ERIC Identifier: ED481859
Publication Date: 2003/08/00
Author: Alan Hoffman
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
Teaching Decision Making to Students with Learning
Disabilities by Promoting Self-Determination. ERIC Digest.
The ability to make effective choices and decisions is one of the most
important competencies students, including those with learning disabilities,
need to be successful in life after high school. Promoting student self-determination
provides an excellent framework within which to teach students how to make
effective choices and decisions. Effective choices are those that the student
will see as beneficial, and these models of self-determination can be used
to teach students to make choices and decisions that (a) are consistent
with what is most important to them and (b) enable them to achieve more
positive adult outcomes. A general overview of best practices in promoting
and enhancing self-determination can be found in a previous ERIC digest
(Wehmeyer, 2002). This digest specifically examines how instructional practices
to promote self-determination can be used to help students with learning
disabilities make effective choices and decisions.
How is self-determination linked to learning how to make good choices
Self-determination is "a 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 in 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" (Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998,
p.2). Thus, self-determination involves assessing one's own strengths,
weaknesses, needs, and preferences. Field and Hoffman (1994) describe five
steps to enhanced self-determination. The five steps are:
- Know yourself
- Value yourself
- Experience outcomes and learn.
Making choices and decisions is central to each of the five steps. For
example, one sub-component of the step "Plan" is to set goals. To set a
goal, a decision must be made. A sub-component of "Know Yourself" is to
decide what is important to you. A key goal of instruction to promote self-determination
is to enable students to make choices and decisions based on a foundation
of knowing about and valuing themselves (Field & Hoffman, 1994). If
we support students in becoming more self-determined, we are, in essence,
enabling them to learn how to make choices and decisions that are based
on what they most value.
What barriers do students with learning disabilities face in learning
how to make effective choices and decisions?
Students with learning disabilities face some unique barriers to becoming
self-determined, which are identified below:
- Because learning disabilities are generally hidden disabilities, and
because in our culture having a disability is often viewed as stigmatizing,
many students with learning disabilities do not acknowledge their disabilities.
Not acknowledging their disabilities diminishes their available resources,
as most resources for adults in postsecondary education or employment require
disclosure of the disability in order to obtain the resource. If students
choose to disclose their hidden learning disabilities, they must then deal
with the perceptions and misperceptions that others may have about them.
- An understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses and acceptance
of self form the foundation for making effective choices and decisions
(Field & Hoffman, 1994). The stigma attached to learning disabilities
encourages many students to hide their disabilities, inhibiting the development
of self-awareness and belief in themselves.
- Learned helplessness and self-deprecating attributions among students
with learning disabilities have been widely documented (Bos & Vaughn,
2002). Learned helplessness is the effect of failure, where the belief
exists that past failure predicts future failures. An accurate assessment
of one's strengths, weaknesses, needs, and preferences along with confidence
in one's abilities is fundamental to effective choice and decision-making.
Lack of a positive, realistic self-concept is frequently identified in
the literature as a difficulty for persons with learning disabilities (Price,
2002). This inaccurate assessment of one's own traits may inhibit a student's
ability to make effective choices and decisions.
- Inappropriate or ineffective socialization skills are frequently cited
in the literature as issues for individuals with learning disabilities
(Price, 2002). Positive relationships (which rely on strong social skills)
are fundamental to self-determination and making effective choices (Ryan
& Deci, 2000).
Many persons with learning disabilities face difficulty in executive
functioning skills, such as organizational and planning abilities, mental
flexibility, and task initiation. These executive functioning skills are
fundamental to making effective decisions and choices. For example, mental
flexibility is critical to being able to examine an array of options, before
choosing or deciding on one. Students need to be aware of multiple options
from which to choose before they are able to make an informed choice. Planning
and task initiation are critical to acting on a choice or decision once
it has been made.
Where does instruction to promote self-determination and more effective
choice and decision-making skills fit into the curriculum for students
with learning disabilities?
The majority of students with learning disabilities are served in general
education classrooms. This is good news for many reasons, since instruction
to promote self-determination is important for all students, including
students with and without disabilities. In addition, the delivery of instruction
to enhance self-determination in general education classes provides an
entry point to the general curriculum. Many of the skills related to learning
to make effective decisions and choices are easily linked to state standards
and benchmarks as well as to standards developed by such entities as the
American Counseling Association, the Secretary's Commission on Acquiring
Necessary Skills (SCANS), and the Character Education Partnership.
Instruction to enable students to learn how to make effective choices
and decisions can be infused into school counseling programs, academic
classes (e.g., Language Arts, Social Studies, Creative Writing), academic
support classes (e.g., resource rooms, study skills), career preparation
classes, and extra-curricular activities. Such instruction should not be
an "add-on"; it should be infused throughout the school day so that students
are able to see the practical application of the instruction.
