Brendan working in a factory.

Creating Vocational Portfolios for Adolescents with Significant Disabilities

Mary Zatta takes a look at vocational portfolios and the transition process and how portfolios can be used to help students move into adult life.

Mary Zatta takes a look at vocational portfolios and the transition process and how portfolios can be used to help students move into adult life. The portfolios provide a means for students to self-advocate, educators with a way to assist their students in the transitions, and a vehicle to inform future service providers.

School-to-Work helps educators to create meaningful vocational experiences for their students with significant disabilities and to develop vocational portfolios, essential tools as students transition to adult life. The book School to Work, is currently available in the Perkins store.

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Presented by Mary C. Zatta, Ph.D.

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes

Attached File(s)


  1. Introduction
  2. Why Create Portfolios for Transition?
  3. What is a Vocational Portfolio?
  4. How to Create a Portfolio
  5. Effective Portfolio Development Process
  6. The Components of a Portfolio
  7. The Individual’s Perspective Component
  8. The Personal Information Component
  9. The Vocational Experience Component

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Creating Vocational Portfolios for Adolescents with Significant Disabilities with Mary Zatta.ZATTA: Okay so, the topic today is creating vocational portfolios for adolescences with significant disabilities. We’re going to take a look at portfolios and the transition process, and how portfolios can be used to create a more effective portfolio process, and this came about the development of portfolios for our students — the idea came about from many years of doing transitions and finding that, you know, we would send reams of paper and reports about the students to the receiving agencies, and they would never get read or that the information didn’t really make it across in the way that we had hoped. So we still send the records, that still happens, but one of the things that we decided to do was to create sort of a visual history of the students work at Perkins, and their abilities and their strengths and so that’s how the portfolios came about.

They’ve been a tremendous success and I’m going to talk with you today about that. The portfolios provide a means for students to self advocate, so here they have a visual document that they can bring to a potential employer or day program provider and they can demonstrate their abilities and their work and their experiences over time. It provides educators; it provides us with a way to assist the student in their transition process. And it provides a vehicle to inform the future service providers.


CHAPTER 2: Why Create Portfolios for Transition?

ZATTA: So along with assisting the transition planning process they can demonstrate the abilities, the skills and the preferences of an individual. They convey the information in a permanent and meaningful manner. And the important part is that as a training tool, because they are pictorial in nature, most of the portfolio is based around pictures of the students in their various work placements or pick sample work.

Why Create Portfolios for Transition?So the portfolios are a valuable training tool, they allow us as staff at Perkins to bring information to the new providers in a way that’s easy to read, easy to quickly gather important information about the student. It gives the students a way to have a conversation, because they can sit together with the new providers and flip through the portfolios and look at samples of the student in various work sites and talk about those experiences.

It provides the parents with an advocacy tool and this has been something that we have seen that has been very, very effective.

The parents — When students leave, the parents get a copy, the receiving agencies have a copy. And in the future, the parents have reported to us that they’ve continued to use this tool as the students are moving either from one agency to another or when they have to have conversations with an agency about things they would like to see be different for their student. So it becomes an ongoing record and advocacy tool.

So why do we use portfolios? Because… Because a picture is worth a thousand words and the pictures can tell you so much more than a document can tell you. You can gather so much information from looking at a picture of a student in an activity. You can look at what was the setup of the activity. Who was with the student? What kind of assistance did they need? What were their communication modes? There’s so much information that you can gather from a picture that you could read many documents and lots of words to get to that information. So it really does provide a tool that makes that so much faster and easier.


CHAPTER 3: What is a Vocational Portfolio?

What is a Vocational Portfolio?ZATTA: A portfolio, what is it? It’s a meaningful collection of student work that exemplifies the student’s interests, the ranges of skills and their attitudes and development over time. When we talk about what a portfolio should include we want to include a series of examples of actual student performance that demonstrates their learning and shows how they’ve improved.

The product is an outcome or a representation of the processes and outcomes from the student’s education. It shows their talents, their successes, and their progress.

So if you think about when you think of the word portfolio, some people might think about an artist’s portfolio. And the same idea applies that it’s a gathering of your work that substantiates what your talents are, what your abilities and your successes have been and this is based on the same idea.

So what does a portfolio look like?

