From Middle School through High School

Going from middle school to high school might be an exciting or challenging experience. Planning for the changes can help the child and family be prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This page will talk about planning for different stages of high school: preparing to enter high school, planning in the early years to prepare for graduation, and planning in the late years for life beyond high school. This page will also give tips on what you can expect from your medical home.

Planning for the Future

For many teens, high school starts their transition to adulthood. It is a time full of changes, and it is often the time when young people (with and without special needs) start planning for their futures. For teens with special needs, high school might come with added challenges. It is a great time to keep taking part in activities or hobbies they have been into, and to try new things, like volunteering, working for the school paper or yearbook, joining the student council, social groups, and advocating for themselves and other students with special needs in their school. All teens can get involved with school and community activities. Finding ways for those teens who may have physical, developmental, medical, social and/or sensory issues to be involved (aided or with accommodations) will help them in the future.

No matter your child’s skills or challenges, high school is a big step toward the future, full of new responsibilities and choices, and for many it is the time to start taking a more active role in self-care and thinking about one’s future. As with past transitions, you and your child will want to plan ahead, meeting with your student’s school team* before your child goes to high school. Education issues during teen years should be addressed on a regular basis, and the IEP/504/Health Care Plan should be changed as your student’s health, goals, or competencies change.

*"School team" may refer to the IEP, 504, Health plan, or school accommodation team.

Planning for High School: Ages 10-14

The transition to high school starts long before your child enters high school. Many children are involved in their own IEP or Health Care meetings from the time they are quite young.

  • By age 10 it is recommended that children start coming to their meetings to gain familiarity with topics and questions about their health and education.
  • By age 14 your child should be part of most of these meetings. He’s likely to have key input and ideas about plans and discussions about his future. Before your child starts high school, meetings should look at assessments of social skills, academic skills, self-help and self-advocacy skills, recreation choices, and the topic of sexuality if appropriate (see Social Opportunities, Recreation Activities, and Healthy Relationships). Your child can help make a plan to grow his independence at home and at school.
  • When your child is 13 or 14, it’s good to start thinking about high school graduation requirements and diploma options (see below). You can form a plan based on your child’s individual needs that has the necessary services and supports that will help him reach his high school goals.

Early High School: Ages 14-16

When your child gets to high school, it is time to look at graduation options with the IEP team. With your student’s school team, you’ll want to think over whether your student can take part in in statewide assessments, earn course credits towards graduation, and the differences of earning a diploma or a certificate of completion.

Each state has its own graduation requirements and diploma options. Different diploma choices are offered across the country. To read more about diploma options in each state and find transition contacts for your state, go to: Diploma Options for Students with Disabilities (NCSET).

Points to Address in the High School IEP Meeting

By the time your student is 16, a plan for transitioning out of school and into adult life must be started as part of the IEP process. Whether adult life means college, vocational school, employment, or some other choice, this plan should focus on your student’s goals for after high school.

  • Determine classes and credits needed to complete graduation and plan classes and course of study in line with this.
  • Think about driver education. See Transportation Options for Young Adults.
  • Look at job interests and skills using career exploration, job sampling, and some job training. See After High School Options.
  • Find community services that offer job training and placement.
  • Think about summer employment or volunteer experience.
  • Put together a job placement file with references and skills the student has gained.
  • Apply to adult service agencies like State Services for People with Disabilities, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Independent Living Centers. Some agencies may have long waiting lists.
  • Ask the school team about required tests for graduation, if it applies.

Late High School: Ages 16-22

As your student looks toward life beyond high school, together, you will want to look into adult services programs. If he is planning to go to college, vocational, or technical school, it’s time to start looking at the school he is thinking about, and talking with the disability services and programs at that school. If he is not planning on college, but is planning to live outside your home, you may want to research and talk to residential or independent living services (see Independent Living).

Many high school students will leave behind social and recreational groups when they leave the school setting, so it’s good to research new recreation choices; research ahead of time can ease the transition into a new part of the community. Also, many young adults will need to find adult medical services, and it’s a good idea to research and contact medical services, physicians, therapists, or counselors that you are considering (see Finding Adult Health Care and Healthy Relationships).

If your student is curious about a certain career or job, he might look at talking with family or friends who work in that field who might be able to set him up with job training opportunities, or at least answer questions about that job.

Depending on the extent of disability, some students who are receiving special education services may stay in school and not graduate until their 22nd birthday to develop skills, carry out their transition goals, and research needed services. Special education and related services in accordance with the Disabilities Improvement Education Act (IDEA) are available through post high school. Post High School programs are usually specific to each school district. See Transition Planning for Students.

Remember that your child, no matter what their abilities, becomes a legal adult at age 18. Before the age of 18, some parents will need to think about and research how to become their child’s legal guardian (see Guardianship/Estate Planning). Age 18 is also the age when your child may qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) based on her own income and assets. If they already receive SSI, it’s helpful to learn about the changes that will happen with before your child’s eighteenth birthday. See Health Insurance/Financial Aids.

College-bound students will need to take the ACT College Entrance Exam or SAT College Entrance Exam during their junior year. Both of these tests have accommodations for students who need them, but you will have to research and set these things up well ahead of time. Then, these students will need to fill out college applications. Once a student has narrowed down her choices, it is a good plan to visit her chosen school and sign up with the college disability center before the end of senior year (see To College). Your student’s school counselor might be helpful during the application process.

What Can You Expect from the Medical Home?

Your child’s primary care doctor can be helpful as your child builds independence and learns self-advocacy skills. The medical home will teach your youth about her health care needs, medications and, based on your child’s needs and abilities, might encourage her to take a role in setting up her own appointments or ordering her own supplies. See the following:

The medical home will help your youth update her medical history and immunizations records, and guide her on the transition into adult health care services, along with recommending adult care providers. They will still answer questions for you and your youth about health and wellness, treatments, medications, and therapies. They can also talk about sexuality with your youth and refer her to proper resources based on her development and disabilities.

Some medical homes will be more involved, looking at your youth’s strengths, interests and goals, and referring her to vocational trainings or other activities. If you have not talked about these things with your clinician or medical home coordinator and would like to, let them know you would like help with this part of transition.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Transition Planning for Students
Outlines transition planning as a results-oriented process designed to facilitate the successful movement of high school-aged youth with disabilities from school to adult life; includes information about special education law. Source: Autism Now.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent Centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences, and other federal, state, and local services. See the "Find Your Parent Center Link" to find the parent center in your state.

State Education Contacts and Information
This page has contact information for state school resources, including the department of education, the higher education agency, special education agency and adult education agency in any state, commonwealth, or territory; U.S. Department of Education.

Services for Patients & Families Nationwide (NW)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2008; last update/revision: March 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Contributing Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewers: Tina Persels
Alfred N. Romeo, RN, PhD
Authoring history
2005: first version: Robin PrattCA; Barbara Ward, RN BSCA; Cheralyn CreerCA; Karen Ekker, RNCA; Carolyn Green, RNCA; Lynne Larsen-MillerCA; Elaine PollockCA; Kathryn PostCA; Helen PostCA; Lisa Samson-Fang, MDCA
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer