Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Transition Planning for Internationally Adopted Adolescents with Educational Handicapping Conditions  
Posted Date

The purpose of this article is to help families with internationally adopted (IA) adolescents plan their youngsters' life after high school and ensure that they gain the skills, self-confidence and social connections they need for adulthood. The Individual Transitional Plan (ITP) is designed to create the basis for their future independent (or semi-independent) life, gainful (or supportive/sheltered) employment, and most importantly, the emotional stability and social connectedness that is the foundation for what is commonly known as "normal life".

Specificity of the IA children transitioning to adulthood

IA children with an educational classification (designation of educational handicapping condition) constitute a special group among students with different educationally related disabilities. IA child may have any of the 13 educational classifications listed in the major federal law, IDEA-2004 (Individuals with Disability Education Act, re-authorized by the Congress in 2004), or a combination of two or more of those conditions). Statistically, the most often classifications given to IA children are, in descending order, Other Health Impaired, Learning Disabled, Emotionally Disturbed, Speech/Language Impaired, Multiple Disability, Autism (Gindis, 2009).

Transition to adulthood is particularly hard for IA youngsters with special educational needs because their mental, neurological, and educational "profile" includes the following major features:

  • Neurological impairment(s) related to pre-and-post birth adverse conditions. Sometimes they have a distinct neurologically-based disorder such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Autism (Gindis, 2014). In most cases, however, there is a generalized (undifferentiated) weakness of the Central Nervous System that reveals itself in sensory-motor dis-integration, emotional reactivity and rigidity, dis-regulated attention and concentration, and a host of "soft" neurological signs (Miller, 2004, Marlow, 2005).
  • Exposure to severe neglect, abuse, and deprivation in the early, most formative years of their life has mediated their development and led to what is known as Developmental Trauma Disorder (Van der Kolk, B.A. 2005). Among most prominent characteristics of children affected with DTD are "mixed maturity" (delays in self-regulation of emotions and behavior), hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, emotional fragility/oversensitivity, and cumulative delays in cognitive/academic functioning in comparison with age norms and expectations (Nemeroff, 2004, Gindis, 2005, Marlow, 2005, Perry, 2006, Gunnar, & Van Dulmen, 2007).
  • A range of atypical features resulting from the abrupt loss of their first language and a specific mode of learning English (Gindis, 2008) and difficulties in adjustment to their new social/cultural environment and more advanced educational system as consequence of social/cultural/educational deprivation in the past (Gindis, B. (2005).
  • A constellation of specific adoption issues (abandonment syndrome, attachment difficulties, negative self-perception, etc.) that creates a depressive emotional background for learning and socialization, particularly in the adolescent period of life (Welsh, 2007, Rolnick, 2010).

What is an Individual Transition Plan?

Individual Transition Plan (ITP) is an official term for the coordinated, systematic set of activities that creates a bridge between school and adult life for students age 14 to 22 with disabilities. ITP is a part of an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) and should be based on this student's individual needs, strengths, skills, and interests. The ITP has to identify and develop goals to be accomplished during the remaining school years to assist the student in making his post-high school adjustment. Schools must report to the parents on the student's progress toward meeting his/her transition goals. School districts are responsible for the education of students with disabilities through the age of 21 unless a youngster graduates with a regular diploma before this age. By the law (IDEA-2004) IEP team must begun focusing on a transition plan by the time the child turns 16, (14 in many states).

It is only natural that the ITP is to be highly individualized to address the level of independence and competence of an adolescent. Based on the determined level of support needed, the ITP could be presented on one of the three levels of scaffolds: minimal, moderate, and significant.

  • Level 1 (minimal support is needed) is for students who could choose college, vocational school, or competitive employment with some accommodations as a post-secondary goal. They are expected to live independently with minimal initial guidance and supervision.
  • Level 2 (moderate support is needed) is for students who will be trained for non-technical jobs such as manual labor, possibly having supported or sheltered employment and semi-independent living as post-secondary goals.
  • Level 3 (significant support is needed) is for students who end up in sheltered workshops, attending a day program for adults and living in group homes with daily supervision.

Why is ITP so important for international adoptees?

