Pathways for Secondary School Students

Along with all the other challenges faced by students entering secondary, they now have the task of choosing courses that can determine much about their future.

All students need to be able to “see the big picture” when planning their academic future. No one wants to reach their final year of secondary school only to realize they have missed a key item in their journey. As educators, it is your task to ensure that students are making the most informed choices and know all the options they have regarding their pathway throughout secondary school. This means tackling both ends of the spectrum: pushing students to challenge themselves when appropriate, and also ensuring they are not set up for a situation in which they cannot be successful.

Having learning disabilities does not immediately mean that students must follow the least challenging academic path. It means they must know their own strengths and weaknesses, and be able to voice where they may require help and guidance in order to be successful in more difficult courses. It is also important that students are empowered to stand up for what they believe is the right choice for them, as students with LDs can are sometimes be pushed towards a “safer” option.

Click here to access the article, “Supporting the Development of Self-Advocacy”

According to the Ministry of Education document “Creating Pathways to Success”, Elementary and Secondary schools should work together to ensure students have information on the following to support their transition plan:

  • the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) requirements;
  • types of courses offered, and how best to design their personal secondary school program based on their interests, strength, needs, and aspirations;
  • specialized programs and board-wide programs, extracurricular activities, and additional support programs;
  • strategies for completing the community involvement requirement;
  • the full range of postsecondary opportunities (apprenticeship training, college, community living, university, and the workplace);
  • the education and career/life planning process and strategies for the effective use of education and career/life planning resources.[1]

Click here to access the Ministry of Education document “Creating Pathways to Success”.

Academic or applied courses

Pathways for secondary studentsA common misconception is that students with learning disabilities are not suited for the Academic, or even the Applied, pathway.  Even students themselves may hold this belief. Each individual student's potential and career goals must be carefully considered so that the correct pathway or combination of pathways is set to ensure the success of a student with an LD.

If a student is currently receiving accommodations only and is meeting grade-level expectations, he or she can take either applied or academic level courses. In this case, selecting an appropriate pathway will depend largely on the student's individual learning style. If a student is a hands-on learner and benefits from more direct support he or she may want to consider applied level courses. If the student is an abstract thinker and an independent learner, academic courses may better fit the student's needs. [2] Students with LDs also benefit from the expertise of a skilled guidance counselor to help them navigate their secondary school journey. No student needs to stay solely in one pathway. A student heading for a University degree may use a combination of Academic and Applied courses to be successful. Freeing a student with an LD from Academic courses that are not required for their chosen University program allows them to focus their attention and energy on the most important courses for their future.

If a student is receiving modified learning expectations and/or alternative learning expectations in his or her current program, he or she may consider Locally Developed Compulsory (LDC) credit courses. Locally Developed Compulsory courses can be offered in Grade 9 English, Mathematics, and Science. They are recommended for students who have significant gaps in their learning and are behind grade level in a key academic skill, such as reading.  [2] All teachers at the secondary level should be aware of these LDC courses and the impact it can have both on the pathway of the student, as well as gaps they may have in their learning when entering the mainstream courses. If a student with an LD needs to complete LDC courses to accelerate their knowledge or close gaps, they can progress to an applied or academic course in the future.  Often students with an LD may take an extra semester or year to complete their diploma requirements.

It can be incredibly helpful for students if you have past course syllabi on-hand in order to help them understand what is required to be successful in a course. Being transparent about the type of activities, the amount of work to be done at home or independently, and the level of higher thinking required is key to helping students with LDs know if they can cope with the course load or not.

Click here to see an example syllabus, used for a grade 9 English course at John F. Ross C.V.I. in the Upper Grand District School board.

Students should be encouraged to self-advocate and speak up for what they want, but it is crucial that the student has an advocate, such as a trusted teacher or support staff, who knows their potential and can advocate for appropriate accommodations. A student with an LD who is appropriately supported and programmed for can effectively navigate either the academic or applied pathway.  There is also a very real danger of a student with an LD becoming frustrated with school or even dropping out if they are not in an appropriate pathway.  Students with LDs typically have average or above-average intellectual ability. Placing these students exclusively in Locally Developed or modified courses can do them a disservice.

Students with LDs can thrive in either stream, provided they have access to the necessary accommodations and the school and their teachers support them. The main factor in any course decision is the pathway students wish to pursue in their lives. The three main pathways are:

  •         Post-Secondary
  •         Community Life
  •         Employment 


With the right level of support, students with LDs can find success in whichever pathway they wish to pursue. The most important factor in student success is starting the planning process early. Watch the following clip from the webinar "Transition Planning and Pathways for Students Transitioning to Post-Secondary: The Importance of Planning with the End in Mind". In this clip, Ryan Machete of the Peel District School Board emphasizes the importance of using the Individual Pathway Planning document, starting as early as grade 7, to make sure students with learning disabilities are on track to meet their post-secondary and employment goals following graduation from secondary school.

Click here to access the transcript for this webinar clip. 

Click here to view the webinar "Transition Planning and Pathways for Students Transitioning to Post-Secondary: The Importance of Planning with the End in Mind", in its entirety. 

[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013b

[2] RRDSB, 2019

[3] Machete, 2014