Impact Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities

Supporting Culturally Sensitive Transition Planning for American Indian Youth


Vern Zacher (Ojibwe) is Director of Indian Education in Cloquet Public Schools, Cloquet, Minnesota

Jean E. Ness

Dennis Olson (Ojibwe)

The values expressed in strategies used by transition services and supports for young people with disabilities may at times be in conflict with the values of families from a number of cultural communities. This article presents one example of how families might experience and navigate those services and supports.

The path from school life to adult life is not easy for anyone. For American Indian youth this transition can be compounded by many factors in their lives. Often public school was not a pleasant place for American Indian parents, while grandparents have memories of boarding schools. These institutions historically represent places where one’s culture was not allowed. These memories are still alive and well with parents and grandparents of many. Therefore, being involved in school activities does not bring memories of positive events.

Unless family members have been through the process of transition from high school to postsecondary life, they may not have necessary skills to work with the systems that support the transition process. American Indian youth in transition need an adult who has time, who they trust, who knows how to advocate on behalf of the student, and who knows how to work with agencies. Often students need “hand holding” to actually lead them through the college admissions and financial aid process, or employment-seeking process. It is essential that the goal is the youth’s and not the support givers’. If the youth does not develop the ownership of those goals, there may be a total loss of interest and the student drops out of school or work.

Here are some key points for parents and family members to consider in supporting their youth in transition:

  • Find someone you trust at the school and start learning about the options available after high school.
  • Search for extended family members who can be positive role models in the transition process. These are individuals who have had experience with systems and can give you and your youth strategies to use.
  • Help youth understand their strengths in and out of school to help them determine interest areas for careers. Help them realize that grades are only one measure of their performance. It is likely the youth has developed skills by being involved in cultural and community activities. Stress the importance of pursuing these areas as part of their transition exploration.
  • If the youth expresses interest in a career area, help them find ways to have experiences in that area. Maybe a family or community member works in a related field and can help provide a job shadowing experiences.
  • Parents can also work with school staff to assist with searching and applying for summer internship positions in career interest areas.
  • Help the youth find a trustworthy community member, perhaps an elder, who can listen to the youth and be a mentor or positive role model.
  • Help youth learn how to ask for what they need in an appropriate way. Role model positive ways to advocate in your community. Have them practice it at home and then in situations unfamiliar to them.

Here are some key points to consider when transition planning for life after high school:

  • Get to know your high school guidance counselor. Encourage your youth to let the counselor know what his or her interests are so they can offer specific ideas about how to pursue those interests after high school. If your school doesn’t have a counselor, the American Indian advocate, Home School Liaison, or Indian Education Director can also provide direction.
  • Look for the scholarship office on your reservation. Scholarship counselors are available on many reservations to not only help youth access money for college, but for guidance and direction.
  • Encourage your youth to talk to relatives and others in your community who went to college or conducted a job search, and ask them for tips on how they did it.
  • Talk to elders in your community and ask them about how they feel about education. Have them explain to your youth the important role of educated members of the tribe. Ask elders for guidance.
  • Parents and family members need to get involved in the planning process so they can help youth accomplish their goals. For many family members, college is a foreign concept, so youth and other family members will need to learn the steps together.
  • If you do not have a family member who can offer support for your youth’s postsecondary planning, ask your school for a mentor, someone who has experience with college and/or your youth’s career interest area who can give ideas and support.