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Doing Your Homework:
What Do the Laws Say About Transition Plans, Goals, Services and Timelines?

by Sue Whitney, Research Editor

"I want my son to be prepared to enter the workforce when he leaves school. How can I get the IEP team to develop vocational goals for him?"

Parents need to start thinking about the transition to adulthood when their children are toddlers. In most states, schools are not required to do transition assessments to decide what transition services a child needs until the IEP that will be in effect when the child is 16. But the law also says that a transition plan may be developed earlier than age 16 so you can request this.

Although schools exist
primarily to provide academic instruction, they must also address the transition needs of children with disabilities.  

What Does IDEA Say About Transition?

Read the legal definition of transition services in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):
The term 'transition services' means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that -

(A) is designed to be a results-oriented process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child's movement from school to postschool activities, including post-secondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation;

(B) is based on the individual child's needs, taking into account the child's strengths, preferences, and interests, and

(C) includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other postschooladult living objectives, and, when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation. (20 U.S.C. Section 1401(34))

If the transition services your child's school do not meet this definition of transition services, they are not providing your son with legally correct transition services.
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
The Individuals with Disabilities Act says the school must provide your child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE):

The Term 'free and appropriate public education' was directly impacted by the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in the Endrew F. case which was issued on March 22, 2017. In IDEA, the statute explains that FAPE means special education and related services that -

(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;

(B) meet the standards of the State educational agency;

(C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the State involved; and

(D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under section 1414(d). (20 U.S.C. Section 1401(9))

State Academic Standards
To find out what your State department of education established as state academic standards, go to the your state department of education website and download your state academic content standards. The state standards may be called "curriculum" or "frameworks."

These standards will tell you what your state has determined that children in each grade need to know and be able to do. This is what your child's school must teach. This includes Schoolwide education programs as well as individualized education programs.
Specialized Instruction to Meet Child's Unique Needs

In addition to these standards, schools are required to provide special education services to children with disabilities. The law defines special education as "specialized instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of the child with a disability..." (20 U.S.C. Section 1401 (29)

Chief Justice Roberts discussed these two words, special education, in depth in the above mentioned Endrew F. case.

IEP Team Decisions

If your child has a severe cognitive disability, the IEP team, which includes you (the parent), may decide that the child should be taught and tested on an alternative academic standard. However, this decision can only be made and implemented with your consent.

If you and other IEP team members agree, an alternative academic standard will be determined and your child will be tested annually against this alternative standard. The purpose of this testing is to determine if the school is teaching your child the academic content that the IEP team determined was appropriate for your child.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) provides additional educational requirements, above and beyond those in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Issues about how the Every Student Succeeds Act affect children who receive special education services under IDEA are confusing to many parents and educators. You will find a list of resources below. We hope these resources will help you sort these issues out.
I hope you find information that is helpful to you.


Note: Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, is known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), formerly the No Child Left Behind Act, Requirements
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)   is the federal education law that was originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The ESSA requires states to develop:

* challenging academic standards that specify the knowledge and skills every child in your state is taught, and

* tests to let you and your child's teachers know whether your child has achieved those standards.

All states apply for and receive federal funds and agree to implement the provisions that accompanied this money.

When your state accepted money under ESSA, the state agreed to teach all children who attend public schools the material that your
state requires students in each grade to know.


A Guide to the Individualized Education Program from the U. S. Department of Education describes contents of the IEP; IEP team members; writing the IEP; placement decisions; implementing the IEP; revising and revising the IEP; resolving disagreements about the IEP; sample IEP form, information and resources, the federal regulations for IEPs, and guidance about IEPs.
IEPs for Success by Dr. Barbara Bateman. This article includes extensive discussion of transition and transition plans.

The IEP for Transition Age Students. An older article (2002) but excellent information about IEPs for "transition-aged students." Learn about transition requirements, members of the IEP transition team (including student and parents), special factors for the IEP team to consider (published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition and The Pacer Center).

Transition, Transition Services, and Transition Planning

Person-Centered Planning: A Tool for Transition. Under IDEA 2004, IEPs must include transition services for the child by age 16. The transition plan should reflect the student’s interests, preferences, accomplishments and skills, what they need to learn, and what they want to do. Person-centered planning is a way to identify goals and develop plans to accomplish goals (published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition and The Pacer Center).

Self-Advocacy: Know Yourself, Know What You Need, Know How to Get It by Nancy Johnson. "Self-advocacy is the ability to understand and effectively communicate one's needs to other individuals. Learning to become an effective self-advocate is all about educating the people around you. There are three steps to becoming an effective self-advocate . . .

Transition Planning: A Team Effort - Center for Parent Information and Resources

Research to Practice Briefs - Improving transition planning practices through research - National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET).

Transition to Adulthood.

Transition Goals in the IEP: NTAC’s Checklist of Questions to Ask. Do the transition services listed in the IEP relate to a type of instruction, related service, community experience, development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives (and, if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills), and provision of a functional vocational evaluation?

Back to Top

Revised: 02/18/20

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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