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Paving the Way: Parent Tips for Supporting Success in High School and Beyond

High school can be both an exciting and overwhelming time for students and their parents. There are increased academic, social, and extracurricular expectations, as well as exciting opportunities for students to spread their wings.

For students with disabilities, there can be a variety of additional concerns, such as working with school staff on creating an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP), deciding on the best course of academic study to further a student’s postsecondary goals, and addressing any health care needs that may affect a student’s success in school.

The road to adulthood for youth with disabilities is filled with opportunity, and parents play a key role.

Explore each topic below to discover tips and resources to support your teen during high school.

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Communication and Teamwork

Stay involved and support your child’s involvement

Even though teenagers are known to want independence, it’s important to approach high school as a team, consisting of the student, parent, and school staff. All parents want their child to do well in school, and one way to help students succeed is to be involved in their education. When parents participate, students learn more, earn higher grades, and have better school attendance. You can help your teen succeed by staying informed about your youth’s experience at school.

Take initiative and schedule regular contact with the school

One of the strongest indicators of success for high school students is parent involvement. Start early and communicate often with your school. At the beginning of the year, write a letter to the teachers to introduce your student and provide information about his or her disability. Additionally, the letter can include your child’s strengths, their preferred learning style, and tips on how to handle any behavioral issues that may arise.

Identify a main contact person with the school (a case manager, social worker or teacher) with whom you can schedule regular contact. Consider scheduling a check-in phone call on the first Monday of every month at 9 a.m., for example. You do not need to wait for progress reports or grade updates to talk with the teacher. Establishing regular contact right away can make a big difference in your student’s success.

Check your school’s online parent portal system or other record-keeping method

Most schools now have an online system that allows parents and students to log in and check grades, attendance, behavior reports, and other school records. At the beginning of the year, make sure to have the correct log in information, and plan to check this website at least weekly.

Some schools may also have ways to send a notification about your student being tardy to class, absent from class, missing an assignment, or engaging in a concerning behavior. Use these tools to help build communication with your teen and stay up to date on school reports and activities.

Request IEP meetings when you have concerns

You have a right to request an IEP meeting at any time. IEPs must be reviewed annually; however, you can request a meeting to discuss a lack of progress or other concerns, and propose changes to your youth’s IEP.

Make decisions as a team

You are a required and essential member of your student’s IEP team. Make sure to listen to the input from the professionals in the room and contribute your own expertise regarding your teen. You know them best. In high school, consider including a guidance counselor on the team who can discuss information about graduation requirements, as well as requirements for postsecondary education options.

Find ways to show your support at home

Communication with your teenager is just as, if not more, important than your communication with the school. Continue to ask about your teen’s school day and create an open and encouraging atmosphere at home so that your teen feels comfortable sharing his or her experience.

Study Habits and Course Selection

Support your student in getting adequate sleep

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, though it’s important to understand how your child’s disability or medication may affect his or her sleep patterns.

The more teenagers are in school and awake, the more they will learn, so help your teen build routine and consistency at home. There are apps to support morning routines and sleep schedules.

Practice time management and organizational strategies

Time management and organization are major skills for success in high school and are also important life skills to carry over for future education and employment success. Help your teenager practice strategies to find balance in their lives, maintain consistent attendance, and stay up to date on classroom assignments.

It is very important to have your youth get caught up on missing assignments in high school. If work completion is an issue for your teenager because of his or her disability, make sure to address this in the IEP by including goals and any necessary accommodations or services. Some examples include extra time for completion, modifying assignments, and allowing access to a resource room for support.

Try out assistive technology

After high school, your young adult will have to learn how to advocate for themselves in the real world. Many individuals with disabilities rely on assistive technology to help them navigate postsecondary education, employment, and independent living, such as using smartphones or tablets to help with daily tasks, reminders, and organizational tools.

High school is a great time to try out various tools with a safety net in place. Some schools offer assistive technology devices, so be sure to check with your teen’s case manager about options.

PACER’s Simon Technology Center provides a variety of core services to help children, families, and professionals, including technology consultations, a lending library, individualized training sessions, in-services and workshops, and online videos.