All parents are to some extent aware that their adopted children, who are teenagers now, need guidance to transition successfully from high school to the next phase of young adulthood. However, not all parents really have a vision of concrete action steps that must be taken to guide and prepare teens for adult life. Without such a road map or guidance, no effective scaffolding is possible. Parents may be faced with numerous legal, organizational, financial, and parenting questions dictated by the degree of support their children need in the transition period and after. Among these questions are:

  • Will my child receive a regular high school diploma or a substandard document of educational attainment?
  • Which state and local agencies shall I apply to for help for my child?
  • Should my child receive more academic instruction or turn to occupational training?
  • What training programs are available and at what cost?
  • Will my child be able to get a paid job?
  • Will my child be able to live independently in the community? Which agencies can help me in this process?
  • Which public benefits will my child be eligible for? Will work affect his/her public benefits?
  • What supports are available for adults with significant disabilities?

Because of the complexities of public benefit systems for adults with disabilities (Social Security, vocational rehabilitation, Medicaid waivers, etc.), the youngster and parents should consult with a professional specializing in this area, such as independent educational consultant, psychologist, or lawyer to ensure they have maximized all possibilities for a brighter future for their international adoptees.

The structure of ITP for international adoptees

Based on many years of experience working with international adoptees and their adoptive families, school systems, and related state agencies, I suggest the following parts be present in an internationally adopted adolescent's Individual Transitional Plan:

  1. Legal foundation for IE and family/student's vision statements for after-school life.
  2. Developmental history.
  3. Results of the latest psychological, educational, and specialized assessments.
  4. Results of functional vocational (occupational) evaluation and development of vocational goals.
  5. Adaptive behavior and independent living goals.
  6. Plans for post-secondary education (college or vocational technical school).
  7. List of accommodations and support services.

1. The family and student's vision statements

In order to focus the IEP process on the future needs and create a base for the ITP, both the parents and the teenager ought to formulate what is known as "post-secondary vision statements." These statements must be a part of IEP at the age of 16. They could be as simple as:

"John would like to attend a four-year college. He is interested in computers and does well in math class. He would like to be a math or computer science major. He is interested in becoming an accountant or a computer programmer."

However, it is advisable to have a more elaborated vision statement, like this:

"Mr. and Mrs. G. formulated their vision statement for their son Sergey as "emotional stability, independent living, and gainful employment." The parents are open to various forms of training for their son: from vocational school to onsite learning/apprenticeship to community college. In their view, Sergey's strengths are good physical health, average intelligence close to grade requirements, academic functioning, age-appropriate language proficiency, interest in computer-based technology, and competence with certain computer applications. They see Sergey's weaknesses in immature social skills, poor self-regulation, and emotional fragility due to elevated anxiety with distinct depressive qualities."

As for Sergey's own expectations for life after school, they are:

"Make enough money to live on my own, do a job I am good at, preferably computer-related, have friends and a girlfriend, own a car. I am willing to continue education beyond high school, either part-time or full-time. I prefer to stay at home with my parents and continue with my post-school education and employment in my native state of Texas."

The vision statement is to be referred to in formulating post-secondary goals. In the same part of the ITP, I recommend placing all legal references and citations needed for the creation of an ITP: it gives the plan a solid legal footing.

2. Developmental History

This part of the ITP is crucial for internationally adopted youngsters, because many causes of neurologically-based disabilities and social/emotional problems are rooted in their developmental histories. This information has importance for understanding both current levels of functioning and future performance. For the majority of international adoptees, repetitive traumatization through abandonment, deprivation/neglect, institutionalization, and adoption to a foreign country may have accumulated to socially induced emotional trauma and predisposed them to a combination of delays in social/emotional maturity, self-regulatory capacity, cumulative cognitive/academic deficit, and emotional fragility. A lack of developmental and educational opportunities during the most formative period of their life may result in developmental delays in different domains of their social and academic functioning. Parents should not discount their adolescent's frequent self-perception as a "rejected" and "unwanted" person, which may result in low self-confidence, low self-esteem, and complicated interpersonal relationships. Last, but not least, the abrupt loss of their first language and their specific mode of English language learning contribute to both academic and social difficulties. Proper understanding and interpretation of international adoptees' developmental history is a vital part and the foundation of an ITP.

3. Results of the most recent assessments (cognitive, academic, social/emotional)

The ITP has to be written based on the most recent assessments.

  • Psychological (with cognitive and social/emotional component) completed within the last three years.
  • Educational, based on major achievement tests such as WJ-lV, and administered within the current or last school year. Educational assessments cannot be more than two semesters old.
  • Specialized assessment(s) if needed, such as speech and language, occupational or physical therapy, or assistive technology.

