I knew very little about transition planning going into the job. I'd been involved with the developmental services sector for a decade and done the Developmental Services Worker diploma program, so I wasn't unqualified. However, I'd had no idea idea how complicated the process of assisting students and their families plan for post-high school life could get. I downloaded a ton of transition planning materials from the Internet and read all of it. I printed the very useful stuff out - it's still in my files. I got good at my job. I loved that job.
One of the main things that I took away from those five years is that effective transition planning for disabled students is extremely important. The last couple of years in particular before high school graduation bring up fundamental questions for students and families:
- What will the young person's day look like without school to go to? What kind of adjustments does it mean for the family?
- What kind of supports will the young person need? How are they accessed?
- What kind of supports are lost when school ends, and who can provide them?
- Most importantly: What the student want for his or her life, and how can that be put in place?
The stronger the plan, the stronger the young person's foundation for adulthood.
Given how strongly I feel about the importance of transition planning, I was really honoured to be asked to attend a press teleconference to launch "The Journey to Life after High School: A Road Map for Parents of Children with Special Needs". This book is just what I would have been looking for when I was learning about transition planning, and I think it will be very useful for families.
Here's what I liked in particular.
It's Very Person-Centred
The individual should be at the centre of their plan, and the "The Journey to Life After High School" kept coming back to that, constantly emphasizing that the individual should be present at their planning meetings, their IEP meetings, meetings to arrange services, etc. This sounds like it should be a no-brainer, but it's surprising how often individuals get pushed out the process, even though transition planning should be about his or her desires, hopes, and dreams for adult life. It can become very easy for the team involved in planning to start talking around and about the person. "The Journey to Life After High School" keeps talking about the individual as the most important part of the process.
It's Thorough Without Being Overwhelming
When I first downloaded "The Journey to Life After High School" and saw that it was 80 pages long, I thought, "Wow, that's hefty." But 44 of those pages are contact information for national and state resources, and a thorough reference list. The remaining 36 pages thoroughly cover the spectrum of issues involved in transition planning: school and IEP issues, employment, residential options, medical planning, benefits, power of attorney, support networks, and estate planning. The guide uses case studies, including Miss Montana 2012 Alexis Wineman, the first autistic Miss America contestant.
It's a lot of information, but it's well-presented, and doesn't become overwhelming. The writers have stayed away from jargon and kept the writing accessible. As I said, the section on legislation is about America laws pertaining to disability and education, of which I only have a passing knowledge, and I found the summaries interesting and easy to understand.
It Talks About Community-Based Options as Well as Agency-Based
It's been my experience that when parents are first exploring options for adult life for their disabled child, they want to know about heavily-supervised day support programs, group home and other agency-based options, most often because they've been told that these are the only alternatives. "The Journey to Life After High School" talks about these options, but also thoroughly explores more community-based options for students with all types of disabilities. It gives very practical advice about how to evaluate which housing, employment, and education options may be most appropriate and secure the support that students need to thrive once they've chosen a given option, plus case studies.
It Recommends That Transition Planning Start Early
Ideally, I started my work with students when they were 17, assuming that most of them would stay in school until they were 21. For a variety of reasons, I only got the full four years with a small number of them, which was too bad. Effective transition planning takes time.
"The Journey to Life After High School" suggests that some aspects of transition planning begin in middle school. I like this idea. That may seem young, but it really isn't too young for parents to start having periodic conversations with a young person about dreams for adult life - what kind of work he or she would like to do, where he or she would like to live, hobbies, relationships, etc. By the time the young person reaches 14, when "The Journey to Life After High School" suggests that transition planning begin in earnest, the student and family will have some ideas about the skills required to meet these goals that can be built into the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and the student's routine at school.
Transition planning is very important, as I said, and it's very easy for parents of disabled children to take it on as yet one more thing that causes them a great deal of stress. Reading through "The Journey to Life After High School", I really liked its emphasis on the transition plan as a work-in-progress. Sometimes what the student and the panning team comes up with works nicely, sometimes things need to be changed (often for the simple reason that the individual changes his or her mind about something in the plan). A change in the plan doesn't mean a failure on anyone's part.
I also like the acknowledgement that this transition period is difficult for parents as well as students. I think that parents need to hear that. We can all appreciate why leaving the structure and predictability of school is difficult for students and why this transition period is challenging (very challenging, for some), but it's also difficult for parents who may find themselves suddenly trying to adjust to playing a different role in the life of a young person who may have needed much more attention and care than other children in the family. Letting go can very difficult. I've seen this, and I was glad to see it acknowledged, because sometimes parents need supports during this process as well.
People need to go easy on themselves. For most families, this is uncharted territory. I think that using "The Journey to Life After High School" will contribute to making the whole process less of a pressure-cooker than parents anticipate.
"The Journey to Life After High School: Worth Reading for Families, Staff, and Educators
I really wish that all high schools had someone to help disabled students and their families through the transition planning process. Given the resources available right now, there sometimes wasn't a lot I could do, but at least I could help with the application forms (often confusing), answer questions, and be an advocate and a listening ear.
In the absence of an actual person to go to learn about transition planning, "The Journey to Life after High School: A Road Map for Parents of Children with Special Needs" is a remarkable substitute.
Download a copy of "The Journey to Life after High School: A Road Map for Parents of Children with Special Needs" here.