Promoting Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities

Students who are more self-determined, who feel more of a sense of agency in their lives, do better on many measures in the long run-- so how do we start supporting self-determination in our classrooms?

Research to Practice: Self-Determination in Special Education

What is self-determination?

Too often in special education, we forget the forest for the trees. We focus in on measurable goals for one year and how to get a student to inch closer to grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics. Those are the trees. The forest is where we want students to be five, ten, twenty years down the road. Getting there means  that sometimes we need to zoom out and think about the skills they will need down the road to follow their dreams. One way to do that is by promoting students’ self-determination.


A lot of times in special education we talk the talk about agency and self-determination– but we don’t walk the walk. We include students in their IEP meetings in high schools because we have to and we talk about transition planning– but we don’t always take the day to day actions that researchers have found help students to have all of the excellent outcomes that we want for them. So today’s post is on the research on self-determination, starting with what researchers even mean by the term. 


What is Self-Determination?


One of the strongest arguments for self-determination comes from Wehmeyer, who way back in 1996, wrote, “From cradle to grave, people with disabilities are reliant upon dependency-creating systems-educational systems, rehabilitation systems, family systems-to meet their needs. As a result, many people with disabilities fail to reach maximum levels of independence, productivity, inclusion, and self-sufficiency-outcomes that, ironically, are the main objective of most such systems.”


Wehmeyer went on to define self-determination as “acting as the primary causal agent in one’s life and making choices and decisions regarding one’s quality of life free from undue external influence or interference.” In later years, Wehmeyer refine the definition, but at its core, self-determination is about a person feeling like a causal agent in their own life, choosing their own goals and acting to achieve those goals. 

Is self-determination linked to success for students with disabilities?

This is one of those where the short answer is yes. Back in 1997, Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) followed 80 students with cognitive disabilities for a bit after high school. The students who had higher scores on the measures of self-determination were more likely to have a paying job, have a bank account, and to be thinking about not living at home– even when the researchers controlled for things like severity of disability. In 2015, in a much larger study, Shogren and colleagues followed almost 800 students with disabilities for two years after high school, finding that students with higher self-determination, over the long run had slightly more financial independence and life satisfaction than their peers, although all students had some diminished community access over time (which sucks). More self-determined students also tend to complete school more than their peers (Eisdenman, 2007). 

So how can teachers support students' self-determination?

Shogren has an entire book on the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction that is available for free on the University of Kansas website! SDLMI has been tested in research studies and it works (Shogren et al.,  2012). Basically, SDLMI is an approach that you can take in any lesson. First, you have a student set a goal for a lesson or activity. Then they take action to meet that goal. Then they adjust either the goal or plan, reflecting on what they have learned. You can follow the directions in the book and do two 15 minute lessons on it a week, infuse the key concepts into all of your lessons, or do both! 


During the first phase of setting goals, students are answering questions like, “What do I want to learn,” “What do I know about it now?” “What must for me to learn what I don’t know?” and “What can I do to make it happen?” (p.22). During the second phase of taking action, the student is answering questions like, “What can I do to learn what I don’t know?” “What could keep me from taking action?” “What can I do to remove these barriers?“ and “When will I take action?” Finally, in the third phase of reflection the student is answering questions like, “What actions have I taken?” “What barriers have been removed?” “What has changed about what I don’t know?” and “Do I know what I want to know?” (p.22). The book has cute handouts for each phase and its questions, as well as worked through examples of what it looks like to do these questions with students (and also some examples of less…. Awkward.. phrasing). Your job as a teach is to push students to answer these types of questions– to get them experienced with setting their own goals, with taking actions, and with reflecting on what happened. 


In addition to Shogren’s book, Eisenman (2007) did a nice job of describing some of the many ways that teachers can support self-determination. Here are some of the strategies that Eisenman (2007, p.5) recommends:

  • Help students to identify what they already know and what they want to learn about a topic.
  • Provide safe opportunities for students to discuss their personal interests and goals. 
  •  Allow students to select a topic of study that matches their personal interests.
  •  Explain how particular knowledge, skills, and experiences will help students to achieve personal goals.
  •  Allow students to choose among learning activities or arrange the sequence of activities.
  •  Teach students how to determine an optimally challenging performance goal for specific tasks.
  • Allow students to select their personal performance goal for a task.
  • Develop individual performance contracts with students.
  • Suggest resources, activities, and people who can help students reach their goals.
  • Explicitly teach problem-solving and goal attainment strategies.
  • Have students record their performance results and monitor their progress toward goals.
  • Acknowledge students’ efforts to reach their goals.
  • Help students’ identify what they did well and where they need improvement.
  • Express the belief that students can meet challenges; offer support when needed.
  • Celebrate successes


I liked this list because most of the things on it are easy to weave into lessons– like expressing your belief that a student can do something challenging or asking students to set goals and have choice within lessons.


So, whichever way you go– it isn’t hard to weave self-determination support into your lessons and influencing what your student’s life is going to look like two or ten years down the road! There are a lot of upsides to supporting self-determination– and it gives you a chance to pause and focus on the forest, not just the trees in front of you!

  • Burke, K. M., Raley, S. K., Shogren, K. A., Hagiwara, M., Mumbardó-Adam, C., Uyanik, H., & Behrens, S. (2020). A meta-analysis of interventions to promote self-determination for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 41(3), 176-188. 
  • Eisenman, L. T. (2007). Self-determination interventions: Building a foundation for school completion. Remedial and special education, 28(1), 2-8.
  • Shogren, K. A., Palmer, S. B., Wehmeyer, M. L., Williams-Diehm, K., & Little, T. D. (2012). Effect of intervention with the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction on access and goal attainment. Remedial and Special Education, 33(5), 320-330. 
  • Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Rifenbark, G. G., & Little, T. D. (2015). Relationships between self-determination and postschool outcomes for youth with disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 48(4), 256-267.
  • Wehmeyer, M. (1996). Self-determination as an educational outcome: Why is it important to children, youth, and adults with disabilities? In D. J. Sands and M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.) Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 17-36). Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.  
  • Wehmeyer, M., & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional children, 63(2), 245-255. 
  • Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Agran, M., Mithaug, D. E., & Martin, J. E. (2000). Promoting causal agency: The self-determined learning model of instruction. Exceptional Children, 66(4), 439-453.