes now. Puberty can affect children’s disabilities and how they learn. (What if my child doesn’t have an IEP?)
IEP goals may need to change and aim higher than before as children learn more about their interests and strengths. They may just now be thinking about college or technical school for the first time, and the IEP should document how they will work towards these goals.
Teenagers often have new stresses and more anxiety. Social and emotional challenges may look different than in lower grades, and may require new supports for mental health or social skills. Their goals may need to be adjusted for these new challenges.
New academic challenges may require a different kind of support.
3. Learn about graduation pathways
Watch this quick video overview of Louisiana graduation pathways.
Louisiana’s main graduation pathways include:
- TOPS University Pathway prepares students to go to a 4-year college.
- Jumpstart Career Pathway (also called TOPS Tech) prepares students for a technical or community college and trains them for a specific career.
If your child has a significant intellectual disability, they may do an adapted pathway called Alt Assessment or LEAP Connect. Students take simplified course content, sometimes focusing on life skills rather than academic ones.
Get as much input as you can from your child to make these decisions together. You may have to advocate to get the support your child needs to go through the pathway they want.
Not in Louisiana? Talk to your IEP team about your district’s choices for graduation pathways.
4. Consider adjusting your child’s performance criteria through the April Dunn Act (Formerly Act 833)
Performance criteria are the specific things a student has to learn in a course (called “standards”), and the methods of proving they learned them. Sometimes a child’s disability lets them learn the course material but interferes with their ability to show their knowledge through traditional testing for all the standards.
The April Dunn Act* (formerly Act 833) allows students with disabilities to prove what they’ve learned with non-traditional assessments instead of regular tests. It also allows the IEP team to decide that they will only need to show their knowledge of certain standards, rather than all of them.
Students who qualify can work with their IEP team to decide on their own set of criteria.
Resources from the LA Dept. of Education:
*Act 833 was renamed the April Dunn Act in June of 2020 to honor April Dunn, a long-time advocate for people with disabilities. April’s tireless work on this bill helped to pass Act 833 in 2014.
Not in Louisiana? Ask your IEP team if there are non-traditional ways for your child to prove their learning.
5. Look into other government benefits like Medicaid Waivers, SSI and OCDD services
Many people don’t know about these benefits until their child is out of high school, but it’s worth it to apply sooner because they can offer a lot of support.
These government benefits can support children and adults with disabilities:
- Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities (OCDD) – Contact your local Human Services District Office for disability support. (Not in Louisiana? Find your state’s Developmental Disabilities Agency).
- Medicaid Waivers – Extra support for disability needs
- SSI: Supplemental Security Income – Cash benefits to buy things you need. If your child already gets SSI benefits, they will need to re-apply when they turn 18. (SSI works the same in all states.)
- More public benefits – Medicaid, SNAP, TANF and LIHEAP
Don’t forget to check out your health insurance, whether it’s Healthy Louisiana (Medicaid) or another private insurance, to learn about coverage for services for youth with disabilities.
Early High School
Your child’s first few years of high school are the time to get a transition plan into place and make sure it meets their needs.Your student, if possible, should attend IEP meetings and be as involved as they are able in the process.
Start formal transition planning
The special education law (IDEA) says that schools must start formal transition planning for students with disabilities or special needs by the time a student is 16. Many schools will assign a Transition Coordinator as the point person for transition activities. Here are the steps to start your child’s transition process.
1. Choose a graduation pathway
The Alternate Assessment or LEAP Connect pathway is for students with significant intellectual disabilities. (Read more: supporting your student with significant intellectual disabilities).
2. Create a transition plan
You, your child, and the rest of the IEP team will develop a transition plan connected to the IEP. It will include your child’s goals for after high school, and the services and programs that will help prepare them to meet those goals.
This plan will address:
- Further education and training
- Independent or supported living
- Community engagement
Write an Individual Graduation Plan (IGP)
You will also create an Individual Graduation Plan (IGP) to describe your student’s path through high school to make sure they are ready to graduate. This will include what courses they will take and how teachers will assess their performance.
Plan graduation timing
Students with disabilities have a legal right to extend their special education (IEP) services until their 22nd birthday if they need to. This can help students gain job readiness skills, complete classes they need for college or technical programs, or develop independent living skills.
Keep this in mind as your child continues through high school. You and the IEP team can keep assessing whether your child will need this extra time. You don’t have to decide until they are closer to graduation.
Make sure support structures and IEP services are in place
Your child’s IEP will evolve as their needs and goals change and you move forward with your transition planning. The IEP goals should begin to reflect your child’s current goals for life after school. Keep track of the goals and services in the plan and reach out to the team if you think it needs an update.
Start transition assessments and job preparation activities
The school should offer a variety of services to help your child build the skills they need to find a job, including:
- Transition skills assessments
- Pre-ETS: Pre-Employment Transition Services (also called Vocational Training)
- Internships or Work-Based Learning Experiences
- Connections to Vocational Rehabilitation through Louisiana Rehabilitation Services (LRS):
Think about other things that may help your child to be ready for adult life. For example, if your child needs to build the social skills needed to function in a work or college environment, ask about social skills training.
