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Student Counsel

Transition Planning for Students with Special Needs

They need the same support as other students when it comes to postsecondary school planning.

For high school students, college admissions counseling and postsecondary school planning have become increasingly intricate. In response, many school districts have invested in counseling programs developed to educate students and families regarding issues such as conducting the college search, testing, career guidance, application procedures, essay preparation and interviews. For many students, the postsecondary planning process is a significant part of their junior and senior years in high school. These students often cultivate meaningful and lasting relationships with their counselors.

While the process for general education students has become more challenging, the process for students with disabilities has become exponentially more complex. Therefore, it is critical that students with disabilities receive the same support, counseling and encouragement when it comes to postsecondary school planning. Students with disabilities may experience difficulty in the process and therefore need access to critical information and guidance related to options, programs and procedures. In addition, these students benefit from supportive counseling relationships, which contribute to their sense of psychological connection in schools. Disregarding this important need for transitional support can have deleterious effects on this population, both in regard to their planning and their sense of belonging.

In my experience, the most well adjusted students are often the ones who visibly demonstrate a sense of being part of the school community. Conversely, those students who experience the most difficulty are often the ones who feel marginalized in school. Research suggests that a sense of emotional connection is integral to student engagement, cognitive processing, behavior, health and, ultimately, learning and achievement. Students with disabilities experience the same urge for community in their schools, and it is likely that their experiences with belonging may be even more complex and significant. Therefore, it is critical for administrators to consider the meaning and importance of belonging when evaluating educational and support programs within schools, particularly when evaluating the transitional and counseling services provided to students with special needs.

Professional Development

In order to provide responsible and effective counseling to transitioning students, school administrators need to make an investment in the professional development of the school counselors, social workers, psychologists and special education teachers who provide college, postsecondary, career and transitional counseling to students, especially those with disabilities. Development and training for school professionals engaging in this work is crucial, because there are many complicating variables in counseling students with disabilities regarding their postsecondary school plan. This professional development needs to help counselors and educators: assess the severity of a student’s disability; understand the various needs for support at a postsecondary institution; discuss programmatic differences at colleges and universities; process requests for testing accommodations for required examinations; enlist community agencies; counsel for the transition to independent living; explain the implications of changes to classification status; and work through complex application procedures.

A Challenging Endeavor

Counselors and educators must be prepared not only to receive students who seek support but to reach out to those students who may be experiencing difficulty initiating the process. An informed and proactive outreach effort will help students to view the counseling process as beneficial and to reap the benefits of a caring, supportive relationship with their counselors and educators.

Counseling students with disabilities through the transition to postsecondary learning is a challenging endeavor, but it can be rewarding and have a profound impact on the students. These students have aspirations and goals; they often want to talk about their plans, receive encouragement from their teachers and counselors, be part of the post-high school conversation, and feel a sense of connection with their peers. In addressing the professional development needs of counselors, teachers and support staff in the area of transitional planning for students with disabilities, a district can accomplish a great deal. Students with disabilities will be better prepared for their next step.

Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.