Self-Determination And The Education Of Students With Disabilities

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.

Early Elementary

  • 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 processes.
  • Provide feedback regarding the outcomes of their choices to begin to teach students to link choices and consequences.

Late 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 enhance performance.

Junior 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 objectives.

Promote active involvement in educational planning and decision-making. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (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 area as vocational education and in such areas as vocational education and independent living skills. Teaching students to self-direct learning promotes self-determination and autonomy.

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 abilities.

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, 1999).

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 Exceptional Children.

Martin, J. E., & Marshall, L. H. (1995). ChoiceMaker: A comprehensive self-determination transition program. Intervention in School and Clinic, 30, 147-156.

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, TX: Author.

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 Developmental Disabilities.

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.