Self-Determination: What Is It? Why Is It
Beneficial? How Is It Best Taught?
By Sharon Field
This FOCUS on Results document examines the value and impact self-determination
can have on the lives of persons with disabilities. Self-determination is the understanding and ability to act on personal strengths and limitations.
; Self-determination requires an understanding of one’s strengths and limitations
and a belief in oneself as capable and effective.
; Students who help choose their school activities are more motivated to perform
; Adults support student self-determination by: modeling self-determination,
encouraging exploration, and listening attentively and encouraging others to do so
How can individuals with disabilities have more successful outcomes when they reach adulthood? How can caring adults ensure that students with disabilities feel respected as they play an active role in their transition from school to adult life? One answer that has emerged in special education and disability services over the past 15 years is self-determination.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, special education and disability services began to focus on self-determination. Parents, individuals with disabilities, educators, and disability-related service providers were searching for strategies to help individuals with disabilities achieve more successful adult outcomes. Advocates for the civil rights of persons with disabilities also became involved. The slogan “nothing about me without me” captures
the essence of the self-determination movement.
The following questions and answers are designed to clarify the essential meaning of self-determination.
Q. What is self-determination?
A. Individuals who are self-determined have “a combination of skills, knowledge and
beliefs” that help them “engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. Self-
determination requires an understanding of one’s strengths and limitations and a belief in oneself as capable and effective. 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 and Wehmeyer, 1998, p. 2).
Q. Who needs self-determination?
A. All individuals need skills related to self-determination in order to suceed. However, these skills are especially important for individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities often face more barriers to self-determination than do other individuals in our society.
Q. Why are these skills important for students with disabilities? A. Individuals with disabilities often have to deal with many people who exert control or influence over major decisions that affect the quality of their lives. Decisions such as where to live, what kind of work to do, and how to spend leisure time are personal choices that ALL individuals have a right to take part in making.
Self-Determination Affects Employment and Adult Living
Q. What research and data support the use of self-determination? A. Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) found that students with learning disabilities who had higher self-determination scores in their last year of high school were more likely to: have expressed a preference to live outside the family home, have a savings or checking account, and be gainfully employed one year following high school. Of the youth in their study who were employed, Wehmeyer and Schwartz found that those who were more self-determined earned an average of $4.26/hour, while their peers who were less self-determined earned an average of $1.93/hour.
Wehmeyer & Palmer conducted another follow-up study (2003) with young individuals with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation or learning disability) one and three years after graduation. These studies found similar results to those reported above related to employment and independent living outcomes. Sowers and Powers (1995) showed that self-determination instruction increased the participation and independence of students with severe disabilities in performing community activities.
Self-Determination Relates to Academic Success
Additional data suggest that increased self-determination also relates to academic success. Houchins (1998) found a positive correlation between scores on self-determination assessment and academic achievement scores for students who were incarcerated (jailed
in juvenile detention). Sarver (2000) found a positive relationship between scores on self-determination assessment and grade point average for post-secondary students with learning disabilities. Finally, research has indicated that children who help choose school activities show enhanced motivation to perform tasks related to those activities and are more likely to achieve their goals (e.g., Benz, Lindstrom & Yovanoff, 2000; Realon, Favell, & Lowerre, 1990; Schunk, 1985).
Self-Determination Links to Better Mental Health
Evidence also suggests that increased self-determination is linked to better mental health. Bruno (2000) conducted a study of the effects of the Steps to Self-Determination (Field & Hoffman, 1996) curriculum on depression indicators in sixth grade students. A school counselor in a general education sixth grade classroom delivered the curriculum. The Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) (Kovacs, 1992) was used as a pre- and post-test
measure. Bruno found a statistically significant decrease in depressive features of children at risk for depression on The Children’s Depression Inventory after children participated in the Steps to Self-Determination curriculum. In addition, he found that the number of children at risk for depression in the treatment group decreased significantly from pre-test to post-test, while the number of children at risk for depression in the control group increased from pre-test to post-test.
