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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Transition Plans for Students with Disabilities

Making the transition from grade to grade can be especially difficult for students with disabilities. Interactive transition plans help students and their teachers make the passage smoothly.

It is May, and Sarah, a student with moderate mental retardation, will be making a transition to Mrs. Smith's 3rd grade classroom in the fall. In anticipation, Mrs. Smith is both nervous and curious. She wonders whether Sarah can count, can read, can follow directions, and has friends. Today is her first opportunity to find out. She is meeting Sarah on her own.
Sarah walks into the classroom. Mrs. Smith welcomes her with, "Hello, Sarah, it's so nice to meet you. Come over here, right next to me, so we can look at your book together." Sarah extends her hand to offer her transition book. Mrs. Smith reads the book aloud, points to pictures, and asks clarifying questions. As they get to know each other, Mrs. Smith relaxes. Sarah is simply a little girl, like so many others she has taught.
In September, Mrs. Smith will be better prepared to welcome Sarah as a member of the classroom community. She will know which adaptations she needs to support Sarah, and she will have a working knowledge of Sarah's academic and social skills. Mrs. Smith will receive Sarah just as she does the other children.

Making the Transition

Each school year, students across the United States make a transition from one grade level to the next. These transition times are important for students, their families, and teachers because they establish a tone of either welcome or exclusion. Generally, transitions are uneventful; teachers and parents provide the level and types of support that are developmentally appropriate for most students. The support may be relatively informal, such as a letter home informing the family of the teacher for the next year, or more formal, such as parent-teacher meetings or a ceremonial move-up day. In most situations, students have the requisite academic and interpersonal skills that enable them to adjust to their new environments.
However, not all students make transitions with the same level of ease. Students with developmental disabilities can have a difficult time, and general-education teachers may also feel anxious and uncertain. Teachers who have not had many experiences including students with disabilities need to address their anxiety and apprehension on two levels.
First, teachers need to familiarize themselves with the student; that is, they need to see the student as a person with a variety of talents, skills, abilities, and needs that extend beyond the disability label. These experiences require direct, one-to-one interactions between students with disabilities and their teachers, such as conversations on the playground and participation in common activities. The shared experiences put the disability characteristics in a broader context: The teacher sees the student as a whole person.
Second, teachers need helpful information about the students in an accessible, user-friendly format. The interactive transition plan addresses that second need while it builds on the first-level experiences.
An interactive transition plan assumes that students must be at the center of communicating who they are, what they like to do, and how they contribute to their community. It is a hybrid of several approaches to planning, combining aspects of individualized educational planning (York, Doyle, & Kronberg, 1995) with a portfolio framework (Jasmine, 1993). With the interactive transition plan, the process is one of shared self-discovery, and the product is the vehicle for the receiving teacher to get to know and connect with the student with disabilities. The strength of the interactive transition plan lies in the opportunities that develop while the student with the disabilities shares his or her plan with the classroom teacher. The plan itself becomes the bridge between the student and teacher.

Transition Planning

Transition refers to the movement between one activity, place, or service-delivery model to another. Some students with developmental disabilities require individualized supports and accommodations to ensure that the transition is smooth and disruptions to the educational experience are minimal. An interactive transition highlights the face-to-face interaction between the student with disabilities and the receiving classroom teacher.

What Is an Interactive Transition Plan?

An interactive transition plan is both a product and a process. It is a document (such as a three-ring binder, an object box, or a CD-ROM) that the student with disabilities makes with the assistance of friends, family members, or school personnel. It is also a conversation carried on between the student and the receiving teacher.
The transition plan assists the student in communicating relevant information to the general-education teacher. That plan can include specific information regarding the student's participation in typical daily routines and in relationships with classmates. This information can help the classroom teacher consider the types of supports that the student with disabilities needs to participate fully in the classroom community. The sending teacher must also share information regarding instructional techniques that have and have not worked in the past, student learning styles, and ways in which the student has participated in the general education curriculum during the past year.
By sharing the "artifacts" that are included in the transition plan, the receiving teacher and the student have an opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level. Example artifacts may include pictures, objects, stories, videotapes, and work samples. The most important aspect of the plan, however, is not the specific artifact but the interaction between the student with disabilities and the classroom teacher. When the student presents the plan, the teacher and the student establish a personal connection before the student becomes a member of the class.

How Is the Plan Developed?

