Finding a stable, satisfying job and learning to live independently is challenging for all young people making the transition to adulthood.  But it can be especially daunting for those with learning and attention problems — and their parents.  Because of this, developing specific transition goals and plans can be one of the most important efforts you and your teenager undertake together.

In this article, we offer an introduction to the transition process, including the roles of parents, the teenager, and the school, some essential components of transition, and what the research tells us about adults with learning disabilities who are successful. In future transition articles, we will explore the topic more deeply by asking experts in the field to share their knowledge and ideas on specific types of transition, including:

No matter what path your child plans to pursue after high school, you can help set the foundation for a successful transition by:

  • Starting the transition process early
  • Encouraging your child to participate as much as possible
  • Adopting an attitude of high expectations, balanced with openness and flexibility about your child’s transition goals and strategies
  • Helping your child learn his rights under federal law and how to advocate for himself in higher education and employment
  • Helping your child to become increasingly independent in transition tasks

Why transition assessment, goals, and plans are important

The importance of assessing transition needs, setting transition goals, and planning how to reach those goals becomes clear when we look at research on the performance of young adults with learning and attention problems in high school, post-high school training or education, and employment.

  • A 1999 report indicated that 14 percent of all youth in the country 18 years old and over had not graduated from high school. However, an estimated 36 percent of those high school dropouts were students with learning disabilities. Not surprisingly, unemployment rates among those who drop out of high school are as much as 40 percent higher than for those who completed high school. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 1999)
  • It is predicted that, by the year 2006, 18 of the top 25 occupations with the largest and fastest employment growth, high pay, and low unemployment will require at least a bachelor’s degree. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1999)
  • Although the percentage of students with learning disabilities enrolled in public and independent four-year colleges and universities increased from just 1 percent in 1988 to 2.4 percent in 20001, this is still a very small proportion. “While college admission rates for students with LD are low, the number of such students admitted each year is increasing steadily,” says Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Disability Policy at Educational Testing Service. “I think that college admissions personnel are less apprehensive today about accepting an ‘otherwise qualified’ student with LD than they were just five years ago.”

Whether your child pursues vocational training, higher education, or employment (or some combination of these) after high school, three essential factors determine how well he’ll be able to deal with life’s daily challenges, according to James R. Patton & Caroline Dunn2 (1998):

  • Knowledge of an array of facts, procedures, and events that are part of his environment after high school
  • Mastering specific skills required to function in the many settings in which he must function
  • Identifying, accessing, and using a variety of supports and services that can help him deal with daily events

Whether your child is in a public or private school, and whether or not your child receives special education services or accommodations under federal law, the quality of transition services varies widely from school to school, affecting how well the school:

  • Assesses your child’s career aptitudes and interests
  • Identifies your child’s transition needs in areas of higher education, vocational training programs, or employment, as well as daily living skills
  • Helps your child develop transition goals, plans, and skills 

In a 1996 article on transition planning, Dr. Dunn3 reported that models for transition planning for students with LD have lagged behind those for kids with other types of disabilities. Until the early to mid-1990’s transition planning was provided principally for students with severe physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities.  Learning disabilities were regarded as “mild” disabilities that didn’t require a young person to have transition support.  Extending transition services to kids with learning disabilities over the past 10 to 12 years has required schools to adopt new approaches, and has increased the demands on staff and resources.  For all of these reasons, you will probably want to play an active role in overseeing your child’s transition process.

Legal rights in high school and beyond

If your child is eligible for special education services at a public school under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the law requires that when he turns 14, his annual IEP meeting will include a discussion about transition service needs. A statement of those needs, based upon his transition assessment and future goals, must then be written into his IEP. By the time the student turns 16, IDEA mandates that the annual IEP meeting focus on more specific planning for the necessary transition services. Factors to be included are: academic preparation, community experience, development of vocational and independent living objectives, and, if applicable, a functional vocational evaluation.

The agreed upon plans must then be documented in the student’s IEP. If the IEP team hasn’t begun to focus on transition planning, it is important for you, as the parent, to initiate that process. If your child has a 504 Plan, he is entitled to accommodations such as preferential seating and extra time on tests, in order to access to the general education curriculum. However, there are no explicit provisions under Section 504 for transition services.

Legal protections change drastically after your child graduates from high school. IDEA does not apply to higher education, and there is nothing equivalent to an IEP in college. Two important pieces of federal legislation, Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protect the education and employment rights of people with disabilities, including those with “specific learning disabilities.” In order to qualify for protections under either Section 504 or ADA, the disability must “substantially limit” performance in a “major life activity.” In general, these relevant laws, which are anti-discrimination laws, provide equal access to education or employment.