Accurate interpretation of the assessment results is the basis for developing an effective and realistic ITP.

4. Functional occupational evaluation and development of vocational goals

In order to create an ITP and its core - vocational goals - a student must go through an occupational assessment. This evaluation could be done at school or privately. Vocational (or occupational) evaluation has to be based on standardized tests, formal questionnaires and inventories, informal interviews, and the collection/analyses of the related documents. Here are a few recommendations:

Interest inventories compare the youngster's interests with the interests of people working in specific jobs. This will help the student identify what he or she might be interested in doing as a career. An example of interest inventories is the Strong Interests Inventory (Hamon, et. el. 1994), known as Strong, which gives lists of jobs that line up with a person's interests, pointing out clusters of jobs to explore. Please be aware that your adopted son or daughter may have a career goal that will be difficult to impossible to achieve because of their disability, level of functioning, or emotional instability. Interest inventories can help the ITP team to identify a different job in the same field that your child could do. For example, your daughter wants to be a veterinarian, but at the age of 17 she, due to her disability, reads on the sixth grade level and her math is seven grades below her formal placement in the 11th grade. Does your daughter only want to be a veterinarian, or does she really want to work with animals? Would your daughter be happy working as a caregiver to animals at an animal hospital or animal shelter? Your child may be interested in a job other than the one he or she initially identifies.

Personality tests measure motivations, needs, and attitudes. They may help to discover whether a particular child is suited for a certain career or not. An example of personality tests that is often used in association with the Strong Interests Inventory is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Quenk, 2009).

Career development scales help to determine your adolescent's ability to perform a particular job and its required tasks and thus help to formulate specific career goals. Examples of career development tools are the Career Decision Scale ( and the Job Search Attitude Survey (

Self-determination assessments are designed to measure your adolescent's abilities in goal setting, problem solving, self-advocacy, self-evaluation, persistence, and self-confidence. An example of a self-determination assessment is the AIR Self-Determination Scale ( ), parent's, student's, and educator's form.

Please note that all these methods have limitations and can only serve as a "navigation tool." Practical experience and research reviews suggest the following cluster of scales and inventories as the "best practice" in the career exploration process:

  • The Strong Interest Inventory (Strong) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
  • AIR self-determination scales (student, parents, and teachers forms)
  • Career Assessment Interview (student and parent forms)
  • Learning style assessment scale

These instruments focus on abilities/skills, personal preferences, and aptness for the specific occupations. School-to-work transition program goals and objectives should include the domains of job awareness, job searching skills, work behaviors/social skills, basic money management, self-awareness, and other forms of knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Here are examples of such goals:

Goal 1: Sam will complete activities in the area of exploring personal interests, values, skills, and abilities related to employment and file work in a vocational notebook for reference.

  • Use interest inventories to identify a number of occupational groups for exploration.
  • Describe the importance of individual characteristics in getting and keeping a job.
  • Explore the educational requirements of various occupations.
  • Make decisions and set appropriate career goals.
  • Demonstrate the use of a range of resources to gather information about careers.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of how occupational skills and knowledge can be acquired.
  • Explain how employment opportunities relate to education and training.

Goal 2: Anna will complete a variety of real work tasks to explore and evaluate vocational potential in the areas of work skills, abilities and behavior.

  • Apply employability and job readiness skills to internship, mentoring, shadowing and/or other work related experiences.
  • Evaluate the relationship between Anna's individual interests, abilities, and skills and the achievement of individual, social, educational, and career goals.
  • Demonstrate knowledge and application of safety standards to the work setting.
  • Apply job readiness skills to seek employment opportunities.

5. Adaptive behavior and independent living objectives

An important part of an ITP is the question of where and what type of living arrangement your adolescent is expected to have in after-school life. Independent living skills are everyday things adults do such as preparing meals, paying bills and banking, doing laundry, having good personal hygiene, managing medications and health care, maintaining a home, traveling around town, shopping, eating out, budgeting, maintaining safety, etc. The ITP team must think about how these skills relate to other post-secondary goals in education, vocational training, and employment. This aspect of ITP is based on administration of the Adaptive Behavior Assessment Scale, Third Edition (Harrison @ Oakland, 2015).) and several interviews with the parents and adolescent. This part of the ITP is particularly important for Level 3 (significant and multiple support) of the transitional plan. The goals and objectives for this section of the ITP may look like this:

Goal 1: Sam will develop independent cooking skills.
Objectives: (1) Sam will pack his lunch independently by January 15th, (2) Sam will prepare his breakfast independently by February 1st, (3) Sam will independently cook one hot meal using the microwave by June 1st, (4) Sam will make macaroni and cheese for dinner using the gas stove by June 15th, (5) Sam will make dinner for himself three times a week by September 1st.

