Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.
Youth with disabilities who receive services from the social service system (e.g., foster care, juvenile justice) are at an even greater risk for negative outcomes.1 They frequently have multiple stresses to face while also transitioning into adulthood. The repeated exposure to stress and risk factors requires special attention when developing and implementing services for special population youth with disabilities.
Youth with disabilities are overrepresented in foster care.2 Foster youth with disabilities experience a higher rate of abuse than children and youth without disabilities.3 Over a fifth of foster care alumni experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a higher rate than U.S. war veterans.4 They face the common challenges of transitioning to adulthood 5 and have the added challenge of requiring support to accommodate their disability when transitioning across agencies and systems.6
A few strategies that are supported in practice and research include:
- concrete and integrated transition plans that include specific goals, action steps, and clear assignment of responsibilities
- appointment and training of education surrogates who can ensure an undisrupted educational process and act as an advocate for the youth
- a consistent presence and connection with caring adults who are inside and outside of the family.7
Youth with disabilities are disproportionately overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.8
- Approximately two-thirds of youth in correctional facilities meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health disorder, and studies have shown that as many as 51 to 57 percent have two or more mental disorders. 9
- Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated youth have been eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in comparison to fewer than 10 percent in the general population.10
The information available on the frequency of specific types of disabilities in the juvenile justice system is limited. However, the following data can provide insight into the issues that youth are dealing with in the juvenile justice system:
- Ten percent of youth have specific learning disabilities, which can make learning basic skills, such as reading, writing, and math, more difficult.
- About half have emotional disturbances.
- Twelve percent have an intellectual disability, which includes both below average intelligence scores and basic life skills.
- 13 to 30 percent have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).11
- More than 12 percent are identified as having posttraumatic stress disorder, which is more than twice the frequency of diagnosed cases in the general youth-and-children population.12
The long-term achievement of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system can be better supported by providing each youth with:
- a solid academic foundation,
- life skills, and
- positive workplace attitudes and skills.
By providing these youth with these strength-based services and skills, there is an increased likelihood of their graduating from high school and gaining steady employment.13 The following practices also show evidence of improving academic and life outcomes for juvenile justice-involved youth with mental disabilities:
- Utilizing mental health diversion initiatives rather than punitive punishment when possible
- Early detection of cognitive or academic difficulties
- Positive behavioral support treatment and/or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps patients adjust their thinking and behavior patterns. This psychological method has shown positive results in reducing delinquency and recidivism among justice-involved youth.
- Increased inter-agency information sharing. This is particularly helpful for youth who have a disability and are involved in multiple systems in addition to the educational system, such as the child welfare system and juvenile justice system. Increased communication between agencies and departments can better support the mental needs of youth in a consistent manner. 14
More detailed recommendations from the Office of Special Education programs on how to improve outcomes for youth with disabilities in juvenile correctional facilities can be found here.
A discussion on what current research says about supporting students academically and behaviorally in incarcerated settings can be watched here.
Children and youth experiencing homelessness face the challenge of disrupted education, and those who have a disability face additional challenges to learning and obtaining educational achievement.15 Children and youth who are homeless, compared to those who are not homeless:
- Experience three times the rate of emotional and behavioral issues,
- Are four times more likely to show delayed development, and
- Have twice the rate of learning disabilities.16
Some of the most common educational barriers experienced by homeless children and youth with disabilities include:
- Not being identified as needing special education services;
- Experiencing challenges with a diagnosis related to mobility and other stressors associated with homelessness;
- Lack of timely assessment, diagnosis, or provision of appropriate services;
- Lack of continuity of services because of transferring between schools (including inefficient and slow transfer of records when enrolling in a new school);
- Lack of an available parent or surrogate who can represent the child or unaccompanied youth.17
There are two federal laws in place to help increase the educational stability and support necessary to help homeless children and youth with disabilities:
- The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act ensures educational protections for children and youth in homeless situations by: mandating immediate school enrollment and full participation in all school activities, the right of children to attend the school that they attended when they were last permanently housed, transportation to and from school, access to programs and services such as special education services and free school meals, and the appointment of a local homeless education liaison in every school district or local education agency.18
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helps to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education. This includes special education services and other similarly related services, such as: specialized instruction, academic or behavioral support, vocational education, transportation, physical therapy, psychological services, counseling, diagnostic and evaluative medical services, parent counseling/training, and recreation.19
More detailed information, from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, on these two federal laws concerning special educational stability in this population can be found here.
Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System
This report summarizes and discusses what is known about children and youth with disabilities who are at risk of delinquency and involvement in the juvenile justice system or who have already entered it.
Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections
This toolkit provides resources to help improve outcomes for youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, focusing on facility-wide practices, educational practices, transition and re-entry practices, and community and interagency practices.
Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections
This webpage provides free, online teaching and learning resources, including a two-part series of modules translating research to best practices for supporting youth with disabilities in corrections education facilities. Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections Part 1: Improving Instruction focuses on developing evidence-based instruction in correctional education programs; and Part 2: Transition and Reentry to School and Community provides better practices to support youth with disabilities to succeed after release from correctional educational programs.
Guideposts for Success for Youth in Foster Care
This framework helps organizations involved with transition outcomes for all foster care youth, including youth with disabilities.
Guideposts for Success for Youth with Mental Health Needs
This framework was developed for youth service practitioners that serve youth with mental health needs.
Guideposts for Success for Youth with Learning Disabilities
This framework provides guidance to caring adults and youth service professionals for improving services and outcomes for youth, ages 14 to 25, with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities.
Key Considerations in Providing a Free Appropriate Public Education for Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Facilities (PDF, 13 pages)
This brief discusses key components within IDEA necessary for the provision of FAPE (Free appropriate public education) to youth with disabilities in juvenile justice secure care facilities. This brief also discusses common challenges that agencies and facilities face in providing for the unique educational needs of these youth and provides recommendations for improvement.
Support Services for Youth in Transition with Disabilities
This webpage provides a list of state and national resources that address the needs of youth in transition with disabilities.
Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System: Prevention and Intervention Strategies
This brief focuses on two models, restorative justice and wrap-around services, to demonstrate proactive intervention for reducing the number of youth with disabilities incarcerated in juvenile and adult prisons.
1 Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, 2013
2 Slayter, 2016; Developmental Services Group, 2017
3 Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, 2013; Slayter, 2016, Harrell, 2016
4 Pecora et al., 2005
5 Welch, Jones, Stalker, & Stewart, 2015
6 Hill & Stenhjem, 2006
7 Hill & Stenhjem, 2006
8 Muller, 2011; Meservey & Skowyra, 2015; Developmental Services Group, 2017
9 Wasserman et al., 2010; Schubert & Mulvey, 2014; Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen, 2011; Developmental Services Group, 2017
10 Quinn et al., 2005; as found in a research study.
11 Underwood & Washington, 2016
12 National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, 2021; Kessler et al., 2012; Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen, 2011; Schubert & Mulvey, 2014
13 National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, 2021
14 Developmental Services Group, 2017; Jeong, Lee, & Martin, 2014; Colwell, Villarreal, & Espinosa, 2012; Mears et al., 2003
15 National Center for Homeless Education, 2015
16 National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011
17 National Center for Homeless Education, 2015
18 National Center for Homeless Education, 2015
19 National Center for Homeless Education, 2015
Other Resources on this Topic
Tools & Guides
Webinars & Presentations
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Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.
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Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.
Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).