Making the Transition to High School with an IEP
The transitions from preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school are rites of passage, and while they can be equal parts thrilling and terrifying, these transitions often come with extra challenges for kids with disabilities and their families.
This three-part series looks at ways to make these leaps as painless as possible. Our first installment focused on the big move from elementary to middle school, and our second took a step back to consider the move from preschool to kindergarten. Here, we tackle another huge milestone: the move from middle to high school.
Every transition period is difficult for students (and their parents!), but the transition from middle to high school is uniquely challenging. From navigating a bigger campus with more peers, classes, and teachers to forming fulfilling peer relationships to looking toward life after graduation, high school is full of both opportunity and a lot of new pressures. What is often top of mind during these years is helping our kids gain greater independence in preparation for a meaningful future. To help us get ready for this crucial period in a teenager’s life, we reached out to Kristin Enriquez of Sevi’s Smile and Richard Rosenberg of the California Transition Alliance.
“As the education system becomes more focused on college preparation,” Enriquez says, “the perceived gap affecting how educators view kids with disabilities widens.” She explains that as a result, you may face pressure from administrators who underestimate your teen’s abilities — but it’s your right to push back: “This is a time to connect with trusted advisors and reaffirm what it is you want for your kids.”
Rosenberg reminds us that looking to the future means amplifying our teen’s strengths and dreams. What do they enjoy, and how can that relate to employment? “Take what they have passion for today as a middle school kid entering high school,” he says. “Now think, ‘What could that look like in the future?’”
What to Ask When Touring High Schools
When touring potential high schools, the following considerations can help you determine the level of accessibility and inclusion on campus — as well as red flags to watch out for. (Note that many of these questions are also covered in our middle school transition article due to some obvious similarities between middle and high school campuses.)
What is the physical space like? Is it near a busy road? Can your teen navigate the campus independently? Where are the restrooms and cafeteria located? Consider safety issues, such as whether the parking lot is gated. Remember that you can ask for a physical therapy evaluation to come up with a plan to help your teen navigate a new (and probably larger) campus. Any skills they may need to adjust to their new school can be added as IEP goals.
Ask about the different “levels” offered for each class — such as honors and advanced programs, co-taught classes, resource rooms or learning centers, and special day classes — and ask to see each one. What are the special education classrooms like, and how do they compare to mainstream classrooms?
- A note on this from Rosenberg: If your teen has thrived in general education classes but an administrator suggests you consider self-contained day classes for high school, this is the time to advocate for inclusion (if this school is going to be the right fit).
What kinds of technology and other equipment does the school use? Is it the same in all classrooms? (Some schools have inferior tech in SpEd classrooms, or none at all.) If your teen has auditory sensitivities, how are the acoustics?
If your teen’s IEP specifies that they receive therapy services or adapted physical education (APE) in a separate classroom, ask to see those areas as well.
What is the school’s lunchtime routine? Will your teen need an aide during lunch to help them navigate the cafeteria environment, especially socially?
Will your teen be able to find their classrooms and navigate class transitions independently? If you’re concerned about this, ask if the school can provide an aide in between classes, even if it’s just temporary until your teen gets acclimated.
Ask about any special equipment your teen requires and how it will be supported in each of their classrooms. If your teen uses a cell phone to communicate with you or to take photos of class materials, ask about the school’s policy on phones and whether students can have them in class.
Ask what kinds of clubs, art and drama classes, sports, and other extracurriculars the school offers — and if they’re fully inclusive. This is especially important when it comes to after-school social events. (Read on for more about extracurriculars and social support, below.)
There are some crucial observations to take note of during the tour. If at any time you express a desire for your teen related to accessibility, inclusion, or their interests, and an administrator responds that “it’s not possible,” that’s a huge red flag, Enriquez says. If you’re not seeing other students with disabilities comfortably navigating the campus, you may also need to have some conversations with the school about accessibility.
For a handy chart you can print out and bring with you to take notes, see our school tour checklist here.