Goal 2: Anna will travel to and from work by herself, using the bus system.
Objectives: (1) Anna will learn to read the bus schedule and walk to the bus stop from home with assistance by the end of first quarter, (2) Anna will learn to board the bus and signal the bus driver for her stop by the end of second quarter, (3) Anna will learn to walk from the bus stop to her job by the end of third quarter, (4) Anna will learn to take the return trip home by bus by the end of fourth quarter, (5) Anna will take the bus to and from work by herself by next year.

6. Post-secondary education (college or vocational technical school)

This part of the ITP is an exploration of the possibility and necessity of continued post-secondary education on different levels and in various forms. The selection of post-secondary education is to be practical, realistic, and in connection with other aspects of the transitional plan.

7. Accommodations and support

In this section of the ITP the appropriate support services and different accommodations should be listed and discussed. Students with disabilities are entitled to SAT exam accommodations such as extended time. This accommodation is granted by the College Board's Services for Students with Disability (, and a proof of disability is needed. College related accommodations may include note-taking services and smart pens, voice recognition software, text-to-speech programs, training in adaptive technology, use of laptops for tests and exams, use of calculators for tests and exams, reduced course load, help with study skills and time management, etc. Accommodations and support services could be rather contentious issues between the family/adolescent on one side and the post-school educational or training institution on the other. This matter is to be carefully thought out and properly presented to the college or technical school of your choice. A youngster's self-advocacy may play the crucial role in obtaining needed accommodations and support services.

Self-advocacy implies knowing when a person can benefit from asking for help, learning to tell others what's needed, asking for help in different ways from different people, and thanking people who help along the way. Self-advocacy is one of the most important "transition" skills a student can learn in school. Teaching and learning of self-advocacy skills are to be specific goals in the ITP; for example:

  • Maria will be able to communicate her accommodation needs to employers and service providers.
  • John will learn how to identify the authorities (e.g. supervisor, human resources person, administrator, etc.) to whom he needs to address his requests for accommodations.
  • Vika will learn how to file a complaint if she meets an obstacle getting her accommodations; she will learn through documenting communications and interactions in a journal and keeping copies of all letters, e-mails, policies, and procedures.

Please remember that self-advocacy becomes effective when your child understands his/her strengths and weaknesses and is able to communicate them to other people. The benefits of self-advocacy go beyond academics into the domain of socialization. It is a dynamic and ongoing process as the individual changes over time. Parents need to help their internationally adopted child with disability develop this powerful skill.

ITP implementation

While the IEP is implemented at school only, the ITP is to be implemented at school, at home, and in the community. Most important: some of these goals can be reached only by cooperation between the family, school, state agencies, and community. Don't expect the school to do it all alone. There are 168 hours in a week; 133 hours are spent at home and only 35 hours at school.

At home: Some goals of the ITP are clearly home-based, particularly those related to independent living skills, choice of occupation, and development of self-determination and self-advocacy. All children do learn independent living skills in the family through observation, imitation, modeling, participation, but for an IA adolescent with disability, this must be a focused and planned activity. For example:

  • Open a bank account and learn to manage money.
  • Learn to shop for groceries; plan and prepare meals.
  • Be responsible for maintaining a car and choosing auto insurance.
  • Learn how to use public transportation.
  • Schedule own appointments with the doctor and dentist.
  • Set up and use a calendar for school, work, personal appointments and leisure time.

In the community: Goals could include exploration of career options from school to workplace, from volunteer work to local internships and apprenticeships. Many communities have a variety of resources for helping students in the transition process: youth employment programs, Transition Partnership Programs, and local vocational centers that offer training in many occupations (see:,

At school: Adoptive parents need to be fully aware of the available options and what their children are entitled to in our educational system. They have to understand that:

  • An ITP is based on the most recent psychological and educational evaluations, reflecting the student's academic standing within the current school year, and thus can be no older than one to two semesters.
  • The school's special education staff is mandated by the law to provide students with counseling, help identify vocational interests, participate in educational and vocational planning, and help with goal setting, pre-vocational skills training, academic support, and connection to specific programs and services.
  • Transition-related services that are available to all high school students include guidance counseling, career center services, and career education vocational courses.