At home, you can help your child explore their strengths and interests and get experience outside of school.
Make sure they get out into the community and interact with local businesses or recreational activities that fit their interests. These experiences could lead to volunteer opportunities, which can lead to paid work.
Find vocational programs by searching the Education & Employment section of our Disability Services Finder (en español). Find activities that are adapted for–or friendly to–people with disabilities in the Social & Recreational Activities section.
Assess your child’s mental health needs
The changes that come with adolescence and puberty are huge and can have an even bigger impact on kids with disabilities, whose bodies, brains and future may already feel “different” from those around them.
Talk with your child openly about stress, anxiety, depression, and anything that might be bothering them.
If your child needs counseling, you can talk with the IEP team about writing mental health support into the IEP.
Use our Disability Services Finder (en espanol) to find counseling services, support groups, and peer-to-peer counseling programs near home. (Don’t forget that your health insurance may pay for counseling).
Start preparing your child to take on more responsibilities
High school is a great time for teens with disabilities to take on more responsibilities in preparation for the transition to adulthood. They will need to learn self-advocacy skills to make sure they get the accommodations they need to be successful and to talk about their needs with teachers and others who can support them.
You can help your child to look for positive role models so you can both see the range of what’s possible for people with similar abilities.
If your child has a significant intellectual disability, they may have different, more subtle ways to increase their independence.
You will have to work with the IEP team and look for ways to help them improve their skills in areas that will help them be even a little more independent.
You can also look into continuing tutorship (called guardianship in most places), which will allow you to make legal decisions for your child after they turn 18.
Late High School
As your child with disabilities begins their final years of high school, here’s how to get them ready for graduation.
If your child is 17 or older, it’s time to prepare, learn, and make final decisions about the legal changes that take place when they turn 18. It’s also time to connect with the agencies that can support them as adults.
1. Connect to social services agencies for adults
When your child graduates from high school, social service agencies for adults with disabilities should step in and provide support services. Your IEP and transition team should help you to register and connect with these agencies during the last 2 years of high school.
Agencies you may want to connect with include:
- Louisiana Rehabilitation Services (LRS)
- The Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities (OCDD)
- The Arcs
- Centers for Independent Living
2. Continue to assess graduation timing
If your child has an IEP, they can stay in school past their regular graduation date if they need more time (until age 22).
Do they need more training for job skills, life skills or college prep? Talk to the IEP team to see if they may need another year or two.
3. Continue to explore job training opportunities
Keep working with the IEP team and your community to explore different services to help your child build the skills needed to find a job upon transition to adulthood. Internships and volunteer positions are also great ways to build skills. Read more about job training options.
4. Prepare college applications (if that’s your child’s goal)
If your child plans to go to college, now is the time to:
- Make sure their IEP and transition plan includes their college plans in the vision and goals
- Learn about the college application process
- Take the standardized tests they will need to get into college and the accommodations they can get for these tests if they need them):
- Learn about disability services that colleges offer and about colleges with special programs for students with disabilities.
5. Prepare for Transfer of Rights at the Age of Majority (18)
When your child turns 18, they are considered an adult and you no longer have the right to make decisions for them, including signing their IEP or approving medical decisions. This is sometimes called the “Age of Majority” because they are not minors anymore. But there are still ways to support them in making their own decisions or to get legal permission to make some –or all– decisions for them.
Don’t forget to start thinking about how YOU are going to let them go.
If your child can make some or all decisions for themselves, you can explore these approaches:
- Support your child’s self-advocacy skills
- Explore supported decision-making, which can include anyone your child trusts to help them make decisions
- Set up Power of Attorney (also called “Representation and Mandate” or “Procuration”)
If your child has an intellectual disability and cannot make all decisions, consider getting legal permission to make decisions for them.
The 2 main options in Louisiana are Continuing Tutorship or Interdiction. (In most states, it’s called Guardianship.) These are only for people who do not have the ability to learn how to make their own decisions. Think carefully to make sure this is the best thing for your child.
Depending on your child’s needs and abilities, you may also want to find in-home support, apply or re-apply for SSI, and apply for Section 8 housing to help your child get subsidized housing down the road. Read more about finding resources for your young adult.
From 19-21, students with disabilities have a legal right to extend their special education (IEP) services through age 21 if they need to. This can help students gain job readiness skills, complete classes they need for college or technical programs, or develop independent living skills.
Special education services are your child’s legal right until they graduate from high school or turn 22, whichever comes first.
At the age of 22, your young adult will need to get their support from social service agencies for adults with disabilities..
Whatever your child’s abilities, there are ways to make sure they have opportunities to live a fulfilling life as adults.
Some resources to support your young adult throughout their lifetime:
Employment: Learn about goal-setting, job training, finding help from community organizations, and standing up for your rights.
Youth Health Transition: Smooth Moves YHT is a teen health information site focused on helping with the transition to adulthood.
- Transition services
- Social and recreational activities
- Support groups
- Housing information and referral
- Peer counseling
- Specialized college programs
- Vocational training