Work-based learning experiences (WBLEs) are an essential component of employment preparation for students with disabilities. Through WBLEs (e.g., job shadowing, work sampling, service-learning, internships, paid employment) students develop career interests, connect classroom learning to the real world, and acquire skills needed for successful employment. Developing high quality WBLEs can be challenging. This research brief describes the challenges school personel encounter when providing WBLEs and strategies to overcome them.
Several researchers have investigated the barriers teachers experience when designing and implementing WBLEs (see Awsumb et al., 2022; Brenner & Dymond, 2023a; Bromley et al, 2022; Rooney-Kron & Dymond, 2021). Among the barriers most frequently cited are those related to transportation, staffing, time, work opportunities, stakeholder support, and student support needs. These barriers appear most problematic when providing WBLEs in the community (as opposed to the school). Transportation is often limited, too costly, results in long commutes, or does not align with WBLE schedules. Staffing barriers include insufficient numbers of staff to supervise students during WBLEs and lack of appropriately trained staff to serve as job coaches. In addition to transportation and staffing, teachers report difficulty finding time to develop WBLEs due to other teaching responsibilities. Limited time to develop WBLEs is further complicated by the challenges involved with finding WBLE opportunities. In some communities there are few worksites available, sites have to be shared with multiple students, school policies limit WBLEs to older students, or sites are not physically accessible. An additional challenge is stakeholder support. At times, teachers face resistance to providing WBLEs from businesses, school administrators, and parents, who may have concerns about safety, liability, and the benefits of WBLEs for certain students. Teachers of students with extensive support needs (i.e., significant intellectual disability, autism, multiple disabilities) or challenging behaviors have voiced particular difficulty with finding WBLEs that they feel are appropriate for their students.
Only one study has examined how teachers respond to challenges associated with providing WBLEs. Brenner and Dymond (2023b) conducted in-depth interviews with nine special education teachers of students with extensive support needs. They found that teachers used four types of approaches when responding to challenges associated with WBLEs. One approach was to create WBLEs in the school building when community-based WBLEs were not accessible or available. Second, they networked with school colleagues, families, and community members to identify people they had connections with in the community that might be willing to offer a WBLE, volunteer, or become a job coach. Third, teachers provided direct support to students and families. They pre-taught students the skills and behaviors needed at the WBLE site and they also supported families by helping them to obtain resources (e.g., clothing, hygiene items) their child needed to participate in WBLEs. Lastly, teachers advocated for WBLEs with school administrators, school staff, and business owners. These advocacy efforts focused on obtaining resources (staff, transportation), convincing business owners to offer work experiences, advertising their program, and gaining recognition of their students’ abilities.
Findings from Brenner and Dymond (2023b) suggest several core strategies teachers can use to overcome the challenges they experience to providing WBLEs. Theses strategies include:
There are several additional strategies discussed in the literature. Although these strategies are not supported by empirical research, they present an array of options for school personnel to consider (see Table 1).
Ideas for Overcoming Challenges
Awsumb, J., Schutz, M., Carter, E., Schwartzman, B., Burgess, L., & Lounds Taylor, J. (2022). Pursuing paid employment for youth with severe disabilities: Multiple perspectives on pressing challenges. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 47(1), 22–39. https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1177/15407969221075629
Brenner, H., & Dymond, S.K. (2023a). Teachers’ perspectives on challenges to providing work-based learning experiences for students with extensive support needs. Manuscript submitted.
Brenner, H., & Dymond, S.K. (2023b). Work-based learning experiences for students with extensive support needs: Overcoming challenges. Manuscript in preparation.
Bromley, K., Hirano, K., Kittelman A., & Mazzotti V. (2022). Barriers to work-based learning experiences: A mixed methods study of perceptions from the field. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 56, 17-27. https://doi.org/10.3233/JVR-211169
Collet-Klingenberg, L. & Kolb, S. (2011). Secondary and Transition Programming for 18–21-Year-Old Students in Rural Wisconsin. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 30(2), 19-27.
Dymond, S.K. (2020). Community skills. In P. Wehman & J. Kregel (Eds.), Functional curriculum for elementary and secondary students with special needs (4th ed., pp. 165-184). Austin, TX: Pro-ed.
Mazzotti, V. L., & Test, D. W. (2020). Transitioning from school to employment and postsecondary education. In J. McDonnell, F. Brown, & M.E. Snell (Eds.), Instruction of Students with Severe Disabilities (9th ed., pp. 525-574). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education/ Prentice-Hall.
Rooney-Kron M., & Dymond S. (2021). Teacher perceptions of barriers to providing work-based learning experiences. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 44(4), 229-240. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165143420988492
Wittenburg, H., Sims, K., Wehman, P., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2019). Strategies for Developing Work Experiences for Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 42(4), 259-264. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165143418813900