It is important for parents and students to understand their state's requirements for graduation. Many different state workers and state agencies may be involved in developing an effective plan. Broad networking and creative thinking may be necessary to achieve success. The following major transition services are to be considered in the ITP:

  • Instruction: This relates to the academic requirements of the student's chosen course of study, employment skills training, career technical education, social skills, driver's education, and/or college entrance preparation.
  • Related Services: This may include occupational/physical/speech therapy, counselling, special transportation, and travel training.
  • Community Experience: This may include community work experience, recreation/leisure activities, tours of post-secondary education settings, residential and community tours, volunteering and training in accessing community settings, or joining a team/club/organization.
  • Employment: This may include career planning, job shadowing, guidance counselling, interest inventories, job placement, internship options, on-the-job training, on-campus jobs, or supported employment.
  • Adult Living Skills: This may include referral to Vocational Rehabilitation Services, researching Social Security benefits/work incentives, exploring residential options, training in renting a home and in personal home management, and reading a map of the community or using "Google Maps" on the computer. Daily Living Skills may include self-care training, health and wellness training, independent living training, and money management.
  • Functional Vocational Evaluation: This may include situational work assessments, work samples, work adjustment programs, aptitude tests and a series of job try-outs.

If your child goes to college:

All students finishing secondary education get either a standard diploma or a certificate which has different titles in different states. If you are considering post-secondary occupational training or college, work with your child to avoid getting a "certificate." A high school diploma is needed for practically all forms of after-school training or education.

Every college in the United States is required to have an office to provide services and accommodations to students with disabilities. The exact name of this office varies (Education and Disability Resources, Disability Support Services, Center for Student Success, etc.), but all such offices have the same legal responsibility -- to provide accommodations and support to students with disabilities. Moreover, there are two post-secondary educational institutions (Beacon College in Florida and Landmark College in Vermont) that specialize in working with students with different learning disabilities. Your selection of college, among other things, will depend on the "fit" between your youngster's need for support and the accommodations the college is able to provide.

A parent of an IA youngster with an educational classification needs to understand the difference between an IEP and a Section 504 Plan:

  • An IEP contains a designation of disability, the methodologies to remediate the disability, and the management procedures for addressing it through special education placement, remedial instructions, accommodations, and related support services. The IEP is mandated and regulated by IDEA-2004. Your child's IEP will end with his or her high school graduation.
  • A Section 504 Plan is a range of accommodations suitable for post-secondary education (or occupational training). Colleges and trade schools accept only Section 504 Plans, which are regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Amended Acts of 2008 (ADA AA).

Assuming that your child graduates with a regular diploma, carefully examine his or her most recent IEP to see how to convert it into a 504 plan. This is your way to ensure that accommodations continue in the post-secondary environment under the protection of the ADA AA. Remember, this is to be done while your child is still in high school, prior to graduation. Before taking your child off the IEP, you should request a Summary of Performance (SoP). This record is required under IDEA-2004: "....for a child whose eligibility under special education terminates due to graduation with a regular diploma, or due to exceeding the age of eligibility, the local educational agency shall provide the child with a summary of the child's academic achievement and functional performance, which shall include recommendations on how to assist the child in meeting the child's post-secondary goals" [20 USC 1414(c)(5)(B)(ii)].

This document is a comprehensive presentation of your child's academic and cognitive strengths and weaknesses at the moment the IEP ends and the accommodation plan of the Section 504 plan begins. Visit the office of disability at the college of your choice and confirm with a guidance counselor there that your child's 504 Plan is consistent with the college requirements. Make revisions in the 504 Plan, if necessary. Have your youngster be ready to self-advocate for his/her educational needs.


Internationally adopted children have experienced many transitions in their lives. The most important of these changes were, of course, adoption to a foreign country and life in the family vs. life in an orphanage. The transition from high school to adulthood can also be challenging for these young people. Individual Transitional Planning should begin early, be realistic, effective, and highly individualized to meet yours and your child's vision of the future.


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Boris Gindis, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (BGCenter)
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