As children with special needs progress from birth to graduation, there are formal planning meetings and documents aimed at the child’s educational success. Infants and toddlers will have an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), and children age three until departure from the school system will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan. Finally, the school system must begin formal transition planning by the time the child reaches age 16, where the team, often including agencies that provide services to adults with disabilities, prepares for a smooth transition out of the school system.

Each of the meetings and their documents are basically contracts between the service providers (usually a public school) and the child’s family. The IFSP, IEP, 504 plan, and transition planning meetings are a time to negotiate the type of required services and therapies, their duration, and location. The yearly meetings may feel formal and could be difficult if there is disagreement about the types of necessary services or how often they occur.

What Is the Difference Between Transition Planning and Personal Futures Planning?

There are several types of Personal Futures Planning, and you may hear them labeled as Maps, Person-Centered Planning, or similar. The major differences between the school’s transition planning and Personal Futures Planning are the latter’s dream/goal-driven focus, voluntary involvement of team members, and informal environment. There are no laws requiring a Personal Futures Planning. Instead, a group of caring and committed individuals gather in a relaxed environment, such as the teenager’s home, approximately every eight weeks to help the individual remove barriers in order to reach their ultimate goals.

The focus of Personal Futures Planning is free exploration of future options and barriers to obtain the dream for the person and their family. When possible, the person should be the central figure in exploring their own dreams and nightmares for the future, and the ultimate decision-maker. When that is not possible, the family will be the primary driver in exploring for the future. Certainly, public agencies are an important component, but these meetings are a time to discover and develop other resources such as siblings, family friends, relatives, churches, community centers, libraries, and so forth. Each family and community is unique in its potential, and these often-hidden resources are the key to the successful implementation of a plan. The school IEP and transition plan can be a point to start and can be a place where barriers to a plan may be worked on.

The initial stages of Personal Futures Planning are a time to explore the individual’s interests, strengths, dreams, personal network of relationships, and the important step of communicating and brainstorming those dreams with others. When dreams are stated, it gives others the opportunity to provide thoughtful input and perhaps contribute a different solution. It is a time for “out of the box” thinking. It certainly is a time for thinking about and emotionally preparing for the future. After the initial stages, Personal Futures Planning transitions into series of meetings that allow for communication of progress, brainstorming of new ideas/approaches, and a fine-tuning of the plan.

Dreams by their very nature tend to change and “mature” with time and experimentation. That is also true of this process. In order to ground the dreams in reality, all barriers to reaching the dream are addressed. An example includes addressing a behavior or communication issue that is a real barrier to the individual reaching their goal. Other times barriers include transportation issues or the family work schedule.

The planning will certainly address multiple goals, but the two primary goals will be 1) day time activities, including employment or an appropriate day program, and 2) a future living situation, whether immediately after graduation or in the distant future.

Why Participate in Personal Futures Planning When We Already Have IEP and/or Transition Planning Meetings?

In most cases, schools are the primary drivers of the services listed in the formal transition plan, as the plans are mostly focused on how the educational team can prepare the student for employment and independent living. A Personal Futures meeting expands that focus to include the family and community resources that may be vital contributors to the final “dream” plan.

The very nature of a Personal Futures meeting is one that explores and then finally reveals the “ultimate” goal plan for the student. When the barriers to these goals are identified, the school district may well benefit from developing related IEP goals that are appropriate for the school setting.

Additionally, the Personal Futures Planning will not end with graduation from high school but can continue throughout any transitions in the individual’s lifetime.