We are all constantly transitioning throughout our lives. We go from one grade to the next, from one job to another, or from living at home to living on our own. While all of us handle change in our own way, major transitions often give rise to conflicting feelings. For example, we might look forward to new experiences, yet worry about the unknown. Taking adequate time to prepare and planning well are the best ways to alleviate the stresses that can accompany transition.

With that in mind, it is important for individuals with Down syndrome and their families to begin thinking about one of the most important transitions of all — the move from high school to life after high school — and to encourage them to start making plans as early as possible.

The period of time following high school graduation can present many challenges. But it can also be a time of excitement, productivity and great satisfaction. Planning for this transition from an early age can help the individual with Down syndrome mature into an adult who is as independent as possible. A well-developed transition plan ensures that the student has steps in place to reach his or her goals after high school.

What Will Change After High School?

While in school, most, if not all, of the resources that make up a student’s principal support system of special education and related services are mandated by law. Upon graduation, the student will no longer be eligible for many of the services, and the responsibility of identifying, locating and coordinating appropriate resources will fall mainly upon the individuals and their families.

With proper planning, many important resource links can already be in place by the time the student graduates. There are many options available to individuals with Down syndrome after high school, but the best way to ensure a successful transition is to start planning for it long before graduation.

What Does Transition Planning Involve?

Transition planning involves looking towards the future and envisioning all the skills and preparations that will be needed to lead the most fulfilling life possible. Looked at in this way, all training and education received during childhood and adolescence are part of transition planning.

However, formal transition planning involves a document called a transition plan, which is required by law to form part of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) starting at age 14.

Initially, the IEP can include general transition goals, but by age 16, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the IEP contain a statement of “transition services,” or postsecondary agency or services links, that the student needs in order to transition successfully.

Transition planning is, therefore, a right that exists for all students with disabilities. It is important that individuals with Down syndrome be as involved as possible in making decisions about their future. Transition goals should reflect a student’s interests, abilities and dreams, and the plan should outline specific objectives to help him or her achieve those goals.

What Kinds of Opportunities Are Available After High School for Individuals with Down Syndrome?

There are many opportunities for individuals with cognitive disabilities after graduation, but the three areas most frequently considered are: postsecondary education, employment and housing. Today, there are more opportunities than ever before for individuals with Down syndrome to pursue goals in these areas.

Successful transitioning will not only depend on a good understanding of the individual’s personal strengths and interests, but also on knowledge of what options and services are available in the community.


Individuals with Down syndrome have the opportunity to participate in a variety of postsecondary education programs, such as:
Academic programs or courses at a community college or other college or university; Vocational or training programs, such as apprenticeships and trade schools; or Innovative programs that combine these two types of education.

Programs and schools vary widely in terms of what they offer with respect to academics, independent living skills training, residential options, and the type of diploma or certificate earned. Even though IDEA requires that all schools make proper accommodations for their students with disabilities, it is very important to find a school whose staff clearly respects the student’s learning style and is willing to go the extra mile to meet his or her needs. As many of these postsecondary education programs have eligibility or entrance requirements and are not necessarily located in your community, it is important to start researching early. Knowledge of existing programs and entrance requirements can help identify specific goals to include in the transition plan. For example, students can plan to take certain courses in high school as preparation for particular programs. Or, they might secure part-time jobs or volunteer work in a specific field of interest.

Deciding which program to enroll in is just like researching any college or program. It is important to find a good fit between the individual and the school.


In general, there are three types of employment options available to individuals with Down syndrome: competitive, supported and sheltered.

In competitive employment, the individual secures employment in the community — for example, by responding to ads or job postings or proactively approaching businesses — and works independently without any support services.

More common is supported employment, in which the individual works in an integrated setting and receives support services from a job coach. The job coach accompanies the individual to the workplace to enable him or her to learn the necessary job skills and to prepare to work independently. Usually, the job coach works with the individual full-time at first, and moves toward the goal of providing only periodic support such as visiting the job site to assist in training the individual for new assignments.

In sheltered employment, individuals work in self-contained settings with others who have disabilities without the integration of non-disabled workers. Sheltered employment is often obtained through agencies, and wages for this type of work are typically lower than for other types of jobs. Sheltered employment usually involves manual labor tasks such as assembling goods. In addition to these types of employment, there are also many innovative programs that focus on business ownership and entrepreneurship for individuals with disabilities. These businesses may include artistic or creative ventures that allow the individual to focus on a specific talent or ability, such as photography or public speaking.

