Promoting the Self-Determination of Students with
Severe Disabilities. ERIC Digest.
by Wehmeyer, Michael
Promoting the self-determination of students with disabilities has become
best practice in special education, particularly in promoting more positive
transitions from school to post-school life. Promoting self-determination
means addressing skills, knowledge, and attitudes students will need to
take more control over and responsibility for their lives.
While efforts to promote self-determination are in place, most of the
methods, materials, and strategies they use do not adequately address the
instructional needs of students with severe disabilities (Wehmeyer, 1998).
Wehmeyer, Agran, and Hughes (2000) surveyed 1,200 teachers of students
with severe disabilities about their beliefs concerning self-determination
and the barriers to providing instruction to promote this outcome. Some
of barriers they identified are:
* Lack of student benefit from instruction in self-determination (42%)
* Insufficient training or information on promoting self-determination
* Lack of authority to provide instruction in this area (32%)
* More urgent need for instruction in other areas (29%)
* Lack of teacher knowledge of curricular/assessment materials and strategies
This digest addresses several issues raised by this list of barriers
to promoting the self-determination of students with severe disabilities.
CAN STUDENTS WITH SEVERE DISABILITIES BENEFIT FROM INSTRUCTION TO
The most frequently identified barrier was that teachers did not believe
students would benefit from such instruction. This reason is at the heart
of a perception that people with severe disabilities cannot be self-determined
because of the nature or extent of their impairment (Wehmeyer, 1998). However,
such perceptions are based on misperceptions of self-determination as equivalent
to being completely independent or autonomous and in absolute control of
Many students with severe disabilities will not be able to learn all
the skills and knowledge needed to solve difficult problems. However, this
is equally true for most areas in which students with severe disabilities
receive instruction, a situation that has been dealt with by the principle
of partial participation (Baumgart et al., 1982). This principle states
that even if a student cannot do all steps in a task or activity, he or
she can likely learn at least one step and maximize his or her participation.
There are portions of even complex tasks such as decision-making or
problem-solving in which students with severe disabilities can participate,
thus making them more self-determined. For example, the expression of a
preference is an important part of decision-making and all people, independent
of the severity of their disability, can express preferences and make choices.
There is also research to support that using self-directed learning
strategies enhances students' autonomy and independence (Agran, 1997).
Promoting skills that enable students with severe disabilities to become
more independent, even if they are not fully independent, can improve quality
of life (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1998). Students with severe disabilities
can become more self-determined, even if they won't become fully autonomous.
STRATEGIES TO PROMOTE SELF-DETERMINATION
Assess Interests and Preferences and Promote Choice Making. Promoting
active choice making is the primary way teachers address self-determination
for students with severe disabilities. Making a choice involves the identification
and communication of a preference. For students with severe disabilities,
there are multiple barriers to making choices. Because many such students
have too few opportunities, they do not know how to make choices and need
targeted, direct instruction in this skill. Other students with severe
disabilities do not express their preferences though conventional means
and teachers must use alternative means to assess personal preferences.
Hughes, Pitkin, and Lorden (1998) reviewed the literature on strategies
to determine preferences of students with severe disabilities. Strategies
they identified included:
* Infer preferences from a student's behavior when a student responds
to situations in which choices are presented.
* Use computer and micro-switch technology to enable students to indicate
* Observe whether students approach an object when it is presented as
* Consider a wide range of verbal, gestural, and other communicative
efforts as a means to determine preference.
* Record the amount of free time a student spends engaged in particular
Additionally, a student's family will have considerable knowledge regarding
a student's preferences, and teachers should take advantage of this resource.
Student Participation in Educational Goal Setting and Educational Planning.
Self-determined behavior is goal directed. Students with severe disabilities
can, and should, participate in goal setting. Agran, Blanchard, and Wehmeyer
(2000) taught teachers of 19 students with severe disabilities to teach
their students to set and reach transition-related goals. They provided
supports to enable students to answer four questions leading to setting
an educational goal: What do I want to learn? What do I know about it now?
What must change for me to learn what I don't know? What can I do to make
this happen? Although many students could not articulate direct responses
to each question, teachers used the questions as focal points for planning
activities that promoted active student involvement in goal setting.
For example, when addressing the question "What do I want to learn?"
teachers helped students identify personal preferences in transition (work,
living, recreation). Students became active partners in goal setting, and
teachers and students worked diligently to ensure that goals were linked
to student preferences, interests, and abilities. Teachers then taught
students self-directed learning strategies (discussed below) that enabled
them to participate in the instructional process as well. Students were
successful in achieving their goals.