You should be able to garner a lot of information about available extracurricular activities during the school tour. As you prepare for your teen’s transition meeting and their first day on campus, here are some more specific things to keep in mind.
Most importantly, make sure your teen is able to explore topics and activities that they enjoy or express an interest in. Enriquez points out that your teen may not know what extracurriculars interest them until they’ve tried a few, so think about what they like and consider what activities might offer a more mature access point — this can help boost their professional development and social skills. For example, if they really love a certain TV show, you might look into film appreciation, cinema 101, drama, or screenwriting extracurriculars.
Remember that supports and services provided in academic settings are also available during extracurriculars — this includes sports and dances. If your teen has qualified for a 1:1 aide or other medical and support staff, you have the right to ask for them to be present at school dances and other extracurriculars, Rosenberg says.
Since administrators generally communicate directly with students in high school, getting information can sometimes be challenging. Ask about procedures for communicating information about school programs or events such as dances.
Rosenberg also notes that statistics show that all students — in special education and general education — do better in college if they participate in sports and other extracurriculars during high school. Figuring out how the special education team can ensure your child has access to these activities should be part of your IEP and transition meetings.
Before the Transition Meeting
Transition IEP meetings tend to be lengthy (around two hours), so it helps to go in knowing your priorities. If you don’t cover all your concerns before the meeting ends, you can always request to reconvene as often as needed, so don’t feel rushed. Here are some things to think about before the meeting:
Your teen should participate in some way: “When kids are at the meeting, adults have to focus on the whole being — not just services and supports,” Rosenberg says. Your teen’s presence helps ensure that IEP goals are designed with their interests and ambitions in mind. Think about how to play to your teen’s strengths when considering how they can best contribute to the meeting. Perhaps they only join during the welcome portion of the meeting, or they can record themselves discussing their interests, what they enjoyed about middle school, and what they look forward to in high school, and you can play the video for the IEP team at the meeting.
Prepare creative data: “Data doesn’t have to be tally marks and pie graphs,” Enriquez says. “Pictures of your teen with friends and in the community, pictures of their middle school experiences, emails from past teachers about their accomplishments — bring any kind of documentation that helps develop a greater picture of who your kid is.”
At the Transition Meeting
While all transition meetings are complex, preparing for high school requires some especially crucial decisions and discussions to help prepare your teen for a healthy, independent, and fulfilling future.
Certificate vs. Diploma Tracks: One of the main questions you’ll want to ask in a high school transition meeting is how each school will support your teen in earning a diploma. If the school doesn’t offer that option for students on an alternative curriculum, ask what other options are available. For example, is Algebra I available as a four-year option? Does the school offer WorkAbility or a similar training program? What does that specific program look like? Are students placed in businesses off-campus?
Rosenberg stresses that you should not assume that your teen can’t earn a diploma. “Parents should not accept functional skills, modified curriculum, or a certificate of completion,” he says. “Stay strong for a real diploma.” Certificate tracks can be concerning because of how they might harm your teen’s economic future, Rosenberg adds. Since most job applications require a high school diploma, students without one may not have access to certain workplaces and could struggle economically as a result.
But, of course, there is a systemic complication to consider. “If some students earn a diploma, they may not be eligible for the community-based transition programs for eighteen to twenty-two year olds,” Rosenberg says. (These are also known as Adult Transition Programs, or ATP.) These services are funded through special education in California until the participant ages out at twenty-two — or when they receive a diploma. “It’s a huge question mark that families have to grapple with,” Rosenberg says, and it’s something you should bring up at the meeting.
Class schedule: Review your teen’s course selection one class at a time and ask for details about how that subject will be taught to them. How would they be placed, and what electives (such as art, theater, and music classes) are available to them?
Support details: Ask how and where your teen’s existing therapy services will be delivered, and which classes they will miss while they are receiving these services. Is it possible to receive some services after school hours so they won’t miss out on academics they need?