Regardless of the type of employment that is pursued, the challenge will often be locating a job and coordinating appropriate support services. There are laws and government agencies that aid individuals with disabilities in defining their employment goals, locating jobs, and obtaining the services they need to perform those jobs successfully.


Individuals with Down syndrome and their families often explore possible changes in living arrangements as part of the transition to adulthood and the move towards greater independence. Not every student will want, need or be able to move from the family’s home to more independent housing. Still, the question of where the student will live must be addressed in transition planning.

There are many housing options available:

  • The individual might maintain the status quo and continue living with his or her family.
  • Individuals enrolled in postsecondary education programs may reside in student housing, such as dormitories.
  • Some individuals may choose supportive living arrangements, in which they can live in a home of their own, with or without roommates, and receive support services as needed.
  • Others may choose a group living situation, in which they share a home with other individuals with disabilities and have a 24-hour support staff.

The transition plan should identify not only where the student will live, but also which skills he or she will need to develop to successfully manage that arrangement. Such skills can include caring for personal hygiene, managing finances and preparing meals. They might also include learning how to drive or how to navigate public transportation to get to and from school, work or other activities.

In making decisions about living arrangements, families must weigh the desires of the individual, his or her independent living skills, and available resources.

What Are the Components of a Transition Plan?

The IEP’s transition plan is the creative roadmap that a student will follow to prepare for life after high school. It identifies the individual’s postsecondary education, employment and housing goals, and outlines specific steps to achieve them.

There are no hard and fast rules regarding transition plans, but in general, the transition team should set out to achieve the following: Assess, or identify the student’s strengths, needs and preferences in terms of postsecondary education, employment and housing; Develop an awareness of various options in these areas and of the skills needed; Match the student to a desired postsecondary educational program, job and/or living arrangement; Train and prepare the student for the planned course of action; and help the student achieve a successful placement and ensure that appropriate support services are in place.

To accomplish all of this, the transition plan needs to describe specific long-term goals and identify smaller, measurable steps that will help achieve each goal. A good plan will include strategies to learn specialized skills such as operating a particular piece of equipment or completing a certain course, as well as basic skills such as punctuality and working well with others. Transition plans also identify who is responsible for each step and set target dates for each objective.

Who Is Responsible for Developing the Transition Plan?

Because parents are in the position to know their child best, and to be their child’s greatest advocate, ultimate responsibility for good transition planning falls on them. However, since the transition plan is part of the IEP, the entire IEP team works together to develop the document.

The IEP team includes the student, teachers, parents (or legal guardians), school administrators and representatives of any other agency that may be responsible for providing transition services.

The process of developing a transition plan requires both creativity and coordination. It is a cooperative venture that requires input and participation by the entire team. While the role of each team member is important, the individual with Down syndrome should be as involved as possible in all decision-making, and efforts should remain focused on his or her needs and desires.

What General Skills Should the Transition Plan Address?

The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities identifies the following four skills as critical for individuals making a successful transition to life after high school:

  • The ability for self-assessment – An awareness of the accommodations that they need because of their disability
  • Knowledge of their legal rights to these accommodations – Self-advocacy skills to express their needs in the workplace and the community

Parents can get their children off to a good start by helping them begin to develop these general skills at an early age. The transition plan should reflect specific strategies for further strengthening the skills the individual has developed over time, and for helping him or her acquire those missing or underdeveloped skills.

Can a Transition Plan Be Changed?

Yes! A transition plan must be flexible. It is designed to be a working document that can change as needed. Changes may be the result of any number of reasons – an individual may have already acquired certain skills and is ready to focus on new ones, or he or she may have developed different interests and goals.

To make the best decisions as to when and how to modify a transition plan, it is important to develop solid evaluation criteria and to regularly review the individual’s progress against these criteria.

How Do I Know if the Transition Plan Is Working?

The goals and objectives stated in the plan should be clearly measurable in order to determine success. Evaluation of the plan may include observation, discussion and interaction with the student, team members, and relevant professionals.

The input of all team members and most importantly, the individual with Down syndrome, is key to making the determination of how well the plan is working. This input will provide valuable insights into the kinds of modifications that may need to be made to ensure that goals are met.

