Work Study Experiences Leading to Enhanced Employment Outcomes

NTACT: the Collaborative
5 min readJan 29, 2021


Lauren Bruno, Holly Whittenburg, and the NTACT Knowledge Development Team

Washington State University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Successful employment outcomes for students with disabilities remain low, indicating a need to enhance career training and explore options for students with disabilities in K-12 and postsecondary education settings. Work study is one type of experience that has been identified as an essential program characteristic that leads to improved post-school outcomes (Test et al., 2009). Work-study is defined as a specified sequence of work skills instruction and experiences designed to develop students’ work attitudes and general work behaviors by providing students with mutually supportive and integrated academic and vocational instruction (Rowe et al., 2015).

As illustrated in the figure below, work study programs combine work experiences (e.g., paid or unpaid internships, on-campus jobs, sponsored employment) with instruction designed to help students develop a range of essential work-related skills (e.g., social skills, work behaviors, job skills). By incorporating work experiences with instruction in work skills, work study programs allow students to investigate career pathways and develop the job skills needed for competitive employment.

As educators consider how to develop and implement work study programs, it is helpful to keep in mind the following work study program characteristics (Test et al., 2009; Rowe et al., 2015):

· Offer options for paid and non-paid work experiences both on- and off-campus with options for gaining course credit for completing program requirements.

· Place students in work settings that match their preferences, interests, needs, and skills.

· Develop business/school partnerships by educating employers about the resources of potential employees to set up training sites.

· Develop policies to address liability, including student insurance and other Department of Labor issues/concerns.

· Arrange for transportation to off-campus worksites.

· Provide instruction, supervision, and guidance as students develop work behaviors and skills.

As educators consider developing work study programs or think about how they can further grow existing programs, it is also important to consider several transition-related best practices. These include using student-centered planning to ensure work experiences align with students’ interests and dreams, working with a multidisciplinary team of professionals, collecting and using classroom and worksite data for decision making, and identify existing resources within their school and communities.

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Activities to Integrate Work Study into Secondary Transition Programming (CEC, 2014)

Below are several concrete actions that educators, transition specialists, and school/district leaders can take as they seek to expand work study offerings in transition programs for students with disabilities.

· Allow students to explore different career areas and paths through:

o Structured interviews with employers

o Online career searches

o Job shadowing

o Job sampling

o Internship opportunities

· Conduct assessment/evaluation:

o Students’ work styles and preferences assessment.

o Ecological assessments: to determine the required skills necessary for job attainment and retention.

o Community mapping: to identify available work experiences.

· Make a list of transition program characteristics and academic standards and identify which can be addressed in employment settings.

· Develop school-based enterprises to help students gain work skills.

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Diversity in Secondary Transition Programming: What to Consider for Work Study Experiences

When implementing work-study within secondary programming, it is critical to address students’ cultural and linguistic differences (CLD) to ensure the transition needs of students from diverse populations are met. The following guidelines help ensure that students are successful by effectively interacting, working, and developing meaningful relationships in the workplace. To more fully demonstrate culturally responsive behaviors and skills that address cultural concerns of CLD students, educators can:

· Provide businesses with culturally responsive strategies to understand the cultural needs, behaviors, and practices of students from CLD backgrounds.

· Increase the number of available sites by recruiting site partners that reflect the cultural backgrounds of students.

· Consider partnerships with businesses owned by CLD communities.

· Ensure staff qualifications include cultural competencies or training.

· More information can be found here:

o Culturally Responsive (Sustaining) Practices for Students with and At Risk for Disabilities Annotated Bibliography

NTACT Resources

§ Council for Exceptional Children’s Division on Career Development and Transition Fast Facts: Work Study- This document provides educators, administrators, and families an overview of what work study is along with additional resources.

§ NTACT School Based Enterprise Toolkit — This toolkit from NTACT provides a rationale for the use of school-based enterprises as one way to provide students with career development opportunities in high school The toolkit provides numerous resources and examples for successfully planning and implementing school-based enterprises.

§ NTACT Postsecondary Education & Employment Preparation — Provides an overview and definitions regarding different types of Work Based Learning Experiences along with links to additional resources.

§ Resource Mapping Toolkit — This resource provides information, templates, and additional resources to support educators in ensuring effective collaboration occurs across agencies.

o Use the community mapping worksheet to identify key partners and what they bring to the community mapping process.

§ NTACT Quick Guide: Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Youth- Secondary Transition — This quick guide provides a case study and resources for teachers and families to ensure they are meeting the transition needs of culturally and linguistically diverse youth.

§ Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Transition Innovations Employment — A webpage that links educators, families, and other stakeholders to resources to ensure the success of students with disabilities in post-school employment settings.

§ Strategies for Developing Work Experiences for Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — This article provides transition specialists and secondary special educators with practical strategies for identifying and engaging with potential local business partners and creating networking opportunities that build effective relationships (Whittenburg et al., 2018).


Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Career Development and Transition Publications Committee (DCDT: November, 2014). Fast Facts: Work Study. Retrieved from

Rowe, D. A., Alverson, C. Y., Unruh, D. K., Fowler, C. H., Kellems, R., & Test, D. W. (2015). A Delphi study to operationalize evidence-based predictors in secondary transition. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 38(2), 113–126.

Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Mustian, A. L., Fowler, C. H., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidence-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(3), 160–181.



NTACT: the Collaborative

NTACT:C is a Technical Assistance and Dissemination project, funded by the OSEP and the RSA, Cooperative Agreement Number H326E140004.