The portfolio is more than just a collection of notebooks or files. It is a – It’s like an expandable file about a student’s learning progress and their work. It can be arranged by subject area. It can be arranged by their skills or other themes and it can be showing their progress over years. The portfolios that we’re going to talk about today are organized by three sections. One is information about the individual, one is information about their personal preferences, and another, the third area, is information about their work skills and experiences.


CHAPTER 4: How to Create a Portfolio

ZATTA: What do you need to create a portfolio? There’s many different ways to do this. The ones that we use are – are using a three ring binder or a format like this with the coil. We also use sheet protectors, photo pages, where you can insert different photos into like a sheet protector format. You need a camera, a video camera is optional but also another format that works well and you need permission to photograph. So you don’t need a lot of stuff to make this happen. You need time though.

Helpful hints and how-tos.

Creation of – First of all you want to as much as possible create the student portfolios with the student’s participation to the degree that they’re able. Having them help to put the pictures in, to label the pictures, to create the cover, all of those.

There’s many different ways that the student can participate. So at whatever level that they are able to participate, they should be included, because it is their document.

It needs to be user friendly, information at a glance. We have to work very hard to resist the temptation to write paragraphs to explain the pictures because once we do that we have now fallen into the trap of writing the lengthy reports again. But really using a bullet format that can describe what you might see in the picture or what the picture is meant to portray, works very well.

We want to choose pictures that demonstrate teaching strategies. And as well as the setup of an activity and ways that the student is communicating. So we want to make sure we choose our pictures with a very specific intent in mind and we’re going to take a look at that in a moment. The use of pictures and videotaping is a really critical piece of the portfolio.

Every picture tells a story. So what is the story we want to tell?

We need to be very clear when we choose a picture, what is the story? It can’t just be a picture we chose because, “Oh, he looks really cute in this picture!” and, “I like the way it came out”. It needs to have a purpose. We need to provide a clear vision of the student. We want to show their mode of communication. We want to show their personality, their strengths and abilities, their level of independence and participation and the level of support required. So as we choose pictures, these are the things that we really want to be paying attention to.

Now one of the things about taking pictures of students for portfolios is that very often there’s a tendency for the staff who are in the picture helping the student with the activity to leave the picture, which is a nice idea because then it looks like the student is doing it. But that isn’t an actual good representation of how the student performs that task. If, in fact, they need some staff assistance, you want to ensure that the staff person stays in the picture so that the information is accurately portrayed about what the student’s needs are. So perhaps the staff is standing in the background or perhaps they’re sitting right next to and providing physical support. Whichever it is, you want to include that as part of your process in choosing your pictures.

So as I mentioned before the use of pictures documents the various work experiences that the student has had. It can show the set up of the job. It can show the adaptations, materials, adaptive equipment, all of things that go into making that job successful for the student. If they’re using a specific communication device, you want to include that. You want to show something about the work environment.

For example, if it’s a very busy work environment, you want to show that because that demonstrates that the student is capable of working in a busy work environment. If it’s a very separate, isolated work environment then the same thing, you want to show that. You want to show what staff supports are needed, as I just talked about.

You want to show the social interactions that happen at work, because very often those are the things that make work successful and that social interactions happen in the setting. You might want to include something about the student’s mobility and their ability to negotiate the environment and you want to show if possible the specific skill development.

So, again, what is the message that you want to convey?

Gabby is working in a hospital setting.So in this photo, you see this student, her name is Gabby and she’s working in a hospital setting. And what we’re portraying here is that she’s working in a hospital cafeteria. And what’s important to note in this picture is that she’s interacting actually with one of the hospital workers, and there was a long, long time spent on helping her to be successful and to create this relationship with this hospital worker.

Because the hospital worker would talk to the staff or Gabby would talk to the staff and the goal was to get them to talk to each other. So they eventually got to this place where they learned how to communicate with each other.

Gabby could write notes to the hospital worker, hospital worker could write notes back to her and they were able to communicate with each other. So this picture was placed in here as a way to document or to show, to demonstrate her ability to communicate with others with the appropriate supports. It showed her increase in independence over time and what was needed in order to help her be successful.

Peter is cleaning chair in a hospital within the cafeteria.The next photo is Peter and this is also in a hospital within the cafeteria. And Peter was really good at washing tables and chairs that was his job.

