Special Education Services 18-22

Navigating special education in the public schools is challenging enough for the K-12 grades, but what if your student needs support after that? The district’s obligation to educate does not always end after the student’s senior year. Many students are not ready to graduate, either academically or functionally. Last year, New Hampshire extended the right for eligible students to receive services to age 22 (federal law requires it only until age 21). This was a much-needed provision for those students who struggle to live independently, obtain employment, or who need help with daily functions such as hygiene and safety. And if the student has not yet graduated, districts may provide those services until the student’s 22nd birthday.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state law, when a student turns 16, districts must begin “transition planning.†Districts must ask what the student’s post-secondary goals and visions are and assess what supports are needed to “facilitate the child’s movement from school to post school activities.†These activities can include college, vocational education, integrated or supported employment, continuing education, adult services, independent living, or participation in the community. Districts are required to deliver services that are based on the student’s individual needs, considering their strengths, preferences, and interests. These services can occur in the school (some public schools have programs specifically for ages 18 to 22), a private school, or in the community.

Once a student turns 16, the IEP must include appropriate postsecondary goals related to training, education, employment, if necessary, independent living skills. The IEP should contain services that will help the student reach those goals. To ascertain what goals are appropriate, the student will undergo a transition assessment. Assessments performed by districts will likely be limited in scope and detail. I typically recommend that clients seek an outside private assessment or ask the district to contract with an outside provider.

A thorough, comprehensive transition assessment will consider such factors as the student’s strengths, career interests and aptitudes, self-care and hygienic abilities or challenges, ability to self-advocate (which is crucial if the student would like to attend college), communication, domestic skills, transferable work skills, safety awareness, ability to navigate the community, and many more. Each assessment is highly individualized and takes into account the student’s entire profile and post-secondary needs. It is extremely student-centered, and a good assessment will provide numerous recommendations for education, living, participation in community, safety needs, career possibilities based on interest and ability, and programmatic requirements.

Transition services can take many different forms. Some students will require an additional four years of a substantially separate classroom, learning both life skills and academics, some require a post-graduate year to address executive functioning and college-readiness deficits, and some may need vocational training. I had one client who received individual coaching in the community, learning such skills as taking public transportation, applying for jobs, shopping for groceries, and communicating with strangers. Another client required residential placement at a school as he grew physically and became dangerous with his family. And a high school client who had significant depression and school refusal for her junior and senior years was placed in a therapeutic residential school so that she could obtain enough credits to eventually graduate and attend college.

Because the IEP requires the transition planning at age 16, parents should start the process before that, by asking the school to conduct a transition assessment. At that point, the school may require that its own staff perform the assessment, and parents do not have a right to force otherwise. But after they receive and review the assessment in a team meeting, parents can question the scope and extent of it (just as they can with other school evaluations). If parents feel that the evaluation is not comprehensive enough or missed key areas of concern, they can ask for an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE), to be funded by the district. Once the parents ask for an IEE, the district must “without unnecessary delay†either agree to fund it or file a due process hearing request to show that its evaluation was appropriate. In most cases, it is less expensive to fund an IEE than it is to initiate a due process complaint.

In sum, students on an IEP have rights that extend past their anticipated graduation date, so long as they have not made effective progress in some goal areas. If your child has no transition goals in the IEP, he/she/they likely will not receive post-secondary transition services. Therefore it is important to start addressing transition needs and services by age 16 so that those goal areas can be added to the IEP. Students’ needs do not just go away when they turn 18! Planning for them is critical, and a good transition assessment is the best place to start.