ERIC Identifier: ED470036
Publication Date: 2002-09-00
Author: Wehmeyer, Michael
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Self-Determination and the Education of Students with
Disabilities. ERIC Digest.
Promoting self-determination has been recognized as best practice in the
education of adolescents with disabilities since the early 1990s, when the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated increased student
involvement in transition planning. Promoting self-determination involves
addressing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students will need to take more
control over and responsibility for their lives.
Students with disabilities who are self-determined are more likely to succeed
as adults, and efforts to build self-determination skills are integrated into
the practices of schools that provide high-quality transition programs. However,
promoting self-determination should not begin in high school. Students in
elementary and middle school need to receive such instruction as well.
WHAT IS SELF-DETERMINATION?
Although the self-determination
construct has been used in various disciplines for centuries, its application in
special education has been relatively recent. Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, and
Wehmeyer (1998) defined self-determination as:
combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in
goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one's
strengths and limitations, together with a belief of oneself as capable and
effective are essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these
skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their
lives and assume the role of successful adults in our society" (p. 2).
Martin and Marshall (1995) described self-determined people as individuals
how to choose-they know what they want and how to get it. From an awareness of
personal needs, self-determined individuals choose goals, then doggedly pursue
them. This involves asserting an individual's presence, making his or her needs
known, evaluating progress toward meeting goals, adjusting performance, and
creating unique approaches to solve problems" (p. 147).
Self-determined people are causal agents; they make things happen in their
lives. They are goal oriented and apply problem-solving and decision-making
skills to guide their actions. They know what they do well and where they need
assistance. Self-determined people are actors in their own lives instead of
being acted upon by others.
WHY IS SELF-DETERMINATION IMPORTANT FOR STUDENTS WITH
Self-determination is important for all people, including
students with disabilities. The skills leading to enhanced self-determination,
like goal setting, problem solving, and decision making, enable students to
assume greater responsibility and control. Moreover, when students with
disabilities show they can make things happen and take responsibility for
planning and decision-making, others change how they view them and what they
expect from them. People with disabilities have emphasized that having control
over their lives, instead of having someone else make decisions for and about
them, is important to their self-esteem and self-worth (Ward, 1996).
Special education research has shown that students with disabilities who left
school more self-determined were more than twice as likely as their peers who
were not as self-determined to be employed one year after graduation, and they
earned significantly more. Three years after graduation, they were more likely
to have obtained jobs that provided benefits like health coverage and vacation
and were more likely to be living somewhere other than the family home (Wehmeyer
& Palmer, in press; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).
WHAT CAN EDUCATORS DO TO PROMOTE STUDENT
The educational planning and decision-making process is
an ideal situation in which to teach goal setting, problem solving and decision
making for all students (Powers, et al., 1996; Wehmeyer, Agran, & Hughes,
Teach the skills and knowledge students need to become self-determined. The
educational programs of all students should promote the skills needed to:
Set personal goals
Solve problems that act as barriers to achieving these goals
Make appropriate choices based on personal preferences and interests
Participate in decisions that impact the quality of their lives
Advocate for themselves
Create action plans to achieve goals
Self-regulate and self-manage day-to-day actions
These are not only independent living and self-management skills, they also
involve students with disabilities in the general curriculum as required by the
IDEA. Most state and district standards include standards pertaining to goal
setting, decision making, and problem solving. For example, the Texas Essential
Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) 6th grade social studies standards require students
to use problem-solving and decision-making skills and to work independently and
with others in a variety of settings. Students are expected to:
Use a problem-solving process to identify a problem, gather information, list
and consider options, consider advantages and disadvantages, choose and
implement a solution, and evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.
Use a decision-making process to identify a situation that requires a decision,
gather information, identify options, predict consequences, and take action to
implement a decision (Texas Education Agency, 1997).
Instruction promoting components of self-determination should be infused
throughout the curriculum. Doll, Sands, Wehmeyer, and Palmer (1996) identified
age-appropriate activities addressing many of these components:
Provide opportunities for students to make choices, teaching them that they can
exert control and that most choices have limited options from which to select.
