Self-Determination in Practice

Characteristics of Self Determination 

For youth to demonstrate self-determined behavior, and to incorporate these behaviors into their postsecondary planning, they must be instructed and have opportunities to develop self-determination skills at school or college, at their jobs and when are are engaged in community and independent living activities (Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998). These behaviors include the following:

Goal Setting: Youth can be encouraged to set and follow through with goals in partnership with teachers, parents, or employers. Goal setting may occur when a youth participates in person-centered planning, assumes responsibility for various action steps, discusses future goals with the education and/or transition team, or creates work goals with a supervisor.

Problem Solving: Some examples of problem solving across settings include helping a student to discuss a poor grade with a course instructor, to talk to a supervisor about a work problem, to call a supervisor when transportation to work is running late, and to ask for help when it's needed.

Self-Awareness: Adults can support students in building their self-awareness. Students can benefit from assistance with: planning how to best complete assignments on time; using a system, such as a schedule book, PDA, or list, to stay organized; knowing what works and what doesn't for themselves; and articulating their strengths and weaknesses to others when appropriate.

Choice Making: There are numerous ways to support youth to make choices. Especially during the transition to postschool activities, youth can be encouraged to make choices about what kind of work to pursue, to select postsecondary activities, and to determine how to spend free time.

Decision Making: To assist youth with decision making, support may be needed to enroll in college classes, plan activities with friends, weigh academic options with a mentor, or discuss work priorities with an employment counselor.

Internal Locus of Control: Two ways to help youth make decisions without pressure from other sources are to help them weigh various options independently or as neutrally as possible, and then to help them present their ideas and preferences to others.

Self-Determination and the IEP Process

Leading or participating in an IEP meeting gives students a chance to develop self-awareness, disability awareness, and self-advocacy skills. By doing so, students may come to understand why they have an educational plan as well. Inviting students to participate in meetings provides an opportunity for them to learn about the purpose of these meetings and the meaning of major sections of their plans.

The Zarrow Center for Learning Enrichment's Self Determination Educational Materials section includes curricula to prepare students to lead their own IEPs.

Strategies to prepare students to participate in their own meetings

Wehmeyer and Field, nationally recognized experts in self-determination, outline a number of strategies to help students prepare to lead their own IEP meeting:

  • Explain the purpose of meetings: Students are often hesitant to attend their own meetings. One way to help them is to explain that meetings are a way to share information, establish teamwork, solve problems as a group, and make decisions.

  • Review how to run a meeting: Students may feel uncomfortable leading a meeting until they understand what steps are involved. Martin, Marshall, Maxson and Jerman list 11 steps to student leadership in their own meetings:


    Steps students can follow to lead their own meetings
    Step 1 Begin the meeting by stating the purpose of the mtg.
    Step 2 Introduce everyone.
    Step 3 Review past goals and discuss how things went.
    Step 4 Ask everyone for their feedback.
    Step 5 Tell everyone what your school and transition goals are.
    Step 6 Ask questions if you don't understand.
    Step 7 Work out agreements if there are differences of opinion.
    Step 8 State what support you will need.
    Step 9 Summarize your goals.
    Step 10 Close the meeting by thanking everyone.
    Step 11 Work on IEP goals all year.

    Adapted by Martin, Marshall, Maxson & Jerman (1993). Self-directed IEP. Longmon, CO: Sopris West.

  • Teach students leadership and teamwork skills: Review with students the traits of being a leader and team player at meetings which includes being a good communicator, making sure that everyone has their say, being a good example for everyone, and helping to resolve problems as quickly and as politely as possible. Tell students that these leadership traits can make IEP meetings successful.

Student Engagement in the Summary of Performance

Summary of Performance is described in IDEA 2004 as follows:

"For a child whose eligibility under special education terminates due to graduation with a regular diploma, or due to exceeding the age of eligibility, the local education agency "shall provide the child with a summary of the child's academic achievement and functional performance, which shall include recommendations on how to assist the child in meeting the child's postsecondary goals" §Sec. 300.305(e)(3).

In promoting self-determination, many educators co-write the summary of performance (SOP) with students, sometimes drafting a version as early as 8th grade, so that students can use the summary as a script to talk about their transition goals and needs. A nationally endorsed (but not required) summary of performance developed at the National Transition Documentation Summit in 2005 provides five sections where students can contribute to their SOP, including:

  • Part 1: Background information
  • Part 2: Postsecondary goals
  • Part 3: Summary of performance in academic, cognitive, and functional areas
  • Part 4: Recommendations to assist the student in meeting postsecondary goals
  • Part 5: Student input

This nationally endorsed Summary of Performance Form can be found in the Resources section as well as in the Transition Basics section.