Transition Skills Checklist


Can your child:

  • Get to and from work, on time
  • Perform work satisfactorily
  • Work cooperatively with others
  • Take break or lunch appropriately
  • Wear suitable clothing
  • Use appropriate safety procedures
  • Follow directions
  • Accept supervision
  • Community Skills

Can your child:

  • Use public transportation
  • Shop for groceries, clothing
  • Make necessary appointments
  • Use a phone
  • Use bank accounts
  • Be safe in traffic, among strangers
  • Know how to seek help
  • Handle money
  • Use an ATM
  • Use vending machines (laundry machines, fare cards, and so on)


Can your child:

  • Plan menus
  • Make shopping list from menus
  • Prepare breakfast, lunch, supper, snack, or pack a lunch
  • Wash dishes, pots, and pans
  • Clean up apartment (bathroom, living areas, kitchen, and so on)
  • Clean own room
  • Do laundry: use washer, dryer, and iron


Can your child:

  • Supply appropriate personal identification
  • Greet people appropriately
  • Use contemporary style of dress, hair, make-up
  • Use good grooming, hygiene skills consistently
  • “Talk” with friends and coworkers
  • Be courteous
  • Be responsible
  • Be happy


Can your child:

  • Use free time for pleasure
  • Choose reasonable activities
  • Pick a hobby
  • Perform required activities
  • Use community resources
  • Call friends to make plans with them


Can your child:

  • Use a cell phone
  • Use a datebook
  • Take prescriptions as directed
  • Use over-the-counter medications appropriately
  • Use sunscreen when needed
  • Use insect repellent when needed

Sample IEP Transition Goals

Long-term postsecondary education goal:

Student would like to enroll in a teaching assistant certification program at community college.

Possible short-term objectives

Person/Agency Responsible
Visit or contact local colleges to learn about course/program offerings
Research entrance requirements and pre-requisites
Ensure student is enrolled in courses that will prepare him/her for college requirements
Student, parents
Student, guidance counselor
Teacher-advisor, guidance
department and student
Long-term postsecondary education goal:

After graduation, student would like to have paid employment, but is not yet sure what kind of work he or she would like to do.

Possible short-term objectives Person/Agency Responsible
Enroll student in a career investigation course.
Locate volunteer opportunities in one or more area(s) of interest.
Or, find part-time employment that will give student a chance to develop general job skills
Teacher-advisor, guidance
department and student
Student, parents, guidance department
Transition service provider, student, teacher-advisor, parents
Long-term housing goal:

Student wants to eventually live on his or her own and share an apartment with a roommate.

Possible short-term objectives Person/Agency Responsible
Enroll student in course that will help him or her develop independent-living skills.
Student will take on new responsibilities/chores at home.
Teacher-advisor, guidance
department and student
Student, parents

Things to keep in mind:

  • Transition plan goals for postsecondary education, employment and housing often overlap.
  • Short-term objectives can be general or very specific. However, it is important to set measurable goals.
  • The IEP must include a target date for each short-term objective.

It is very important to make sure that all related factors be considered in planning for a goal. For example, a goal of working part-time must address the question of how the student will get to and from work. Similarly, a student’s goal to live on his or her own must address how expenses such as rent, utility bills and groceries will be paid for.

Additional Resources:



  • The Arc
    The largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families
  • Center for Parent Information and Resources
    CPIR is a central source of information on pre-adolescents and teens with disabilities
  • National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability/Youth
    Information about employment and youth with disabilities
  • National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET)
    Coordinates national resources, offers technical assistance, and disseminates information related to secondary education and transition for youth
  • Youthhood
    Curriculum-based tool that can help young adults plan for life after high school
  • Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitative Research and Training Center
    Provides employment resources for professionals, individuals with disabilities, and their representatives


  • Adolescents with Down Syndrome: Toward a More Fulfilling Life. Pueschel, S. & Sustrova, M. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing. (1997)
  • Adults with Down Syndrome. Pueschel, S. M. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing. (2006)
  • Adventures in the Mainstream. Palmer, G. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. (2005)
  • The Down Syndrome Transition Handbook. Simons, Jo Ann. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. (2010)
  • Footprints for the Future in English
  • Footprints for the Future in Spanish
  • Life Beyond the Classroom. Wehman, P. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing. (2006)
  • The New Transition Handbook: Strategies High School Teachers Use that Work. Hughes, C. & Carter, E. Chelsea, MI: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co. (2012)