High school jobs: If you think a part-time job would benefit your teen’s development, bring it up, Rosenberg says. You don’t have to worry about their SSI access being impacted, either: “Students are entitled to a waiver so none of their benefits will be touched if they get a job during school.”
Soft skills: Prioritizing soft skills and life skills is crucial for teenagers, Rosenberg says. That means asking the team how to help your teen meet goals involving time management, responsibility, asking for help, understanding personal space and nonverbal communication, and so on.
Individualized Transition Plans (ITPs): In California, once a student turns fifteen, ITPs are part of their IEP. These plans talk about career goals, ongoing education plans, community, and independent living skills. Through assessments and interest inventories, the IEP team helps your child figure out what they enjoy and what they want to pursue after high school so it can be incorporated into the ITP. Read more about the ITP process here.
High School Routines
High school is a completely different environment with a completely different set of expectations, Enriquez says, so expect and plan for an adjustment period. You should acknowledge the stress of the transition in order to help your teen get the support they need to acclimate.
These are some of the unique aspects of high school routines, and how they might impact your teenager.
Gym class: Your teen may have adjusted to changing for PE during middle school — but will the routine they used there also work in high school? Aides are not usually allowed in the locker rooms, but other accommodations can be made, such as using a nurse’s office or staff bathroom. Decide what will be the least restrictive choice for your teen and spell out the details clearly in the IEP. You might consider asking for push-in services such as APE so your teen can benefit from the socialization that happens during gym class.
Extracurriculars and socialization: Socialization is a crucial part of high school, and as we all know, it’s just not that easy. Some schools offer Buddy Clubs, Friendship Circles, or other programs. Even something as basic as seating arrangements at lunch can tell you a lot about how a school encourages interaction among students. Clubs such as theater can be great for peer interaction. Also ask about opportunities to be included in sports teams, as well as aide support for extracurricular activities.
Electives: You may want to ask whether — as is commonly the case — using the resource room for remediation and tutoring is considered an elective, and if spending time there will cause your teen to miss out on fun activities like band and art. How will you handle this? If you choose the resource room, think about how your teen can benefit from creative learning outside of school. If you opt for the fun electives, can you schedule a tutor to work with them after school?
Lockers: Your teen may already be comfortable using lockers, but for some, lockers remain a challenge. If using a locker presents a fine motor challenge, you can request a key-style lock instead of a combination lock, and ask that the office hold a copy of the key; your teen can keep a copy in a place they won’t lose it, such as on a pocket keychain, backpack, or a lanyard around their neck. You can also ask that using a lock be added as an occupational therapy goal in their IEP. Another option might be to avoid lockers altogether and use a rolling backpack for books and supplies. Don’t forget about separate lockers for PE.
Transportation: Find out if your teen will be riding a general education bus. Many high schools do not allow parents on campus; if you will be picking up your teen, ask if an aide can accompany them to the designated pick-up area until they’ve learned the routine. If your teen will be learning to drive, ask about accessible driver’s ed classes and school parking lots.
Bullying: If you have concerns about bullying, request that a school psychologist or guidance counselor attend the transition meeting so you can discuss your concerns in detail. What kinds of support do the counselors provide? You can also ask what the school’s anti-bullying program looks like, and work with the PTA or PTSA and Associated Student Body to organize an anti-bullying program such as a kindness week.
Independence: “With six periods per day, electives, and graduation, students will be expected to be more independent than they were in middle school,” Rosenberg says. To help them develop their independence, ask what support your teen can get to build up their advocacy, feelings of empowerment, and time management skills.
Remember that any new skills your teen may need to adjust to their new school can be added as goals on their IEP. Make sure you request and schedule your teen’s next IEP meeting for thirty days after the start of school — this thirty-day review will give you a chance to see how things are working and make any necessary adjustments. For more info to help you prepare for your teen’s high school transition meeting, check out this breakdown of transition meeting basics and this guide to youth employment for students with more significant disabilities from the California Transition Alliance’s resource list, as well as the Transition CA website.