Preparing Students for Life After Special Education

By Andrew Hawk

Note: This post was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are publishing it now because the content remains relevant.

Preparing Students for Life After Special EducationDepending on special education students’ exceptionalities, they may exit public education at age 18 or stay until they are 21. No matter what path students take out of public education, the world waiting for them will pose many new challenges with significantly fewer built-in supports.

Unlike at school, at a grown-up job it is unlikely that anyone is going to be on the lookout to see if someone needs accommodations, modifications, or any extra support in general. In many cases, challenges people face in public or in the workplace will be viewed negatively and could result in termination or worse. This is well known to school personnel.

As special education students near graduation, the special education personnel in their lives focus more and more on life after school. Having a transition plan in place is part of special education students’ individual learning plans (IEPs). The challenge is writing plans that are doable and realistic without limiting a student’s potential. Here are some ideas you can try when you help a student prepare for life out of special education.

Capitalize on Strengths

The cornerstone of special education is identifying students’ strengths and teaching them to use those strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Once during an initial evaluation meeting for a student who was being identified with a specific learning disability, the student’s mother asked me if her son would “outgrow” the disability.

I explained that he would not outgrow it. However, we would help prepare him for life after school by showing him how to use his strengths to overcome his weakness and to teach himself new material as an adult. This particular student needed visual representations of new material. As he progresses beyond high school, he will need to be able to locate these on his own. Luckily, with Google and YouTube, this is easier today than it was in the past. If you are not sure what your young person’s strengths are, a quick internet search will offer a variety of skills inventories you can use to identify strengths.


You might be surprised to know that students can access testing accommodations after high school. College classes, licensing examinations, even the written test to obtain a driver’s license can be taken with testing accommodations. The thing is, most people are not going to ask if you need accommodations on testing or anything else. Teaching students to self-advocate is another important tool in the toolbox. This can be a challenge, since some students may feel embarrassed to ask for any supports.

Combine Interests and Abilities

This is good advice for anyone making career decisions. Finding work that interests you will help keep you engaged and increase your chances of success. This can be as simple as looking for work that involves being up and moving around or as detailed as planning to attend a college preparation program for a specific career.

Keep Planning

I used to tell my students that the most important thing for success in life is to have a plan. Even if the plan does not include going to college, it is important to plan to do something after high school. This never changes. As people progress through life, something new is always on the horizon. Planning for what comes next makes transitions easier, whether you are getting ready to move into your first apartment or considering a retirement community. Instilling the idea of planning will help students be successful in life.

Be Aware

Years ago I spoke to a distant relative who was preparing to graduate from high school. He told me he was planning to go into the army. I knew he was on a prescription medication for ADHD and that this would prevent him from joining the army. Not wanting to upset him at a family gathering, I talked to his mother at a later time. After verifying what I had told them with the recruiter he had been in contact with, he and his family started working on a new plan for him.

Whatever plan young people are working on, they need to know that there are some things they may not be able to do. I recommend doing some research at the beginning of the planning process.

Consider Local Needs

Does your area have any worker shortages in specific jobs or industries? If it does, you might be able to capitalize on this if the work is something that fits into the young person’s interests. Keep an eye on help-wanted listings and see if you notice any trends.

Build a Network

One of the nice things about public school is that a student gets identified for special education services and then there is a person who will handle medical needs, a person who will handle academic needs, a person to take care of speech therapy, a person to take care of occupational therapy, and so on. Outside of special education, young people will need to piece together their own network of resources and professionals to meet their needs. Help young people build a network by exploring what community resources are available and helping them know how to address medical challenges on their own.

504 Planning

Many people are unaware that a 504 plan is a plan to help “even the playing field” for a person who has a medical condition that effects one or more major life functions. If a student with an ADHD diagnosis does not qualify for special education services, they can still have a 504 plan and obtain accommodations to help them at school. In many cases, teachers are not fully aware of this fact. Even fewer people know that 504 plans can be obtained for adults in the workplace too. Like everything else, no one is likely to spontaneously offer this. Many employers will not be aware of what a 504 plan is, but they will honor one because the law requires it.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.

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Suggested Resources
The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (And Their Parents): Understanding What Special Ed Is & How It Can Help You

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