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Self-Determination as a Dropout Prevention Strategy. First Annual Special Education Forum on Dropout Prevention Orlando, FL November 3, 2004. Dalun Zhang, Ph.D. Clemson University.

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Self-Determination as a Dropout Prevention Strategy

First Annual Special Education Forum on Dropout Prevention

Orlando, FL

November 3, 2004

Dalun Zhang, Ph.D.

Clemson University

Since 1990s, self-determination has received increased attention in the field of special education and disability services

Facts about Self-Determination

  • Individuals with disabilities and their families identified SD as a top need.

  • The U.S. Department of Education funded numerous SD research projects and SD demonstration projects since 1990.

  • Most states have incorporated SD into their services and funding priorities

  • Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, and Wehmeyer (1998b) identified 35 curricula that were designed for this purpose; whereas Test, Karvonen, Wood, Browder, and Algozzine (2000) found 60 curricula and 675 other resources.

  • A number of professional journals devoted a special issue to SD (e.g. The Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, etc.)

  • Over 450 articles have been published on the topic of self-determination

  • CEC Pre-Conference Capacity Building Institute 04


  • Background

  • Phase I (mid-1980 - 1990)

  • Phase II (1990 - present)Federal Mandates Federal Initiatives


  • Graduation from high school is a major milestone for every adolescent because it marks the transition from adolescence to young adulthood

  • Successful completion of the transition process is, in many cases, a natural and self-perpetuating one for high school students without disabilities. For high school students with disabilities, however, the transition process is often not as natural

  • Education must play a more critical role in facilitating task development and preparation for adulthood

  • Follow-up studies of the 1980s and 1990s found disappointing outcomes

  • Consumers and researcher identified lack of self-determination as a major cause of this disappointing outcomes

Phase I

  • The Phase I period started in the mid-1980s when significant attention was focused on the benefits of empowering consumers

  • This was a period when people with disabilities and their families organized to assert their rights of citizenship, advocate for social and political change, and demand access to the neighborhoods, jobs, schools and activities enjoyed by persons without disabilities

  • However, the issues of preference, choice, and personal autonomy received little attention in the field of special education

Phase II

  • Phase II started in 1990 when the IDEA was passed.

  • Characterized by federal legislation and federal initiative pertaining to self-determination


…. be planned based on the student’s preferences and interests

Students must be included in their transition planning meeting

Rehabilitation Act:

disability is … in no way diminishes the rights to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, ……..

Federal Mandates Pertaining to SD


As a result of consumers’ efforts and federal mandates and initiatives, three agreements were reached in early 1990s:

  • Self-determination is a critical outcome of the transition process for students with disabilities and must be part of the career development process that begins in early childhood and continues throughout adult life

  • People with disabilities have the same right to self-determination as is available to all Americans

  • Professionals working across various disciplines in the field of disability services need to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to experience choice and exercise self-determination.

What is Self-determination?

  • Historically, self-determination referred to the right of nations or ethnic minorities to self-governance. Derived from this original meaning, self-determination, has been appropriated by disability rights advocates and people with disabilities to refer to their “rights” to have control over their lives.

The present use of self-determination within special education emphasizes empowerment of individuals with disabilities.

Wehmeyer conceptualizes self-determination as an educational outcome. He defines self-determination as “acting as the primary causal agent in one’s life and making choices and decisions free from undue external influences or interference” - Wehmeyer, M. L. (1996). Self-determination as an educational outcome.

Self-determination as an Educational Outcome

Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer (1998) define self-determination as:

A combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination. 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.

My reviews of various definitions yielded 6 common points:

  • Self-determination concerns an individual’s control over his or her own life;

  • In order to control one’s own life, an individual needs to have certain attitudes, characteristics, and abilities;

  • An individual needs to interact with the environment in an appropriate way;

  • A person needs to have freedom and independence;

  • One needs to know and value oneself and be able to make choices and decisions based on one’s own interests and preferences;

  • A person has to be able to set and achieve goals which lead to achievement of adult outcomes.

Essential Characteristics of Behaviors that are Self-Determined

  • Make choices and decisions as needed

  • Exhibit some personal and internal control over actions

  • Feel capable and act that way

  • Understand the effects of own action


  • Choice-making

  • Decision Making

  • Problem-solving

  • Goal setting and attainment

  • Self-regulation

  • Self-advocacy

  • Self-understanding & awareness

  • Self-efficacy

Self-Determination Models

  • Wehmeyer's (1997) self-determination model focuses on the conceptualization of the concept of self-determination. This model is developed to explain self-determined behaviors in general. It identifies four essential characteristics that self-determined people possess and 12 component elements of self-determination.

  • Field and Hoffman’s (1994) self-determination model focuses on skills, knowledge, and values that lead to self-determination. It has five major components: know yourself, value yourself, plan, act, and experience outcomes and learn. The following figure presents the five components and their sub-components and the relationship among the five components.

I know what Self-determination is. But…


Does it lead to better

student outcomes?