A process commonly used to involve students with severe disabilities
in educational planning is person-centered planning. Compared to typical
planning processes, person-centered planning emphasizes identifying the
dreams and visions of the student and his or her family; creating teams
of stakeholders that include the student, family members, and educators
as well as other people who are important in the student's life (neighbors,
employer); and generating educational plans that emphasize the student's
abilities and preferences and identifying supports in the community to
achieve goals related to these plans. Such efforts are ideal for actively
involving students in goal setting, as well as in educational problem solving
Involvement in Problem Solving and Decision Making. Solving problems
and making decisions often require complex cognitive skills. However, each
of these tasks can be divided into smaller steps, and students with severe
disabilities can learn skills that enable them to complete each step more
independently and, thus, enhance their involvement in the more complex
The decision-making process involves identifying options; identifying
consequences from each option; assessing the risk associated with each
consequence; examining how each option coincides with personal preferences,
interests, and needs; and making a judgment about which option is optimal.
Many students with severe disabilities can be taught, through role modeling
and other strategies, to contribute to the process of generating options
and can increase their knowledge about consequences associated with options
through personal experiences and instruction. All students have preferences,
and all students can become more involved in comparing decision-options
with personal preferences. Decision-making ends with making a choice, and
students with severe disabilities can be involved in that step.
Student-Directed Learning Strategies. Student-directed learning strategies,
alternatively referred to as self-regulated learning or self-management
strategies, involve teaching students to modify and regulate their own
behavior. Such strategies enable students to regulate their own behavior,
without external control and allow students to become active participants
in their own learning. There is considerable research evidence that many
students with severe disabilities can learn and use self-directed learning
strategies to promote independence and improved task performance (Agran,
1997). There are many such strategies, but the primary ones include teaching
* Independently perform a task by following a set of pictures or other
visual or auditory cues (antecedent cue regulation).
* Make task-specific statements out loud prior to performing a task
* Observe and record own performance of a target behavior or action
* Compare the behavior being monitored with own desired goal (self-evaluation).
* Provide reinforcement upon successful completion of a task (self-reinforcement).
These strategies are typically used in combination. For example, a student
with severe disabilities could be taught to perform a vocational task more
independently through a simple self-instruction strategy such as the "Did-Next-Now"
strategy, in which the student learns how to complete a task sequence by
stating what response he or she just completed, what needs to be done next,
and then directing himself or herself to perform the response. Then, the
student could be taught to make a checkmark on a graph sheet next to a
picture of the task (self-monitoring) when the task is finished. After
three weeks the student can be taught to count total checkmarks (self-evaluation)
and, if they total a predetermined amount, to engage in a reinforcing activity
such as computer free time (self-reinforcement). The variations on these
scenarios are limitless. For example, you could substitute teaching a student
to perform a task by looking at a picture sequence (antecedent cue regulation)
in the previous sequence if the student cannot adequately self-instruct.
If counting check marks on a graph page are too complex, students can put
a marble in a glass jar until it reaches a certain line as the self-evaluation
It is also important to consider technology's potential to promote independence
and self-regulated learning for students with severe disabilities. Available
technologies such as handheld personal computers are being used to promote
independent performance and to decrease student reliance on others to perform
tasks, thus enhancing self-determination (Davies, Stock, & Wehmeyer,
Agran, M. (1997). Student-directed learning: Teaching self-determination
skills. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Agran, M., Blanchard, C., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2000). Promoting transition
goals and self-determination through student-directed learning: The Self-Determined
Learning Model of Instruction. Education and Training in Mental Retardation
and Developmental Disabilities, 35, 351-364.
Baumgart, D., Brown, L., Pumpian, I., Nisbet, J., Ford, A., Sweet, M.
Messina, R., & Schroeder, J. (1982). Principle of partial participation
and individualized adaptations in educational programs for severely handicapped
students. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Disabilities,
Davies, D. M., Stock, S., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2002). Enhancing independent
time management and personal scheduling for individuals with mental retardation
through use of a palmtop visual and audio prompting system. Mental Retardation,
Hughes, C., Pitkin, S., & Lorden, S. (1998). Assessing preferences
and choices of persons with severe and profound mental retardation. Education
and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33,
Wehmeyer, M. L. (1998). Self-determination and individuals with significant
disabilities: Examining meanings and misinterpretations. Journal of the
Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 23, 5-16.
Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (2000). A national survey
of teachers' promotion of self-determination and student-directed learning.
Journal of Special Education, 34, 58-68.
Wehmeyer, M. L. & Schwartz, M. (1998). The relationship between
self-determination, quality of life, and life satisfaction for adults with
mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental
Disabilities, 33, 3-12.
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