He could wash tables and chairs all day, in fact, he could wash one chair all day and that was the problem because he needed a way to move on to the next chair. He had a whole room full of tables and chairs to clean. And so he was very staff dependent on that cue to move to the next one, you know, “You’re finished here now go to the next one.”

What the teaching strategy that was taught was Peter was taught to count one, two, three, four, five… five wipes and I’m done with this chair, next chair. That’s what this picture is showing you, you can see that Peter is on his hand he’s counting and he’s wiping with the other hand and that was the purpose of this picture. It’s to show that strategy.

Two students working in a company and collecting the recycling.The next photo is a photo showing team work.

Two students, Peter again and Margo, who are working in a company and their job was to collect the recycling, the white paper recycling, throughout this building.

And you can see they had a big cart that they had to deal with between the two of them and they had to learn how to negotiate the hallways and the doorways, you know, in this building; go upstairs and downstairs, the elevator and develop this ability to work together.

And, yes, they have a job coach, but that person was able to be at a distance and they really over time did learn how to do this together.

Brendan is working in a factory.In this next picture, this is Brendan and this is Brendan working in a factory.  So take note of this environment, this is a very busy environment.

It seems a little chaotic, but he was successful working in this type of environment and that was an important thing to know about Brendan. But because of Brendan’s physical disabilities, Brendan needed an adaptation, which was to a heat sealer because he was packaging these items and he would seal the bags with the heat sealer.

So there’s an adaptation on the sealer so that his arm could hit the sealer and press it down. And then you will also see in the picture that there’s on the right-hand side there’s a light, that would go on and that indicated to him that the sealing was finished, and he knew to let go and then he would move on to the next task.

So this picture was really important because it demonstrated all the adaptations that were needed in order for Brendan to be successful.

The last picture that we’re going to take a look at is really just an example of how these pictures might appear on a page in the portfolio.

So this is Erika, and there’s two pictures of Erika at this task and it was a seat weaving job. And underneath it you can see the description of what was important to know about Erika in this job.

So you can see that it is bulleted and it’s very – quickly you could look at this page, read those bullets and gather the information that you need to understand what it was about the seat weaving job that’s important for you to know in terms of Erika’s skills and abilities.


CHAPTER 5: Effective Portfolio Development Process

ZATTA: So let’s talk about an effective development process. What does it take to make a portfolio a reality? It takes a lot of teamwork involving the student, their family, their vocational teachers, the job developer and all the persons that are familiar with the student’s abilities and their interests.

Effective Portfolio Development Process.It’s not something you do right before they graduate. It’s something that starts when a student is sixteen and it is worked on progressively over a number of years. So it requires a long term commitment by the team. And it requires the capacity to capture video and still images of the student working in a variety of environments and then to select appropriate ones for a portfolio.

What happens as you near the time of a student’s transition into adult services is you might have this portfolio that is very full, in fact, maybe too full. If you’re collecting information from sixteen until they graduate, that’s a lot of years and maybe a lot of photos.

But what happens is that as they are nearing the time of graduation, there is a time when we begin to sort of weed out what is the most important information to include. Some of the earlier information is important because it shows the progress over time but maybe more emphasis is placed on the information that relates to the later years and closer – the time – the experiences near the time of graduation.

So, yes, you want to include those earlier experiences, because showing the progress is important, but showing the students abilities as they leave school is really critical as well.


CHAPTER 6: The Components of a Portfolio

he Components of a Portfolio.ZATTA: Lastly, today we’re going to talk about how the portfolio is organized and some of the pages that we include in our portfolio for students. So as I mentioned before, there’s sort of three parts. We have the individual’s perspective, we have a section called personal information and we also have a section about their vocational experience.


CHAPTER 7: The Individual’s Perspective Component

ZATTA: The individual’s perspective is an area that we use to kind of represent the student’s personality. So we give them a chance – we ask them to create the cover.

And here again is the example from Neia where she created this cover with her artistic ability.

The Individual’s Perspective Component.We have a photo introduction page that has a picture of the student and basic introduction in terms of, “Hi my name is…” If they use sign language, “This is my name sign…” Maybe, “I communicate by using photos” or whatever that is. Just a very brief, you know, hello page.

