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Making High School Transition Plans for Students with Mental Health Disabilities

Beth Hess - Monday, February 12, 2018
There are a host of things that families of youth with mental health disabilities (those who qualify for special education services or accommodations) need to think about as they prepare for their child’s transition from the world of high school to the world of continuing education and/or employment. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) published a transition guide in 2017 that contains useful information. 

Unfortunately, available services aren’t always as helpful as would be hoped.  It is important that families understand how the process is supposed to go, and be prepared to advocate for the support that their child actually needs. Here we highlight just a few items that you should know about.

When to Begin Planning
For students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), transition planning must begin at age 14. This mostly consists of helping a student to determine their post-secondary goals, and developing an educational plan. If they haven’t already, students should start attending their IEP meetings at this point. It is important that a child’s involvement not simply be “pro forma.” Instead, your child should have meaningful input into their goals, and detailed, meaningful plans should be put in place to support those goals.  In addition, every student on an IEP should have a transition coordinator assigned to their IEP team after age 14 to support transition efforts.

For students with Section 504 plans, guidance counselors typically work with the student to help develop a course of study.

Services Available through the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS)
DORS, an agency that offers programs and services that help people with disabilities go to work, is required to provide pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) to students with disabilities who have an IEP or a Section 504 plan beginning at age 14 and until their exit from high school. Pre-ETS services vary, as they are based on “identified need and availability.” They should include counseling in self-advocacy, job exploration and post-secondary educational programs. Ideally, Pre-ETS services would also include work-based learning experiences, such as summer employment or internships. This is a service that you may want to advocate for. School personnel may refer students for Pre-ETS, or anyone can contact their local DORs office to refer.  

As a student enters their next to last year of high school (typically their junior year), IEP teams should coordinate the referral of the student to DORS. In addition, for students on Section 504 plans, parents should know that anyone can make a referral to DORSat any time after an individual turns 16. DORS transition counselors are supposed to work with students during their last two years of high school.  

DORS transition counselors may:
  • Arrange for testing to identify skills and abilities
  • Coordinate Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS).  See above.
  • Identify and help apply for services through the Behavioral Health Administration, depending on availability and eligibility
  • Gather documents
When possible, DORS transition counselors should attend IEP meetings.

Note: Once students exit high school, they must meet certain eligibility requirements for DORS services, and even if eligible, may be placed on a waiting list. In addition, some services have fees.

Post-Secondary Education
Along with preparing for eventual employment, some students may want to prepare for continuing education. Students who reside in central Maryland may want to consider enrolling in Project Access, a program at Howard Community College designed to assist high school students with disabilities in making a successful transition into post-secondary education. Project Access offers instruction in relevant academic areas, career development and self-advocacy. The four-week summer program is intended for high school students in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. There is a cost for the program, but financial assistance may be provided based on need. Click for more information.

Also regarding post-secondary education - parents and students both should know that IEPs do not follow students after high school. Accommodations may be available, however, under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These may be different than the accommodations provided to students as part of their IEPs. Documentation, which varies from school to school, must be provided in order for the student to be eligible to receive accommodations.

There are many other items to consider when preparing for transition from high school – graduation requirements, college entrance exams, work-based learning programs, exit documents, and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – to name just a few. Families, armed with knowledge, are better prepared to advocate for their child and promote a successful transition.

Download MSDE’s transition guide to learn more. 

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