During the routine of everyday teaching and learning, students and teachers can accomplish many tasks that can culminate into an interactive transition plan. The plan itself is analogous to a student portfolio. Many general educators are familiar with portfolios to help students communicate who they are as learners and how they have grown over time. The teacher needs to be certain that the student with disabilities is also creating a portfolio throughout the academic year. The actual document should evolve over time and be completed on the same time line as the student's classmates without disabilities. The student will design and plan the interactive portion of the transition in April of the academic year.
Step 1: Choose a format. The first step is to choose a design format, such as a three-ring binder or a photo album that is portable, durable, and easily changed. Older students and students with severe physical disabilities may want to use presentation software on a computer. Compiling the transition book is an emerging process whereby the student's likes, interests, strengths, and needs inform the choice of format. A member of the sending team—including the sending teacher, friends, and family members—works with the student with disabilities to answer the question: Who is this person?
Step 2: Share the transition plan with the receiving teacher. Sharing the actual transition plan, regardless of the format, can be a wonderful time of mutual discovery. The sending teacher or the student's parents arrange a time for the student with disabilities to meet with the receiving classroom teacher. Typically, they meet in the receiving teacher's classroom. During the meeting, the receiving teacher supports the student by opening the book to the first page or by turning the computer on to the appropriate presentation program.
Lizzie is an 11-year-old student moving from elementary school, where she is a 5th grader, to a large middle school, where she will be in 6th grade (Couture, Pound, & Valdes, 1999). She has multiple disabilities and uses gestures and pictures (both symbols and photographs) to communicate. Lizzie's transition plan includes photographs depicting her as a family member, a friend, and a typical kid in the neighborhood; photographs showing her involvement in activities with her 5th grade classmates; and photographs of her first trip to the middle school.
Many photographs have captions that describe Lizzie's current level of performance, as well as where she needs help. For example, one photograph shows her outside with several children. The caption reads, "This is my sister Megan and one of our friends from the neighborhood. I enjoy being near children, but I do not often play with them." Another photograph shows Lizzie at school drinking out of a water bottle, with the caption reading: "I always have a water bottle at my desk. Sometimes I get a little thirsty, and it helps if I have a water bottle at my desk." Both statements show Lizzie as a typical young person and gives the receiving teacher helpful information.
Given Lizzie's communication patterns, the transition plan must include information about how she communicates through behaviors. For example, Lizzie often touches others who are wearing jeans. People might think that she is trying to pinch or pull them when, in fact, she simply loves the texture of denim. This kind of information is crucial for the receiving team.
Because of Lizzie's inability to communicate through spoken language, the receiving middle school teacher uses the transition book to get to know her. Just sitting down with Lizzie and reading her book with her will create the opportunity for connection.
During the sharing time, members of the sending team should not be present. The receiving teacher will be able to support and encourage the student in sharing aspects of himself or herself directly, through conversation, or indirectly, with the transition plan acting as the bridge. The special time will allow the teacher and the student to initiate their own unique relationship. Although simple, this time can be extraordinarily important in developing the relationship between the receiving classroom teacher and the student.

From Worry to Welcome

Given the excitement and anxieties that accompany annual transitions between grades and schools, the interactive transition plan can support both the receiving classroom teacher and the student with disabilities. The interactive process provides opportunities for the receiving classroom teacher to create a relationship with the student and to understand a variety of the student's characteristics. This connection plays a crucial role in helping the general-education teacher welcome the student with the disabilities as a member of the classroom community.
Ownership and membership have significant positive outcomes in the school experiences of students with and without disabilities (Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, & Schattman, 1993). Beneficial for teachers and all students, not just students with disabilities, the transitional plan format can be a vehicle for encouraging self-reflection, developing portfolios, and preparing students for change.

Couture, B., Pound, S., & Valdes, C. (1999, May). Hi, I'm Lizzie! Paper presented at the student-centered transition team meeting at Trinity College of Vermont, Burlington, VT.

Giangreco, M., Dennis, R., Cloninger, C., Edelman, S., & Schattman, R. (1993). I've counted Jon: Transformational experiences of teachers educating students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 59 (4), 359–372.

Jasmine, J. (1993). Portfolios and other assessments. Huntington Beach, CA: Teacher Created Materials.

York, J., Doyle, M. B., & Kronberg, R. (1995). Creating inclusive school communities: Module 3a: Curriculum as everything students learn in school: Planning for transitions. Baltimore, MD: Brookes H. Publishing.

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