There are other pages we include that we call all about me or about myself. And there are sort of things about me; What are my hobbies? My interests? How many brothers or sisters do I have? Where do I live?

You know, that kind of sort of information that’s personal to the student.

Another form that we use is a bio poem, and in there again is a place with a specific format that is used to convey the students their likes, their dislikes, their fears, the things that make them happy, who their favorite people are. So we’ll include that information as well.


CHAPTER 8: The Personal Information Component

ZATTA: The personal information section has several different worksheets that we include and this is kind of the demographics information of the portfolio. This probably has fewer pictures and more documents but hopefully documents that are really very focused on bulleted information, quickly, again at a glance. So we have a student personal fact sheet that looks at students’ vision needs, their hearing needs, mobility, communication, their medical information.

The Personal Information Component.We have an adult planning worksheet. In that worksheet, we talk about the experiences the student has had at work and what their success have been; what strategies we’ve used to help them be successful; what their likes and their dislikes are; and we also project for the future based on the information we know.

What kind of a day program; what kind of a work program would work well for this student; what kind of a residential program, apartment, home; what kind of a situation is going to be the best for that individual? Then we have the recommended schedule worksheet where we take into consideration what we have learned about how students work best in their day. You know, do they like long hours of work and, you know, time for other activities going into the community and so forth.

Or do they need to have a little bit of work and then another activity and then maybe some more work and so forth. So we use that worksheet to kind of gather the information that we know as a way, again, to provide a future provider with an idea of what kind of schedule would work well for the student.

The expanded student profile is another way that we look at a student’s likes and their dislikes, and what their strengths and their capabilities are. And then we have two communication worksheets, one that looks at their receptive and expressive communication abilities. And also one calendar system worksheet that describes what type of schedule or calendar system does the student require.


CHAPTER 9: The Vocational Experience Component

ZATTA: The last section is the section that focuses on vocational experience. And within this section we have a worksheet that looks at the interest inventory of the student.

The Vocational Experience Component.We try to get a sense of what are their preferences for work, and what are the things that they don’t like. Using that as a guide for how we determine what kind of experiences to provide. It also includes a vocational assessment of the student, and so all of that information is still incorporated.

It includes work experience placement reports, so that will give us a small summary of a student’s work in a specific placement, whether it’s Burger King or the hospital cafeteria it gives a small summary of how – What kinds of things they did there? What kind of support did they need? What were their successes and their needs?

There’s a resume worksheet so that students have a chance to develop a resume by the time they graduate. All of their working experiences can be included and they leave as part of their portfolio, they have a resume that lists out all their different experiences. There are – We have information included about student specific work experiences, communication boards and books.

We include information about any recognition awards or recommendations that they’ve received. So, a student who received a specific award from the company, like the students who work at the museum each year get a volunteer service award. So those are included. Some students have been recognized, you know, in different ways by their employers. So we’ll include copies of those recognitions within the portfolio as well.

And, lastly, we include information about the assistive technology or adaptive equipment that is used by a student in various work settings. So that would also be an important part.

And so there’s a cartoon here. We have a cartoon and it says – this kid is saying, “Work, work, work that’s all you ever want me to do. It’s no fair. I’m a kid. Kid’s are supposed to have fun. Why can’t you wait until I’m grown up, then I’ll work.” The father says. “Well, that’s an idea, Mike, but that’s not a good one.” Well the kid says, “Why not?” and the father says, “Because by the time you’re grown up and ready to work you won’t know how!” So here is the reason for this emphasis on vocational instruction and preparation for the future has to begin years before a student graduates.

And the very last slide is a photo of a former student, Heather, and she’s working. This is after she’s graduated and she’s working in her hometown in Burger King. And this was a really great success story because it was her portfolio that got her this job.

The job coach went to the placement without Heather to talk to them about would they consider interviewing the student. And the hope was that perhaps she could clean the tables or do some small job, you know, in the back or something that we’re just trying to get in the door, and the folks at the Burger King said, “Oh, no, she’s going to help us right at the front counter.” And it was the portfolio that sold that idea. And they said, “No, we think she can do more than that based on what we’ve seen in this portfolio and we want her at the front counter.”

So that was the best success story, and it was because of the portfolio.

Thank you, very much.

Creating Vocational Portfolios for Adolescents with Significant Disabilities with Mary Zatta.

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