What’s next after high school? “Voices of parents”

Photo of young adult working in office

Since it’s known that parental expectations influence what students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) do after high school, a VKC research study examined parents’ expectations, preferences, and concerns related to employment.

Published in the Journal of Special Education, the study was co-authored by Carly Blustein, M.Ed., doctoral student in Special Education; Erik Carter, Ph.D., professor of Special Education; and Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence with Disabilities and a parent of a young adult with IDD.

Although the ultimate goal of special education is to prepare youth with disabilities for postsecondary education, employment, and life in the community, these outcomes are often elusive, especially for students with intellectual disability, autism, or multiple disabilities. Too many remain unemployed, work in segregated settings, and have limited involvement in community activities.

Earlier research has shown that parental expectations strongly predict employment and outcomes after high school for youth with IDD. Although employment in the community is the recommended practice for these young adults, more needs to be known about how parents view choices.

Study participants were 1,065 mothers, fathers, or other caregivers of children and youth with IDD (below 22 years) who lived in Tennessee. The researchers partnered with 131 organizations, groups, and networks, as well as with special education departments of all Tennessee school districts, in an effort to reach families who represented the ethnic, economic, and geographic diversity of the state.

The survey had questions aimed at understanding parent expectations, priorities, and concerns related to employment for their children with IDD, as well as learning about which resources parents would find helpful in supporting the transition of their daughter or son to adult life in the community.

The researchers found that more than twice as many parents considered employment in the community to be important compared with sheltered employment, but at the same time they gave lower ratings to the likelihood of these outcomes.

The researchers also identified some of the concerns that parents held related to their child’s social and communication skills, ability to be hired, ability to apply for and obtain a job, opportunities for support on the job, and lack of availability of programs that provide job supports.

Although one might assume that employment features like salary level, availability of benefits, or opportunities for advancement would rank highest in importance, parents instead considered qualitative aspects of potential employment as most important, such as having a job that is personally rewarding, matches personal interests, and provides social interaction and friendships.

The researchers found that only 36% of youth with IDD had had paid or volunteer jobs during middle and high school. This is a matter of concern given that early work experiences are highly predictive of post-school employment.

Nevertheless, many parents indicated their children had other activities that likely contribute to “soft skills” for employment, for example, chores at home, taking part in community activities, or learning about career choices in school programs.

The researchers found several factors related to higher expectations for community employment, including career-related activities taking place at home, or having typically developing siblings.

Parents of children with autism had higher expectations for full-time employment as compared with parents of children with intellectual disabilities.

Erik Carter, Ph.D.

Erik Carter, Ph.D.

“Taken together, these findings remind us that the expectations parents hold for life after high school are shaped by multiple factors,” Carter said. “Moreover, these findings remind us of the important role that school teams have in both raising expectations and providing services and supports that align with those high expectations.”

Transition teams need to focus on gathering information from families about their personal expectations, their priorities among potential outcomes, and their concerns, so that transition plans can be individualized.

A second implication for educational practice is considering how best to deliver services and supports to prepare students for community employment and to raise parental expectations for employment.

Third, educational teams could use parental concerns about their child to develop interventions that address those concerns.

Having schools develop strong relationships with community employers and adult service providers could also help reduce obstacles to community employment for youth with IDD.

“We found that most parents envisioned a future of community employment for their children, but they also hold real concerns about the pathway to that future,” Carter said. “We urge researchers and practitioners to focus on creating effective pathways to both raise aspirations while also bridging the gap between expectations and outcomes.”

Elise McMillan, J.D.

Elise McMillan, J.D.

“We were happy to learn that parents are looking for pathways to accessing programs to provide supports for future community employment,” said co-author Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), director of VKC Community Engagement and Public Policy, and senior associate in Psychiatry. “A number of programs of the VKC UCEDD provide these pathways including TennesseeWorks, a project focused on increasing employment for youth with disabilities, and Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the state’s first inclusive higher education program for students with intellectual disabilities. This study helps us develop ways to effectively share this information across the state, and also reminds us of our key partnership with families and educators to keep them informed and connected to changing community supports and services.”

Jan Rosemergy is VKC deputy director and director of Communications and Dissemination.

Pictured top of page: Former Next Steps at Vanderbilt student Chrissy Billante working at her Next Steps internship with Tennessee Disability Pathfinder.

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