In this installment of Disability Scoop’s original series, Scoop Essentials, we chat about preparing for adult life with transition specialist Mary Korpi in Long Island, N.Y.
Mary tackles every step of transition planning from dealing with school districts to the steps you can take at home to ensure that independent adulthood becomes a reality.
Check out what Mary has to say and then submit your own questions to her by clicking here.
Disability Scoop: What is transition? What does it mean and what does it encompass?
Mary Korpi: Transition is preparation for adult life. It’s very individualized based on any given student’s needs. It is really designed to get everybody thinking about the future — the idea that school is going to end someday. A good plan includes the student in every step of the way. For a student who has needs centered around basic life skills and difficulty taking care of themselves, their transition would need to include basic self-care, grooming, how to move into the community, handling money. For students on a more vocational track, they should have the opportunity to explore different career paths and find something that works for them so that they can come to a conclusion themselves.
Disability Scoop: How do you go about planning for and setting expectations for transition?
Mary Korpi: The first step is to look at where the person is now as compared to peers. What can we do so that they can come closer to matching their peers? The idea is that you want everyone to start thinking about after school, what’s going to happen after the student graduates. The kinds of skills that are valued in the school world are sometimes not at all valued in the work world. For example, raising your hand to go to the bathroom. That could make you a great student, but in the real world your boss may not want to know when you need to go to the bathroom. It’s about learning unwritten social rules and the idea that now that you’re an adult, you’re going to do things differently.
Disability Scoop: What does a successful transition look like?
Mary Korpi: A successful transition is one in which a young adult is able to identify their special needs and the supports they need to function independently as best they can. What are you good at? What’s challenging? What can you do to find supports?
Disability Scoop: What are the keys to a successful transition?
Mary Korpi: It should be flexible and individual. It might adjust year to year. You don’t want anyone locked in, but you don’t want anyone denied. The young person needs to be involved every step of the way. Oftentimes, this can be overlooked by schools and parents. This is unfortunate. It is essential that the young person is involved to any extent that they can be. It’s that person’s future. Even if the student has communication challenges or maybe there are some other challenges, any involvement is something. If the young person doesn’t buy into the plan, the plan is meaningless.
Disability Scoop: What are common mistakes people make?
Mary Korpi: School systems make the mistake of trying to force people into their prepackaged planning mechanisms. They have the attitude that we have to take this child and make him fit in with what we have. Often there’s not flexibility in trying something a little different. Maybe a child could take a high level course in English, but take a life skills class the other half of their day.
Families sometimes fall into not knowing how to advocate for their child. I meet with a lot of families that have developed adversarial relationships with their school over the years. This is a huge loss for everyone involved, especially the young person. Sometimes you can hire an advocate or obtain a volunteer advocate to help show the school system what can be done. As much as school systems can be difficult to deal with, the law mandates that there must be a free and appropriate education provided. The adult world has no mandate to provide services at all. You must meet the eligibility requirements as set up by the college or the job you’re applying for. This is a huge shift for parents especially.
Disability Scoop: What resources are available to you as you embark on the transition process?
Mary Korpi: Unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources available. The best resource parents have is other parents that have gone through transition before. There are advocacy organizations that will help you understand education law. For a young person in the transition process, it’s most important for them to try to keep an open mind and explore opportunities. This can be very hard at age 15 or 16. You might love something and this is where your heart is, but what other things might interest you? There often is a disconnect between a person’s skill set and what they want to do. If you’re 12 or 14-years-old and your reading level is still at a first or second grade level, college might not be the right direction for you, but there are other paths that might be more correct for you.
Disability Scoop: When you leave the school district, there is no longer a mandate to provide services. What should you be prepared for?
Mary Korpi: Parents must try to do everything they can to teach their child the basics to be as independent as possible in adult life. The more independent you are, the more opportunities you will have. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is. It doesn’t matter where you’re starting. What matters is, if you can, within the family, teach the child how to make choices, how to control their behavior.
Parents are the best teachers of self-preservation and safety skills, social skills, navigating the community and learning how to advocate for yourself. Those are the four keys to success in adult life. You need to learn how to control your own behavior, learn how to say hello to people, be groomed well enough to be wherever it is that you want to be, to blend into whatever environment you’re in. Those kinds of really basic skills are things that parents can teach really, really well and they will make a big difference in what the outcome looks like.
Disability Scoop: What about when you’re a person with a disability and you lack drive, direction or motivation?
Mary Korpi: This is not uncommon and it is a difficult challenge for everyone involved. But there’s something motivating to everybody. The key is to find out what is motivating to that person and then use this as something they earn. For example, computer time or video game time is something that you need to earn. It’s not something you can do from the minute you get home from school through the night. Computer time can be after the dinner is done or after the table is set, whatever it is you want to work on. Structure time at home, the afternoon, the weekends, to help the child learn that I work for something that I want.
Unfortunately, many children in special education have failed again and again and again. So we need to find ways to help them succeed so that they are comfortable enough and confident enough to try new things. So when a child has always had the opportunity to come home and watch TV or have computer time the whole afternoon, I wouldn’t start with taking that away. We want to start with the positive. What is something the child does do when they come home? Maybe they take their own coat off. If you have to start there, you start there. And if the goal is that they are going to put their coat away, you go through the steps with them everyday and, if they’re successful, they earn something for that. It’s a long process, but your child is with you for a lot of years. It takes some very special thinking and planning to succeed.
Disability Scoop: When should you start teaching a child about adult responsibilities?
Mary Korpi: The younger you start, the easier it’s going to be for you and the child. The more experiences the child can get in a community with their parents the better. They need to know how to make a basic purchase, communicate in a way that someone else can understand. They need to know how to and when to shake hands, when to hug somebody and when not to. If you’re just starting with a teenager, I don’t think that you’re going to get a 17-year-old to buy into the idea of setting the family’s table. You might be able to get them to buy into the idea of picking up their room or doing their laundry via the natural consequence of the laundry is dirty if you don’t clean it.
One of the critical pieces of this is that the child or the teenager has to be part of the conversation. It’s not about me deciding that you’re going to set the table. It’s about us sitting down together and talking on a level that you can understand and I can understand about how we need help each other. We want you to become an adult who can handle themselves. So to do that, we’re going to start right now.
Disability Scoop: What if you didn’t do much transition planning? Many adults spend a lot of time on mom and dad’s couch because of lack of resources, funding or initiative. What would you recommend?
Mary Korpi: There is a service throughout the country called vocational rehabilitation. It’s a great place to start. If you’re a young adult with a disability, and not able to hold a job, this is your resource. They can help with training, interests, abilities and matching interests with abilities.
There’s value to being required to meet a standard that’s not to your own making. For example, we might not want to go to work everyday, but what we gain from this is a sense of importance and responsibility. Work ethic is very important.
Mary Korpi is a licensed mental health counselor and a vocational rehabilitation counselor. She is also the author of Guiding Your Teenager With Special Needs Through The Transition From School To Adult Life.