Students with special needs have unique strengths, motivators, preferences, and interests in a learning environment. By identifying and addressing these elements, educators can encourage a higher level of engagement. In experience-based learning, facilitators take a step-back approach—allowing for natural discovery of consequences and problem-solving-based learning The result of this hands-on learning environment is an increase in motivation, self-esteem, and self-advocacy in students with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, visual and auditory impairments, learning deficiencies, ADHD, and ADD.

Academic Career Transition (ACT) programs explore a hands-on learning model based on a multi-tiered program of life skills, academic skills, in-school employment, external employment, community-based support, and career planning/exploration. Many students with special needs dream of living independently, attending a local community college, and/or landing a job where they can help others and feel like productive members of their society. ACT programs work to fulfill those dreams in a way that puts students with disabilities to work in various real-life work experience opportunities. One example at our school is the “Design Center,” an on-campus work experience where state-of-the-art equipment allows students to design graphics and then imprint the designs on T-shirts, jerseys, tote bags, mugs and more. Students can also engrave key chains, nameplates and holiday ornaments; and make greeting cards, business cards, and calendars. In addition to designing and creating sellable items, students learn about responsibility, budgeting, banking, and other necessary life skills. These students learn to advocate for themselves in the workplace and elsewhere.

In this program, students are treated just like employees, creating their own professional portfolio, which includes resumes, sample job applications, mock interview questions, industry tour information, community outing reflections, planning guides, and interest assessments, as well as completing an interviewing process program. Once hired, they must behave appropriately, finish their regular schoolwork, and maintain their grades to successfully continue the program.

Another ACT program at our school provides the opportunity for students ages 16 and older access to off-campus jobs that match their areas of passion and ability level at various local businesses. This program allows students to understand the process of working in a real life job/career while empowering the students to provide crucial services to the community with a great work ethic. They add character, laughter, and personality to any work environment.

The end goal of an ACT program is to develop a student’s employment skills and social skills to maximize their opportunity for success in the real world. In turn, the program exposes students to fundamental living, communication, and vocational skills so that they can become happy, confident, and productive members of society. Training through the program has allowed students to directly enter the workforce, live independently with supports, become members of social groups, and/or attend community college programs upon obtaining their certificate of completion.

Brandi Eagling is Director of Sierra Academy of San Diego. Prior to this role, Mrs. Eagling spent eight years in the classroom where she developed and implemented the Academic Career Transitions (ACT) Program at Sierra Academy. She has been an invited speaker at the National Foundation for Autism Research (NFAR), the CARS Convention, and the Every Child Counts Symposium, discussing topics on her unique approaches to transition programming, the importance of multidisciplinary approaches, collaboration in education, and the power of student strengths and interests.