Section 504 made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in activities funded by federal subsidies or grants, which includes all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as nearly every post-secondary institution in the country.

The second piece of relevant federal legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ( ADA). Provisions of this law include extending the concepts of Section 504 to all activities of state and local governments, including education and employment. Under Section 504, students must meet the essential qualifications for admission to post-secondary education programs and compete for openings with non-disabled students. However, many schools have adopted special admission policies in regard to otherwise qualified students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities. (Note: Although ADHD is not mentioned in the federal laws, there is some legal precedent for affording people with ADHD protection under both Section 504 and ADA [Latham,19974].)

How parents can guide and support transition

Because successful transition relies on a clear understanding of a young person’s interests, strengths, and areas of struggle, parents play a key role in helping to insure a successful transition for a young person with learning disabilities. With parents’ help, a child can:

  • Become more aware of their learning strengths and needs, and use their strengths to overcome or bypass areas of weakness
  • Learn to better advocate for themselves in school and work settings, by developing a clear sense of how their strengths contribute to school or work success, and which adaptations or technology increase their effectiveness
  • Explore career interests and aptitudes in the “real world,” through volunteer, summer, and part-time work
  • Learn to be flexible and persistent, not allowing an occasional set-back or disappointment to throw them off course

A young person’s career path may not always be as direct or smooth as parents would like.  When parents are open and flexible, it provides a young person a valuable opportunity to figure out, through trial and error, which pursuits he’ll find personally satisfying.  For example, a young adult might go to work after high school in a nursing home, decide after a year or two to get his certification as an emergency medical technician or licensed vocational nurse, and then return to work with more responsibility and better pay. Another might start a four-year college program in electrical engineering and discover that he’s not sufficiently motivated to complete all the high-level math and science courses. In the meantime, he may have discovered that he gets great satisfaction from diagnosing problems and making repairs to computer hardware, and may enter a two-year college or vocational training program to build his job skills in this area.

Regardless of the particular path to employment and living independently, research has identified some factors associated with success among adults with learning difficulties. According to a study by Paul Gerber, Rick Ginsberg, and Henry Reiff5, control is the key to success for adults with learning disabilities. Control, in the context of this research, means that a person makes conscious decisions to take charge of his life and to adapt himself as necessary in order to move ahead. The researchers discovered that this control fell into two main categories:

  • Internal decisions. A person must want to succeed, must set achievable goals, and must confront his learning difficulties so that he can take appropriate actions to increase the likelihood of success.
  • External manifestations (adaptability). Successful adults with learning disabilities engaged in certain practices that helped foster control and success, such as persistence, finding work that is “a good fit” for their skills and abilities, strategies to enhance performance, and surrounding oneself with supportive, helpful people.

Clearly, parents can and do play a role in encouraging and supporting the development of these attitudes and strategies in their children, throughout childhood and adolescence.

What about laundry, bills, and toothaches?

In order to stay in college or keep a job, young adults must master hundreds of practical daily living skills, such as sticking to a schedule, paying bills, and going to the doctor or dentist as needed. According to Arlyn Roffman, an expert on daily living skills for young people with learning difficulties, a lack of such skills is common.  “The National Longitudinal Study (on Transition)6 has given us a lot of data over the years that really support the need for training in daily living skills.”

The study looked at adults three to five years out of high school, in relation to three factors:

  • engagement in work or school
  • residency outside the parents’ home
  • social/community engagement 

Only 27 percent of the adults with learning disabilities were independent in all three of these areas.  About 50 percent were independent in two of these areas.  Dr. Roffman notes that this represents a significant lag behind non-learning disabled adults. “And what’s happening with the other 50 percent?” she asks, noting a common concern.

Although young people with learning difficulties face some particular challenges in making the transition to adulthood, some advance planning, flexibility, and perseverance on the part of parents can provide important guidance and support.  In the coming months, we’ll be exploring several specific transition topics in greater depth and offering strategies and resources to help you help your child.


  1. Henderson, C. (2001) College Freshmen with Disabilties, 2001: A Biennial Statistical Profile. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
  2. Patton, J. & Dunn, C. (1998) Transition from School to Young Adulthood: Basic Concepts and Recommended Practices. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, Inc.
  3. Dunn, C. (1996) “Status Report on Transition Planning,” Transition and Students with Learning Disabilities: Facilitating the Movement from School to Adult Life, Patton, J. & Blalock, G., Eds. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, Inc.
  4. Latham, P. (1997) “ADD and test accommodations under the ADA,” Attention!, 4: 41-43, 46.
  5. Gerber, P., Ginsberg, R., & Reiff, H. (1992) “Identifying Alterable Patterns in Employment Success for Highly Successful Adults with Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 25(8): 475-487.
  6. National Longitudinal Transition Study-2