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Actions to Take in High School

High School to Higher Education Transition Series, Part 2

By: Emily Helft, M.Ed., Ed.S. Welcome to Part 2 of our High School to Higher Ed Transition Series! If you’re new to our series, you may want to check out Part 1: Know Before You Go: Key Differences.


With some key points and vocabulary in hand, it’s time to talk actionable steps! There are many things students, parents, and teachers can do while preparing for transitions to higher education, and there’s no time like high school to begin the process. The below 6 items are some suggestions based on field experience and anecdotal evidence. This is not an exhaustive list, and not all items will resonate with all readers. However, we hope it’s a helpful place to start! 


1. *Begin to cultivate self-awareness in your child/student*

The key to success in most Disabled student postsecondary scenarios is that the student understands their own strengths, can identify their own areas of challenge, and can articulate this knowledge in a way that allows them to communicate it to others and advocate for what they need. It is not uncommon for students to arrive at their institution’s Disability Resource Office with no knowledge of their disability, no awareness of the services and accommodations they received, and no ability to communicate their needs and wants. Many parents accidentally create these scenarios out of love for their child, wanting to protect them from things they fear will cause distress. By avoiding the use of certain words, diagnoses, and realities, the shame and stigma around disability and various diagnoses is only perpetuated and further strengthened. 

We certainly don’t mean to suggest that these conversations should be heartless and without empathy, but one of an educator’s/parent’s many roles is to help students get to know themselves, including guiding discussions and exercises around areas of strength and challenge. Disability and various diagnoses should be framed in a positive way that celebrates differences amongst all people and values the individual and their identity. Without this awareness, students can be left feeling confused, frustrated, and disheartened when they are suddenly expected to be able to communicate their needs and wants without any knowledge of how to do so. Involving the student in self-exploration exercises and transition conversations, as well as providing many opportunities to practice articulating what they want, need, and know, is a critical part of the high school to higher ed transition—as well as throughout all of life’s stages. 

2. *Begin to fade services and supports*

*Record scratch* Say what?! This is not a typo. We’re not saying to suddenly remove all supports and services with no transition plan or to leave students high and dry without warning. However, looking to the future, it’s important to find a balance between continuing to support students throughout their high school career and preparing them for the reality of higher education, which is often less flexible and has far fewer support networks and safety nets. What is appropriate and what this may look like are different for every student. The key is to begin testing the road by slowly removing the training wheels when possible and in a way that mirrors expectations in higher education so that students can begin to stretch their skill sets over time.  

While it’s true that some accommodations, such as extended time, may carry over into the higher education space, others may change and others may no longer be appropriate at all. We don’t mean to suggest we should be instilling fear in students or pulling the rug out from underneath them with no explanation or preparation. However, beginning conversations around expectations in the college setting can help motivate students to push themselves just a smidge more each day so they are more prepared. Some areas to experiment with might include check-ins initiated by the teacher fading in frequency or moving to the student’s responsibility, providing notes that become less robust over time, and lessening flexibility with deadlines. 

3. *Start to Develop “Studenting” Skills*

We all hear a lot about adulting skills—paying bills on time, navigating health and car insurance, the joys of filing taxes, etc.. These are critical skills to adult success, and they often overlap with skills that young adults are building. But what many higher education faculty and staff notice in the wave of Gen Z’ers that are arriving on college campuses is a distinct lack of what we like to call “studenting” skills: the foundational skills necessary for student success regardless of the subject. These can include: 

  • Time management 
  • Technical and/or research-based writing 
  • Critical thinking 
  • Notetaking 
  • Organization 
  • Oral and written communication 
  • Conflict mediation 
  • Self-motivation and persistence 

Anecdotally, many students report that arriving on a college campus and suddenly being required to engage with these skills with no prompting or support is akin to being ambushed or dropped in the ocean without knowing how to swim. They feel overwhelmed and stressed, especially when this same generation is also an absolute expert at publicly portraying success through carefully curated media content that suggests “everyone else” is happy, stress free, and academically crushing it. Without being directly taught, many students do not successfully develop these skills to be prepared for higher education expectations. It’s critical to provide direct instruction and opportunity to practice these skills while still in the safety net of a high school setting. 

4. *Allow failure*

This goes in line with the above suggestion, as well as suggestion 2, and can also be another hard pill to swallow for many parents and teachers. Failure is a reality of life, and many students do not experience failure for the first time until they are in their late teens or even as late as their late 20s, creating excessive stress due to lack of experience and coping skills. Again, this almost always comes out of a place of love—failure can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even scary, and it’s natural to try and shield children and students from these situations. But by preventing these experiences, we rob students of the opportunity to live through and learn from these inevitable bumps (and sometimes major potholes) in the road.  