Research graduation options for students on an IEP and postsecondary education

States and school districts may offer special diplomas, such as honors diplomas or alternative diploma options for students receiving special education services. Requirements may be driven by IEP goals and set by the IEP team rather than general education credit requirements.

While the diploma may look the same, your student’s transcript may look different. When considering graduation and diploma options, make sure to research and consider admissions requirements for the postsecondary program your teen may want to attend.

Ensure appropriate course selection towards graduation

Depending on the type of diploma your son or daughter will receive, make sure that their course schedules each year works toward graduation. It’s important to maintain communication with school staff, especially counselors, who can help you keep track of the requirements. Sometimes, students with IEPs have tricky schedules to coordinate. A plan for multi-year courses of study should be written into the IEP.

Encourage your teenager to earn a passing grade in all the courses they are currently taking. If they miss credits, have them try to retake classes during summer school as soon as possible, instead of making up all credits during senior year.

Your student’s IEP team may offer credit substitutions for certain classes, if they determine that is appropriate for your student. For example, social studies may be substituted with a special education study skills class. Keep in mind that doing so may result in a different diploma in some states. It’s important to consider postsecondary education plans and whether missing a high school course will result in a lower level of knowledge or skills than will be required.

Celebration and Support

Help your youth find a balance

High school is a time of exploration as well as a time of increased pressures when it comes to academics and planning for the future. Your teenager might also participate in athletics or extracurricular activities, have a job, and enjoy an increased social life with friends. Help your teen find a healthy balance between their activities and their responsibilities. They are all important parts of being a teenager, so it is crucial to be supportive and helpful to your son or daughter in managing time and activities.

Get help immediately if you notice struggles

You are an expert on your teenager and you know them best. High school can be a scary and confusing time, and your teen may be going through many different changes, including body changes, school system changes, and social changes. They also may have to make some big decisions that could lead to increased stress.

If you notice that your youth is struggling academically, socially, or emotionally, contact a counselor, therapist, or other support person in your teen’s life for help. Watch for signs of substance abuse and mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety. If there are concerns, don’t wait for your teen to approach you. Talk with them and be open about your concerns, and be available when they are ready to talk.

PACER’s Children’s Mental Health and Emotional Behavioral Disorders Project has resources about where and how to get help.

Celebrate progress and success

Don’t underestimate the impact of a simple “Good job!” or “I’m so proud of you.” If your high school student puts in a lot of effort, gets a good grade, or is there for a friend in need, make sure to celebrate and acknowledge their accomplishments. These mini celebrations can also build communication and trust within the family.

Talk with other families

Connecting with other families who have teenagers with or without disabilities in high school can be a way to share ideas and advice. There are many ways to connect with other families but the best way is to attend school and community events and to not be afraid to take initiative.

There are organizations that can also help connect you to other families:

  • Connect with disability-specific organizations that may have support groups
  • Contact your school district to see if there are any existing parent groups
  • Check to see if your state’s Department of Education has information on local Special Education Advisory Committees (SEACs)
  • Contact your local Parent Training and Information Center

Preparing for the Future

Help your teenager set goals for their future

The IEP transition plan is all about helping your teen reach the goals that they set for themselves. It’s very hard to plan the transition for a student who says, “I don’t know what I want to do after high school” or “I don’t care what I do.”

Help your young adult realize their strengths and interests and communicate them to the IEP team. Then the team can plan meaningful experiences for your child.

Explore employment and postsecondary education and training options

You can help your young adult explore postsecondary and employment options for after high school by talking with them and getting to know their plans for the future. Once your young adult has set goals for after high school, then you can map a course to help them get there.

It is important to be open to ideas and remember that sometimes goals and plans change. Be supportive of your teen in this discovery process by exploring together.

Consider work and postsecondary experiences available in high school

Ask your school what options are available since they vary greatly by state, school district, and even the school.  Because of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the following five activities, called Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), must be made available to high school students with disabilities depending on individual need:

  • job exploration
  • work-based learning experiences
  • workplace readiness training
  • postsecondary education counseling
  • self-advocacy instruction

Other options to consider include internships, community service, and volunteering.

Many schools offer postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), Early College or dual enrollment programs in which high school students can earn college credit by taking college-level courses offered at local postsecondary institutions or at the high school. Ask your student’s guidance counselor or the IEP team for information about the options to consider.

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