Promote early problem-solving skills by encouraging students to think aloud as
they address simple problems. Teachers should model their own problem-solving
Provide feedback regarding the outcomes of their choices to begin to teach
students to link choices and consequences.
Teach students to evaluate their work in comparison to a standard ("Does your
paper look like this?") to lay the foundation for later self-management skills.
Elementary and Middle School
Teach students to systematically analyze potential options with related benefits
and disadvantages in order to participate in simple decisions, and to examine
past decisions to determine if the consequences were anticipated or desired.
Coach them in setting and committing to personal and academic goals, including
identifying steps to achieve goals and obtaining support to monitor progress.
Encourage them to evaluate task performance and reflect on ways to improve and
High and High School
Encourage students to make decisions that affect their day-to-day activities,
including academic goals, post-school outcomes, schedules, and others.
Emphasize the link between goals that students set and the daily decisions and
choices they make, and teach them to break long-term goals into short-term
Promote active involvement in educational planning and decision-making: The
IDEA requires that from 14 years onward, transition needs and services be
addressed on a student's IEP and goals related to these services be based on
student needs, interests, and preferences. Transition planning provides a
powerful context in which to both teach and practice skills like goal setting,
problem solving, effective communication and listening skills, assertiveness and
self-advocacy, and decision-making. Younger students (in elementary and middle
school) should be involved in planning activities as well.
Teach students to direct their own learning: Research has shown conclusively
that students with disabilities can learn and use strategies like
self-instruction, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation, and antecedent cue
regulation to learn academic content such as reading or math skills or to
improve performance in such areas as vocational education and independent living
skills. Teaching students to self-direct learning promotes self-determination
Communicate high expectations and emphasize student strengths and uniqueness.
One simple yet powerful activity that can promote student self-determination is
to have high expectations for students and communicate those expectations to
students often. Students with disabilities are often all too aware of what they
cannot do, and they often are not as aware of their unique strengths and
Create a learning community that promotes active problem solving and choice
opportunities: Students who learn to solve problems do so in classrooms that
value diversity in opinion and expression and create a 'safe' place for students
to provide answers that might be incorrect, knowing that they will be provided
the support to learn from mistakes and, eventually, solve problems successfully.
Such learning communities often emphasize collaborative efforts, including
classroom rule setting, and enable students to make choices about when, where,
and how they learn what they need to achieve (Sands, Kozleski, & French,
Create partnerships with parents and students to ensure meaningful
involvement. A focus on self-determination is not a license to exclude parents
and family from decision-making and educational planning. While much can be done
at school to promote self-determination, unless parallel activities occur at
home, these efforts will not be sufficient. Parents are a student's first and
longest lasting teachers, and it is important that from elementary school on,
teachers work to ensure the meaningful involvement of parents, family, and
students in educational planning and decision making.
Doll, E., Sands, D., Wehmeyer, M. L., &
Palmer, S. (1996). Promoting the development and acquisition of self-determined
behavior. In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across
the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 65-90).
Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M, & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A
practical guide for teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for
Martin, J. E., & Marshall, L. H. (1995). ChoiceMaker: A comprehensive
self-determination transition program. Intervention in School and Clinic, 30,
Powers, L., Wilson, R., Matuszewski, J., Phillips, A., Rein, C., Schumacher,
D. & Gensert, J. (1996). Facilitating adolescent self-determination: What
does it take? In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination
across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp.
257-284). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Sands, D.J., Kozleski, E., & French, N. (1999). Inclusive education in
the 21st Century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Texas Education Agency, (1997). Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Austin,
Ward, M. J. (1996). Coming of age in the age of self-determination: A
historical and personal perspective. In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.),
Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with
disabilities (pp. 1-16). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (1998). Teaching self-
determination to students with disabilities: Basic skills for successful
transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Wehmeyer, M. L., & Palmer, S. (in press). Adult outcomes for students
with cognitive disabilities three years after high school: The impact of
self-determination. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and
Wehmeyer, M. L. & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive
adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning
disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63, 245-255.