Assisting students with disabilities as they transition from high school to postsecondary opportunities is a key component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress emphasized the importance of this issue in 1990 when considering whether to add specific mandatory transition planning to IDEA. Transition services offer students with disabilities the opportunity to move into adult life as “independent and self-sufficient” contributors to society. Unfortunately, some special educators receive little professional development around these transition planning requirements. Here, we provide a brief overview of transition plans to provide guidance in this area.

Transition Planning

The IDEA requires a plan to be included in a student’s individualized education program (IEP) about transition services. The goal of transition planning is to assist the student in making a smooth transition from high school to postsecondary education, independent living, or employment based on the student’s strengths, preferences, and interests.

This planning begins and is in place before age 16 and needs to be updated each year (some states have adopted a lower age for transition requirements). Students remain eligible for transition plans until the student either graduates with a regular diploma or exceeds the age eligibility requirements under state law. IDEA’s regulations also require that specific individuals be invited to attend the IEP meeting—including the student—to discuss these transition services. Participating outside agencies, when relevant, should also be invited to the IEP team meeting to discuss transition services. Both the law and its regulations stress the need for individualized transition plans, meaning that they must be specific to the child.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Reviewing litigation focused on transition services provides helpful insights for principals. These decisions have emphasized the need for individualized transition plans, and they remind principals that failing to provide adequate transition planning may result in a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). In one case, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court’s finding that a school district’s failure to consider the student’s transition-related preferences or to conduct age-appropriate transition assessments resulted in a loss of educational opportunity that denied her FAPE. It should be noted, though, that when a transition provision is absent in an IEP, it may be considered more of a procedural error—rather than a substantive error—and may not be found to deprive a student of FAPE. Nevertheless, if a student is eligible under IDEA, court cases dictate that a transition plan shall be included in a student’s IEP.

Not all parents have prevailed in challenges related to transition plans. In a case out of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, a student was not denied FAPE when the district provided adequate transition services that considered his vocational interests in a possible career path in the U.S. military, despite little transition planning and programming. A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case suggested that school districts can avoid violating a student’s FAPE when they are responsive to new information provided by parents.

In a recent transition-related case, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district on several issues, including rejecting the parents’ request for a private transition program similar to the one offered by the district to another child in the case Mr. P. & Mrs. P. v. West Hartford Board of Education. The parents rejected the planning and placement team’s proposed postsecondary program and asked the district to fund the student’s attendance at a private, for-profit transition program, which included two years of compensatory education. A due process hearing officer found that the district’s program provided FAPE. The 2nd Circuit affirmed that district court’s decision to grant the school district’s motion for summary judgment, which had affirmed the hearing officer’s decision in its entirety.

The first two cases in this section were decided prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, which focused on the school’s responsibility to offer an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s unique circumstances.” The IEP must allow for students with disabilities to have a chance to meet challenging objectives. Thus, school leaders should consider how this ruling might impact what is required in a transition plan to ensure that the child’s advancement from school to adult life is more than de minimis. The Mr. P. & Mrs. P. case, decided after Endrew F., illustrates that a student’s IEP must be individually crafted, as services provided to one student with a certain diagnosis are not automatically appropriate for another child.

The court decisions discussed are binding only in the circuits where the cases were decided and are fact-specific. School leaders would be wise to review additional decisions related to transition planning decided within their jurisdiction.


Consider these steps when undertaking transition planning for students:

  1. Invite the student to be a part of transition planning, or obtain the student’s preferences and interests to inform the transition planning. Community partners should also be invited when it would benefit the student.
  2. Transition plans must be documented in the IEP with specificity and should be individualized around the student’s interests.
  3. Be responsive to new information provided by parents related to transition planning.
  4. Transition supports and services provided to one student with a disability can be considered when planning for another student, but they should not automatically be included in the IEP.
  5. Develop an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of their unique circumstances. The transition plan must allow the child to advance toward postsecondary goals that are challenging.

School leaders can find additional information from the U.S. Department of Education’s Transition Guide, available online at

Regina Umpstead is a professor at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, MI. Susan Bon is a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits, and president of the Education Law Association.


34 C.F.R. §§ 300.1-300.818.

1990 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 1723, 1731-33.

Board of Educ. of Tsp. High Sch. Dist. No. 211 v. Ross, 486 F.3d 267 (7th Cir. 2007).

Coleman v. Pottstown Sch. Dist., 983 F. Supp. 2d 543 (E.D.P.A. 2013).

Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S. Ct. 988 (2017).

Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 655 F. App’x 423 (6th Cir. 2016) (unpublished).

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1442.

Jefferson County Board of Education v. Lolita S., 977 F.Supp.2d 1091(N.D. Ala. 2013).

Joaquin v. Friendship Public Charter School, 188 F. Supp. 3d 1 (D.D.C. 2016).

J.M. v. New York City Dept. of Educ., 171 F. Supp. 3d (S.D.N.Y. 2016).

Mazzotti, V., & Plotner, A. (2014). Implementing secondary transition evidence-based practices: A multi-state survey of transition service providers. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 39, 12–22.

Mr. P. & Mrs. P. v. West Hartford Board of Education, 885 F.3d 735 (2d Cir. 2018).

Park Hill Sch. Dist. v. Dass, 655 F.3d 762 (8th Cir. 2011).

S.M. v. Hawai‘i  Dept. of Educ., 808 F. Supp. 2d 1269 (D. Haw. 2011).

Todd D. v. Andrews, 933 F.2d 1576 (11th Cir. 1991).

U.S. Department of Education. A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth With Disabilities. Retrieved from:

Yankton Sch. Dist. v. Schramm, 93 F.3d 1369 (8th Cir. 1996).