Q. How do you teach self-determination and apply the skills that will lead to success?
A. Field and Hoffman (1996) identified five steps to self-determination: 1) know yourself and your environment, 2) value yourself, 3) plan, 4) act and 5) experience outcomes and learn. These steps can be taught through the use of a variety of methods and materials. Several curriculum strategies are available to help students develop more skills related to each step. Some of the strategies focus specifically on the individualized education program (IEP) process, while others are more general in nature.
When designing self-determination lessons, adults need to provide support for the learning process. For example, teachers do not expect students to learn math or aquire reading skills simply by putting a task in front of them and watching whether or not students can complete the task. Instead, teachers provide instruction and then allow students to apply their learning. At that point, teachers provide feedback, guidance, and coaching to ensure that students learn from their experiences. The same type of support should be offered to help students learn knowledge, skills, and beliefs related to self-determination.
How Can Students Practice Self-Determination?
One key to helping students become more self-determined is to allow them to learn by doing. Students need opportunities to act in a self-determined manner and learn from their experiences. Participating in the IEP process provides an excellent opportunity for students to practice self-determination skills. Research has shown that when students receive instruction to help them prepare for their IEP meetings, they make three times as many comments in their meetings as students who do not receive instruction (VanReusen & Bos, 1994). Greater student involvement can result in many positive changes in the IEP process. One teacher said, “If I get meaningful involvement from the student and parent at the IEP meeting, the rest of the year seems to flow from there.”
The IEP process provides only one place for students to apply self-determination skills. School, community, and home environments provide many additional opportunities for students to practice being self-determined. For example, students can:
; Explore a wide variety of options for employment or leisure activities and with
support, learn to identify likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses regarding these
; Make choices about classes they will take.
; Decide the way they will demonstrate what they know and can do in classes by
choosing from a variety of assignments or testing methods.
; Participate in family decisions about activities or vacation plans.
Q. Does Michigan have any good models for teaching and applying self-determination?
A. Many school districts in Michigan have implemented programs to support student self-determination. For example, Ingham Intermediate School District (ISD) has designed K-12 study groups in several school districts to develop a coordinated continuum of self-determination instruction that fits each grade level. At Copper Country ISD, education and rehabilitation providers have teamed up to develop the Student Training on Mentoring Peers program (S.T.O.M.P.). Saginaw ISD has focused its self-determination instructional efforts at the middle school level. More information on these programs and others can be found on the Real Life Examples page of the Wayne State University Center on Self-Determination and Transition Web site at
Q. What can adults do to support student self-determination?
A. The adults in a student’s life play an important role in supporting the development and expression of self-determination. Adults can help students increase their ability to be more self-determined by:
; Modeling self-determination. Adults should demonstrate the steps toward self-
determination. Words are important, but actions speak louder than words! Adults
should be clear about the actions they take and why they are taking them. Help
students learn to advocate for themselves by modeling self-advocacy. Make the
experience more powerful by talking with youth about the choices adults make,
including why adults are making the choices they do, how adults are putting their
choices into action, and what adults are learning from their efforts toward self-
; Encouraging exploration and reflection. Students need to learn about the
options available to them in order to make the informed choices that lead to self-
determination. By exploring a variety of options, and reflecting on personal
reactions to those options, students will learn what they like and don’t like and
develop a greater understanding of their personal strengths and weaknesses.
Exploration involves a certain amount of risk, but this risk can be minimized by
encouraging students to explore in small steps and to anticipate and plan for
potential consequences. Students also need adults to provide appropriate support.
; Listening attentively. One of the most empowering experiences is being listened
to and understood. By listening to what students say about their hopes, dreams,
preferences, and experiences, adults can help them clarify and have confidence in
what they know about themselves and their world.
; Encouraging others to listen attentively to students. Adults can also help
support the development and expression of self-determination by encouraging all
of those who play a role in students’ lives to show respect for students’ opinions.
For example, adults can insist that students be invited to participate in their IEPs
and other school conferences. Once there, adults can make sure questions are
addressed to them and that their input is taken seriously.
Self-determination can have a positive impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities. Students with disabilities who are self-determined are more likely to engage in goal-directed autonomous behavior that can lead to successful outcomes. Allowing students with disabilities to help choose school activities can enhance their motivation to perform those tasks and goals. By modeling self-determination, encouraging exploration and reflection, listening attentively, and encouraging others to listen, adults help students develop self-determination skills.