Self-determination is a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior.

Self-determination is important to all people, including students with disabilities because it directly influences student’s quality of life. In many instances, students with disabilities depend on their caretakers for provisions of needs such as self-care, transportation, advocacy, and education. Therefore, they are vulnerable to abuse when they become adults. An important part of self-advocacy is the student speaking up for him/herself. Students need to understand their legal rights, knowledge of disabilities and learning styles to advocate for themselves to other people.

Self-determination needs to be taught from an early age. In elementary school, teachers can help to empower self-determination through direct instruction of skills associated with self-determination. Self-awareness, problem solving and decision-making, goal setting, and communication skills are major components in self-determination. Choice strategies encourage students to make choices and respect the choice that they have made. It is crucial to teach the consequences that follow their choice making.

Communication skills also need to be taught to promote self-advocacy. It includes body image and posture, clearly expressed ideas and feelings, listening to what others say, asking questions, and accepting comments and criticism. Research shows that when students make choices on their own, they had an increased level of activity engagement and improved behavior. Teaching self-instruction, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation allow students to direct their own learning, which promote self-determination.

Self-determination empowers students to control their own lives because it allows them to make appropriate decisions or choices offered throughout life. These supports increasingly enable persons with disabilities to go to school, live independently, find recreation and leisure, and work.

1. Provide many opportunities for your child to choose and voice his/her opinion

From early childhood, encourage your child to express what he/she wants. For example, give options to choose what to eat, what to wear, what to do. When you give options to choose, make sure to give enough time for a child to respond.
When a child is in elementary school and middle school, collaborate with teachers to provide various choice making options in learning activities. Invite the child to his/her IEP meeting to listen and to express what needs she/he has. Encourage the child to participate in school functions and extra activities.
For a high school student, ask questions that will help him/her to plan for the future. Write down his/her goals and list the steps that lead to the goals. Allow him/her to be a part of decision making family affairs. Collaborate with school to make an effective and constructive ITP plan focusing on student’s interest and linkage to adult service organizations.

2. Listen to your child and reflect his/her opinion on plans

Although you provide many opportunities to make choices and to express opinion, it doesn’t give complete decision making experience for your child. In case of a child with severe disabilities, parents might have trouble communicating with him/her and sometimes they are not patience enough to wait for child’s response. We have to develop some communication system between parents and a child and listen to what he/she wants to include in a plan. It is a good idea for children with disabilities to know their own strengths and needs. Have some time to discuss what they are good at and what is needed to help them improve in their performance. Later in life, this skill will help them to self-advocate to find services they need in the community.

3. Teach specific self-determination strategies

Some of the following activities will help children with disabilities to be self-determined.

  • Make own daily schedule
  • Participate in developing class rules
  • Ask for accommodations (e.g. where to sit, ask for assistance)
  • Meet with school psychologist and/or counselor
  • Schedule doctor’s appointment
  • Maintain medication schedule
  • Errand
  • Participate in school assembly meetings
  • Daily chores at home, school, and work

Students with disabilities need to learn the following.

  • Rights under the laws (e.g. IDEA, ADA, Rehabilitation Act)
  • Rights and responsibilities under the local laws including traffic law
  • Resource information related to their interests
  • Communication skills
  • Active listening skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Making goals and how to achieve them
  • Necessary legal documents
  • Expression of their needs