Some areas of instruction related to effective choice and decision-making
may best be provided in settings where issues specifically related to disabilities
can be addressed. For example, developing an understanding of one's learning
disability, the ramifications of the disability and whether or not to disclose
the disability is a critical area of instruction and support for students
to help them make effective choices and decisions. In addition, the Individualized
Education Program (IEP) process provides an excellent vehicle through which
choice and decision-making skills can be taught. These disability-specific
areas can be addressed in special education classrooms or through individual
tutoring, coaching, or counseling sessions.
What are the school or programmatic factors that support or inhibit
If students with learning disabilities are to learn how to make effective
decisions and choices, they need opportunities to (a) acquire skills such
as identifying options, anticipating potential consequences, and accessing
resources and information, (b) practice the skills, and (c) reflect on
and learn from their experiences. The optimal way to provide opportunities
for students to learn how to make good decisions and choices is to infuse
instruction related to self-determination at the school or program level
as well as the classroom level. Field and Hoffman (2002) identified nine
quality indicators for self-determination instruction:
1. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes promoting enhanced self-determination
are addressed in the curriculum, in family support programs, and in staff
2. Students, parents, and professionals are equal partners in individualized
educational decision-making and planning.
3. Students, family members, and educators are provided with opportunities
for making choices.
4. Students, family members, and educators are encouraged to take appropriate
5. Supportive relationships are encouraged.
6. Accommodations and supports to address unique student learning needs
7. Students, family members, and educators have the opportunity to
express themselves and be understood.
8. Consequences for actions are predictable.
9. Self-determined behavior is modeled throughout the school environment.
What resources are available to promote self-determination and teach
choice and decision-making?
A number of instructional methods, materials, and strategies have been
developed to enable educators to teach students the knowledge, skills,
and beliefs that lead to self-determination. They include resources that
can be used to teach choice and decision-making through self-determination.
Examples of strategies include
- Teaching students to use a mnemonic device to remember steps in choice
and decision-making as it relates to the IEP is recommended by VanDeusen,
Bos, Schumaker, and Deshler (1994). They use a strategy called IPLAN, which
stands for Inventory. Provide your inventory information, Listen and respond,
Ask questions, and Name your goals to help students learn to make and present
choices in their IEPs.
- Helping individuals with learning disabilities to develop greater
self-awareness about their disabilities is important for effective choice
and decision-making. Counseling can assist students with learning disabilities
to develop greater awareness of their disability, understand their need
for supports, recognize the type of supports that are most effective, access
those supports, and understand how they have adapted and adjusted to their
limitations and strengths.
- Using specific instructional programs to teach component skills of
choice and decision-making through self-determination (e.g., awareness
of options, knowledge of individual strengths, weaknesses, needs, and preferences,
and evaluating outcomes of choices).
Applying coaching strategies to provide individualized support for students
with learning disabilities to help them make choices and achieve the results
they want (Byron & Parker, 2002).
Information about a variety of materials and strategies to support choice
and decision-making through self-determination is available through the
University of North Carolina Self-Determination Synthesis Project website
Bos, C. S., & Vaughn, S. (2002). Strategies for teaching students
with learning and behavior problems (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Byron, J., & Parker, D. (2002) College students with ADHD: New challenges
and directions. In L.C. Brinckerhoff, J.M McGuire, & S.F. Shaw (Eds.),
Postsecondary education and transition for students with learning disabilities
(pp. 131-155). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Field, S., & Hoffman, A. (1994). Development of a model for self-determination.
Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 17, 159-169.
Field, S., & Hoffman, A. (2002). Preparing youth to exercise self-determination:
Quality indicators of school environments that promote the acquisition
of knowledge, skills and beliefs related to self-determination. Journal
of Disability Policy Studies, 13, 113-118.
Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M. (1998).
A practical guide to promoting self-determination. Reston, VA: Council
for Exceptional Children.
Price, L.A. (2002). The connections among psychosocial issues, adult
development, and self-determination. In L.C. Brinckerhoff, J.M. McGuire,
& S.F. Shaw (Eds.), Postsecondary education and transition for students
with learning disabilities (pp. 131-155). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and
the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.
American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
VanDeusen, A.K., Bos, C.S., Schumaker, J.B., Deshler, D.D. (1994). The
self-advocacy strategy. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises.
Ward, M.J., & Kohler, P. (1996). Teaching self-determination: Content
and process. In L.E. Powers, G.H.S. Singer, & J. Sowers (Eds.), Promoting
self-competence in children and youth with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul
Wehmeyer, M. (2002). Self-determination and the education of students
with disabilities. ERIC EC Digest #E632. Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Disabilities and Gifted Education.