Impact Feature Issue on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

Preparing Students with Intellectual Disabilities for College: Tips for Parents and Teachers


Beth Swedeen is Executive Director with the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, and former Transition Specialist with the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Last year while attending our state's transition conference, my 17-year-old daughter told me she wanted to speak at the conference this coming year. Over the summer we developed and submitted a proposal that tells her story: how a student with developmental disabilities fully participates in family, school, and community life. I was both proud and a bit surprised when the proposal was one of the few chosen for a very limited number of breakout sessions. However, it also saddened me that her experiences are so unusual: She takes almost all general education courses (with modifications) in a large, comprehensive high school where she participates in extra-curricular clubs and leadership opportunities; has started and maintains a small jewelry business with her sister; and is active in volunteer and other community service work. She also is on the local "speaking circuit" to college students and parent groups.

In reality, even 35 years after the passage of legislation opening up public school experiences for our children, students with intellectual disabilities often remain on the fringes of school and community life. They continue to experience lower levels of involvement in activities, organizations, and life experiences compared with their peers, often resulting in a lack of skills needed for postsecondary and employment success. In addition, they are not forming the relationships through which so many of us learn about opportunities. How many high school students learn about a job or become interested in a college through their connections with a friend or relative? For this to happen, those relationships need to be taking place.

Developing family, school, and community expectations that individuals with disabilities will participate across the lifespan in their schools, on the job, and in their communities is essential in creating both the opportunities and relationships necessary for students with intellectual disabilities to develop goals and achieve their dreams. While some families have paved the way in creating the expectation that students with intellectual disabilities can and should attend college, many other families who have experienced years of low expectations from schools and other professionals may need support to develop that vision.

As for any young adults, preparation for college for students with intellectual disabilities needs to begin years before those application forms are filled out and a tuition down payment is made. Students with intellectual disabilities may benefit from even more exposure and practice than their peers in making choices, exploring options, developing self-advocacy skills, and learning to navigate their communities. Sadly, most are getting far fewer, if any, opportunities compared with their peers.

Here are some ways families and schools can begin early in encouraging, providing, and supporting those critical experiences and opportunities that help students with intellectual disabilities prepare academically, form social connections, develop self-advocacy skills, and increase independence. These four components are all necessary – regardless of disability – for the success of students in college.

Beginning in Middle School

During 6th and 7th grade, the following preparations for college can begin:

  • Talk with the student about a range of careers and necessary preparation.
  • Use person-centered planning tools (e.g., PATH, MAPS, Essential Lifestyle Plans) to identify the student's strengths, interests, motivators, connections, and potential resources.
  • Look at different postsecondary programs online with the student.
  • Attend college sports activities, plays, or other events together if you live near a college or university.
  • Encourage the student to use the Internet to conduct searches about careers and postsecondary options.
  • Encourage the student to make choices and his or her own purchases at stores, restaurants, movie theaters.
  • Have the student sign-in or check-in for doctor and dentist visits.
  • Make sure the student has a library card. Libraries are a great resource for practice making choices and performing independent transactions. Students also begin to learn responsibility for keeping track of the card and checked-out resources.
  • Include and involve the student in general education courses.
  • Encourage use of technologies other students use (Internet, iPods, email), as well as assistive technology such as voice to text programs.
  • Discuss with the student extra-curricular and other community opportunities that match his or her interests.
  • Discuss and set-up necessary supports for the student to participate in extra-curricular activities.
  • Involve the student in aspects of the IEP process (e.g., display or discuss the student's portfolio of work, talk about goals for the coming year, decide who to invite).

During Eighth Grade

Parents and teachers can support preparation for postsecondary education by doing the following while the student is in 8th grade:

  • Continue to discuss with the student possible career paths and interests.
  • Administer age-appropriate transition assessments, including person-centered planning tools.
  • Connect the student to possible leadership opportunities (e.g., 4-H, self-advocacy training, school leadership teams).
  • Work with the student to develop high school class schedules aligned to his or her transition path and course of study, with a priority on general education courses with accommodations/modifications as needed.
  • Discuss the value of extra-curricular activity involvement and encourage the student to identify and participate in at least one activity during freshman year.
  • Include a high school teacher on the 8th grade transition IEP team.
  • Set up a high school tour and spend some time in the high school setting as part of the 8th grade transition process, if needed.
  • Consider peer mentors, as opposed to adult supports, as guides, tutors, or supports when possible.
  • Encourage participation in programs and activities that have an overnight component, such as Scouting and other camps, recreation programs, sleep-overs with friends, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for the student to have some ownership in planning and participating in the IEP process (e.g., welcoming participants, sharing favorite experiences from the school or a new interest discovered).
  • Discuss possible summer activities that align with the student's career and academic interests, such as volunteer opportunities, interest camps and recreation programs, and part-time work.
  • Continue to explore with the student technologies teens use to connect and communicate (e.g., Facebook, cell phones, texting, instant messaging).
  • Reflect with the student, toward the end of the year, on school and community experiences in which he or she participated during middle school. Evaluate what went well, what supports were helpful, and what activities are worth pursuing in high school.

Beginning in 9th Grade

Among the steps parents and teachers can take to further prepare a student for postsecondary education beginning in 9th grade and continuing through the remainder of high school are these:

  • Continue discussions with the student about his or her interests, aptitudes, and motivators throughout high school.
  • Continue using age-appropriate transition assessments.
  • Provide opportunities to encourage development of self-advocacy and other self-help skills through typical high school experiences (e.g., field trips in which the student makes his or her own lunch and incidental purchases, learning to ride the city bus, buying items at the school store, signing up for peer tutoring, etc.).
  • Provide support for the student to keep and use a daily planner.
  • Work with the student to design a class schedule based on ability, interests, and postsecondary options, prioritizing general education classes with appropriate accommodations and modifications as needed.
  • Further facilitate discussion and exploration of career options through career fairs, job shadows, in-school and community volunteer experiences, and service learning.
  • Begin to fade the use of one-on-one supports. Encourage connections with peers for support, such as peer-tutoring, mentoring, and study groups.
  • Help the student learn to identify when he or she needs help, and then ask peers for support when needed.
  • Support the student to learn appropriate self-regulation and classroom behaviors (e.g., asking for a break, asking for help from a peer, not interrupting classroom discussion).
  • Discuss ways that the student can begin to take ownership for daily chores at home (e.g., making lunch, cleaning room, adhering to a medication schedule).
  • Encourage establishment of a bank account and use of a debit card and/or checkbook.


My daughter's presentation for the conference is a work in progress. She continues to work on new skills. These include using her planner every single day and getting a ride home from a friend after school, then letting herself into the house with her key and calling me to say she got home. It seems like the set of skills to learn is endless, but having those opportunities to practice problem-solving and take some risks are what growing up is all about. And they certainly increase any young person's chances of success in college.