Breaking Ground 90 - Transition Tennessee: A Blueprint for Student Success in Charting the Path Forward

by Erik Carter, Rachael Jenkins, & Shimul Gajjar

Helping students transition well to adulthood is a primary purpose of special education. It is the reason we invest so much in providing students with disabilities an exceptional educational experience. Right at the outset of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, this overarching purpose is stated as follows:

“…to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living…”

Collective investment across many years of schooling should help students with disabilities transition to meaningful work, enable lifelong learning and contribute to a good life in their community. There is no limit to what students can accomplish when provided the right combination of thoughtful planning, good instruction, strong supports, individualized opportunities and high expectations. 

We have created a unique online resource designed to equip educators all across our state to provide exceptional transition services and supports for students with disabilities. Transition Tennessee ( is a free professional development portal that brings together in one place the very best of what we know works for promoting successful transitions for students with disabilities. It describes the steps we can take as educators - in partnership with families, communities and service system agencies - to help students identify, work toward and achieve their post-school goals. It brings together best and recommended practices in our field. And it offers a results-oriented framework to equip educators with the knowledge, resources and evidence-based practices that promote collaboration and produce students ready for postsecondary success.

Presently, we have developed five courses focused on:

  • Guiding Principles for Transition
  • Age-Appropriate Transition Assessment
  • High-Quality Transition Planning
  • Pathways to Employment
  • Supports and Partnerships

Each of these courses contains a rich array of strategies, resources and ideas to support our state in this very important work. Short, engaging lessons focus on best practices related to each topic. Case studies illustrate how these practices might be implemented with students. Videos demonstrate how these practices are being applied across the state. Downloadable resources provide helpful tools for carrying out this work.

As of November of 2017, three new courses were added to this site:

  • Pathways to Community Life
  • Pathways to Postsecondary Education
  • Pathways to Self-Determination

Pathways to Community Life will include seven lessons covering how teachers can prepare students for independent living and community involvement after high school. Individual lessons in this course will cover residential living and daily living skills, financial literacy skills, social skills and transportation skills. Each lesson will include practical illustrations of how to teach these skill areas within the classroom, at home and in the community. Two additional lessons in this course focus on specific instructional strategies and community-based instruction.

Pathways to Postsecondary Education lays out practical steps for preparing students with disabilities for further education, with lessons covering diploma options, planning for postsecondary education, inclusive higher education options for students with intellectual disabilities, and community colleges, vocational technical schools and traditional four-year colleges.

As students move through adolescence and into adulthood, we usually expect them to assume much greater responsibility for managing their own learning, relationships and behavior. As a society, we have not always viewed people with disabilities as capable of making important decisions for themselves or as knowing what they need. The Pathways to Self-Determination course will include six lessons aimed at helping teachers provide instruction, supports and opportunities to amplify their students’ voices. Lessons will cover self-advocacy, self-management, choice making and decision making, problem solving and supported decision- making.

Beginning in November of 2017, Vanderbilt entered into a five-year partnership with the Department of Education. This partnership will expand upon the current online courses to include live training, technical assistance and professional development. Webinars and a monthly e-newsletter will provide additional avenues for educators and other stakeholders to learn how to implement best practices in transition.  

Transition Tennessee can be accessed at Although the website is free, it does require registration. And while we place a Tennessee accent on all of the content, the website will also be a valuable resource for educators across the country. We also invite parents, advocates, service providers and others to access this resource.

Transition Tennessee is a partnership between the Tennessee Department of Education, Vanderbilt University’s Department of Special Education and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. We invite your feedback and suggestions as we strive to improve the quality and relevance of this resource.  

Erik Carter, PhD is a professor in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. His research and teaching focuses on evidence-based strategies for supporting access to the general curriculum and promoting valued roles in school, work and community settings for children and adults with intellectual disability, autism and multiple disabilities.

Rachael Jenkins, MA is an educational consultant with Vanderbilt University. She graduated from George Washington University in 2012 with a degree in rehabilitation counseling and worked in the Washington, DC public vocational rehabilitation system prior to her work with Vanderbilt.

Shimul Gajjar, MEd is an educational consultant with Vanderbilt University. She graduated with her Master’s in special education from Vanderbilt in 2016.