Instead, by guiding students through these experiences and fostering a growth mindset, failure can be a learning opportunity so that students can begin to problem solve on their own as they navigate the higher education setting (and other settings too!). Beginning to understand the naturalness of failure, especially in low stakes scenarios, means that students can not only begin to cultivate coping strategies for the times that failure does occur, but also proactive skills to self-prevent failure when it’s possible to do so (for example, managing their time to make deadlines, choosing to study instead of always opting into more fun activities, setting an alarm to move their car before their parking expires, assessing purchases and checking their bank account before impulse ordering on GrubHub, etc.).  

While we certainly don’t mean to suggest that failure is fun, it’s important to recognize that it is a reality of life that we can sometimes control, but that sometimes is inevitable—and we all need to develop skills for what to do when it happens.  

5. *Explore the various support services offered by your considered higher education options*

Postsecondary institution shopping can be very fun (and also stressful—or even both at the same time!). It’s easy to get swept up in some of the more fun perks that various colleges and universities offer and that they often highlight on tours. (Who doesn’t love a good rock wall, a high-rise residence hall with an epic view of the city, a 24-hour maker space, or a brand-new gaming center?!) But when assessing a school’s fit, it’s important to look for other less “shiny” factors each school can offer. If you’ve done a good job with suggestion 1, evaluating other important aspects of various institutions and determining how good of a fit they are for a particular student becomes much easier. Some things that may be important to look for (depending on your particular student/child), include: 

  • Faculty to student ratios in core and/or 100- and 200- level classes 
  • The types of tutoring services that are offered and if there are caps on session attendance 
  • How easy it is to get an appointment at the student health center, and how long the average wait time may be 
  • What the counseling center’s model of support includes, if there are session caps, and if they offer support groups on particular topics 
  • Whether there is a writing center, who staffs it, and how many staff are employed 
  • How involved a student’s advisor is in their student experience 

These are just some starting points! By checking in with suggestion 1, you’ll know exactly what to look for and what questions to ask (or better yet: to encourage your student to ask). 

It’s also important to inquire about the institution’s disability resource office. Many families get caught up in wanting to know specifics about which accommodations will be approved for their child, however, this is often not something that can be answered in advance. And we actually don’t suggest that as the best place to start. Rather, we encourage you to get a read on the vibe of the office, what the registration process looks like, what types of services are offered through the office (a Test Center or a peer mentoring program, for example), and what the case manager to student ratios look like. The big picture is often far more important than the nitty gritty, in our experience. 

6. *Gather documentation affiliated with your high school*

We saved what we hope is one of the easier, straightforward suggestions for last! If your school has any important paperwork on file, such as an IEP, 504 plan etc., this is often useful for many reasons in the post-secondary environment. It’s much easier to get a copy while a student is still enrolled (schools are required to maintain records for a set period of time after graduation, though the length of time varies by state). We strongly encourage you to request copies of relevant paperwork prior to graduation.  

While many families often focus heavily on IEPs and 504 plans during this process, these do not always contain all (or even most) of the relevant information when it comes to disability supports after high school, though all information is good information! (As we learned in Part 1, IEPs and 504s do not dictate or guarantee specific accommodations in the higher education setting.) So in addition to these items, we also suggest you request eligibility paperwork, as well as copies of any evaluations performed by the school. The format of the latter will vary heavily based on each student’s history, but also by district and state. Some key names to use when requesting these types of records include “psychoeducational evaluation,” “psychological evaluation,” “cognitive evaluation,” “social-emotional evaluation,” “speech and language evaluation,” “academic evaluation,” or “achievement evaluation.” Your school should be able to supply you with all relevant documents simply by requesting “all evaluations,” but since records are often spread over multiple schools (elementary, middle, and high), it doesn’t hurt to double check. 


Whew! That’s a lot of information—but fear not! Families have plenty of time to gear up for the high school to higher education transition, and there is no perfect approach. Some of the above suggestions may ring truer for you than others, and that’s OK. What matters most is that you and your student/child embark on this journey together, and that your student can rely on you for guidance and support when needed, but is also given the opportunity to take the reins when appropriate. Many teachers and parents are surprised by what their students know and can do when given the opportunity to do so! 

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