How to Build a Transition Program
from Scratch


Have you ever wondered how to help special education students make a smooth transition from high school to the real world? Well, you’re in luck! In this article, I’m going to give you some tips on how to get started with a transition program.

The Dilemma of the Newbie
Transition Teacher

I remember my first year as a transition teacher. I was formerly a paraprofessional but then I got thrown into the job as a long-term substitute. Then, I was told that I would actually be teaching all year long.

This was problem enough, as I was entirely unprepared to be the lead teacher. But the hardest part? We were building our transition program from scratch!

We used to have a combined program for high school and post-high school students. However, the school decided to divide it into two separate programs – a high school setting and a transition setting.

Because of this change, I became responsible for the transition students. I was told to draft a schedule, figure out what to teach, and set up meaningful classes and activities for the post-high school students. These included finding vocational opportunities and community-based recreation and leisure activities.

At the time, our school was also revamping the self-contained classrooms for grades 9 to 12, so I didn’t really get the support I needed.

If you’re a new transition teacher, trust me, I know how you feel. That’s why I’m hoping this blog post will help you!

What is a Transition Program?

graduation diploma certificate and graduation hat

Let’s start with the basics. What is a transition program? Transition services are intended to prepare students to move from school to the world of adulthood. While transition services federally must begin by age 16, each US state has its own laws about how soon students should begin transition planning. In Massachusetts, where I live, the age is 14.

A transition program typically begins when a student has finished high school and has not taken their diploma yet. They stay in school for additional time in order to continue to work on their life skills and job skills. They may be in a self-contained classroom or be fully included in the traditional classroom setting, but legally, they must be receiving transition services if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

In my district, we had some transition students who came all day long for four additional years. This was the program that I supported for 10 years!

7 Tips for Building a Transition Program

So, how do you build a transition program from scratch? Here are some helpful tips that I’ve found very useful in my years of being a transition teacher.

Tip #1: Make a Plan with Your School Administration


When building a transition program, it’s important to have discussions with the school administration about various aspects. Talk about the resources and support needed. Is there a budget for recreation and leisure activities, supplies, furniture, or for weekly cooking and grocery shopping?

Ensure that the program’s schedule and logistics are in harmony with the school’s existing routines. Will your students have transportation to get off campus? Can your students attend any electives with 9 to 12 graders, or will all their programming be off campus?

Even the classroom setup is important. You have to coordinate with the school if there can be an area for a kitchen, laundry, or even a sensory room. Check out this post on how to set up your classroom. I even included this video of a classroom tour so you can have an idea of what a transition classroom should look like.

Tip #2: Create an Ideal Schedule

Think of your dream schedule. It may not end up being a reality, but first, think of what you imagine your ideal schedule would look like. How will you start each day? When will your planning be?

Having a schedule is like having a roadmap. Plan out the activities, meetings, and lessons that will help your students transition smoothly. Make sure to include time for fun and relaxation too!

If you need ideas, check out this free resource here: High School SPED & Transition Schedule

Tip #3: Take a Look at Your Caseload


Start by looking at how many students you have for the year. Are some at similar levels? Try to group them based on their similar abilities or needs. Some might need more help, while others need less.

Next, check their IEPs. Which IEP goals overlap? See if some students have similar goals in their plans. This can be really helpful because you can design teaching methods that simultaneously address the shared goals of your students.

I like to use this bundle of resources as my classroom management hack. It helps me stay organized when I have so many overlapping variables. With this approach, my students can receive the best education possible during their limited transition years with me!

Tip #4: Look for Vocational Opportunities

A transition program includes helping your students with their career path, so one of your responsibilities is to look for meaningful job or internship opportunities for them. Unfortunately, you’ll probably be building vocational partnerships from scratch.

So while you’re getting that going, you can first connect with your local Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. See if their services include Pre-employment Training Services (Pre-ETS) classes. They can come to your school to teach some classes for you and even give you the resources to help you find off-campus employment or internships for students.

You can also think about setting up your own school business in the meantime, since it may be tough to get off-campus right away without any connections. A student-run business can help a lot in training your transition students in different life skills that are useful for their future careers.

Tip #5: Decide on Your Curriculum

Naturally, you’d need a curriculum when teaching in a transition program, and most of the time, you’d have to make it yourself. Choosing what to teach is a thoughtful process because you have to make sure that your curriculum is a good fit for your students.

Some ready-made curriculums used in other schools are ULS, Teachtown, and Attainment Transition. My school never funded us to have a curriculum to use, so we used the one I created! Click below to check out resources in the following areas:

  • Community Skills
  • Household Skills
  • Physical Health
  • Managing Money
  • Social-Emotional Health
  • Vocational Skills

If you also don’t have a transition curriculum to use, check out this transition planning guide! Planning for a transition program will be much easier. 

Afterward, you can start thinking of which specific subjects you want to teach and when to teach them. 

Get the Transition Curriculum Roadmap here to help you out.

Tip #6: Be Ready to Accept Help

Collaboration is key in special education because no one is a specialist in everything. It’s okay to ask for help and support from parents, guardians, colleagues, and other professionals!

Collaborate with related service providers, like occupational therapists, physical therapists, adapted physical ed, SLP, or others linked to the services your students need in their IEPs. Will the SLP be doing a group class, or pulling out students for a one-on-one session? Can the OT do a group exercise class? Can the PT help train your paras on how to support your students with physical disabilities? Don’t be afraid to communicate with them.

Speaking of collaboration, you can also look on social media and blogs to see what other transition teachers are doing! There are a lot more resources out there than there used to be. Don’t be shy to learn from others. And share what you have learned as you go, too. We all need to learn from each other!

Tip #7: Be Flexible and Adapt as You Go

Young afro american business man standing in front of stickers g

Over time, you will be building new community partnerships, including job placements. These will come and go. You may be happy with your curriculum for the first years, but find that as your caseload changes, it’s no longer the best fit. This is actually very normal.

That’s why, whenever possible, you should try to find a differentiated curriculum. When a curriculum or any resource material has multiple levels, you already have multiple versions ready to go for your future students.

I personally always make my curriculum in an errorless format, a simplified format, and a more advanced format, so that I can spend less time adapting in real-time while I’m teaching. Here’s an example of an activity that’s adapted in multiple ways: Filling Out Forms Printable PDF.

So there you have it! Starting a transition program for special education students is all about teamwork and dedication. There may be a lot of things to do and think about, but we’re lucky because we’re surrounded by other transition teachers who are willing to help and share what they know.

With support and dedication, you can make your students’ transition journey smoother and more enjoyable. You’ve got this!

Exploring what to teach your transition students, and overwhelmed by the endless ideas??

Remember that your units of focus will depend on your students’ needs; you can build your own curriculum map for the year by using this guide in conjunction with your students’ IEP goals. 

You can get the Transition Roadmap Scope & Sequence here!