SD Leads to Better Transition Outcomes

Life following formal education is uncertain and overwhelming for many young people with disabilities, and support services are typically hard to find (Powers, Sowers et al., 1996). In order to be successful, it is critical that youth are self-determined so that they are able to manage the challenges they will face on a day-to-day basis.

Generally the opportunity to make choices, express preferences, set goals, and self-regulate learning and behavior have all been linked to more favorable educational and adult outcomes.

-- Wehmeyer (1997)

Two Follow-Up Studies

Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) conducted a follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. They collected data prior to their exit from high school and one year after exit. Findings showed that individuals with higher level of self-determination were more likely to have experienced a greater number of positive adult outcomes, including a higher likelihood of being employed and earning more per hour than those who were not self-determined.

Wehmeyer & Palmer (2003) published a follow-up study of 94 high school completers one- and three-years after exiting school. They found:

  • Individuals in the high SD group fared much better than individuals in the low SD group in 6 out of 8 adult living areas one-year after left school and fared better in all 8 adult living areas three-years after left school.

  • More individuals in the high SD group paid their phone bills and groceries and had a bank account one-year after school. At three-year after school, even more individuals in the high SD group did these things. In addition, more individuals in the high SD group paid their rent and utilities.

  • Individuals in the high SD group also enjoyed better overall benefits at three-years after school. They also had better specific benefits in vacation, sick leaves, and health insurance.

McMillan & Reed (1994) found that some students could be classified as at-risk, but developed characteristics and coping skills that enable them to succeed. They term these students as “resilient.”

Their Common characteristics Include:

  • High intrinsic motivation and internal locus of control

  • Higher educational aspirations

  • Motivated by a desire to succeed, to be self-starting, and to be personally responsible for their achievements

  • A strong sense of self-efficacy

  • Clear, realistic goals and are optimistic about the future

Hardre and Reeve (2003) Study

  • Used self-determination theory and tested a motivational model to explain the conditions under which rural students formulate their intentions to persist in, versus drop out of, high school.

  • The model argues that motivational variables underlie students' intentions to drop out and that students' motivation can be either supported in the classroom by autonomy-supportive teachers or frustrated by controlling teachers.

  • Analyses of questionnaire data from 483 rural high school students showed that the provision of autonomy support within classrooms predicted students' self-determined motivation and perceived competence. These motivational resources, in turn, predicted students' intentions to persist, versus drop out, and they did so even after controlling for the effect of achievement.

Risk Factors for Dropout

  • Family Factors: Poverty, inadequate family guidance, lack of role models

  • School Factors: Inadequate school practices and policies (e.g., a student has more than one teacher – makes it hard for parents to connect with one adult; instruction is irrelevant)

  • Student Factors: repeated failure, learned helplessness, lack of future goals, inadequate choices, poor judgment, poor peer relations, lack of problem-solving skills, external locus of control, low self-esteem

Why Do Students with Disabilities Drop out of School?

Two studies have provided specific information on the primary reasons for dropping out of school among special education youth.

  • One study asked California special education administrators to identify why youth left school (Jay and Padilla, 1987). They reported the following reasons in order of influence: dislike of school, preference for a job, inability to get along with teachers, and friends who dropped out.

  • The National Longitudinal Transition Study showed that parents of students with emotional disabilities reported that most of their children had dropped out because of their dislike of school (32%) or because of behavior problems (27%; Wagner, 1989).


  • Discussion & Identification of At-Risk Factors for Dropout for Students with Disabilities

  • Which Elements of Self-Determination Can Be Used to Mediate/Reduce the Risks and How?

Addressing Risk Factors by Teaching Component Elements of SD

  • Choice-making, decision-making, and problem-solving

  • Goal setting and attainment

  • Self-Regulation

  • Self-advocacy

  • Self-understanding and awareness

  • Self-efficacy

Self-Determination and Standards-Based Reform

  • Component elements of self-determined behavior are found in virtual all state and local standards across multiple content areas

  • Students who are self-determined are more likely to be able to successfully engage with the curriculum:

    • Learning-to-learn or self-regulation strategies

    • Goal oriented, problem-solving focused

    • Study skills, organization skills

--Wehmeyer (2004)

No Content Left Behind

  • All students need instruction to become self-determined

    • Component elements in standards

    • Enhanced capacity to interact with and engage in the curriculum

    • Valued societal outcome

  • Need to develop and implement school-wide interventions: Not just disability-focused, not just IEP-focused

--Wehmeyer (2004)

Acquiring the personal characteristics which lead to self-determination is a developmental process. Children should be given opportunities to engage in activities that promote SD and should be taught SD

Approaches to Promoting SD

  • Fostering SD in daily educational activities starting from early elementary years

  • Infusing SD skills instruction into existing curricula

  • Teaching SD by implementing an SD curriculum

  • Practicing SD skills through participation in transitional and educational planning

  • School/district wide implementation

Fostering Self-Determination

Start early!

  • Early Childhood (2 -5)

  • Early Elementary Years (6 - 8)

  • Late Elementary Years (9 - 11)

  • Secondary Years (12 & Over)

-- Doll, Sands, Wehmeyer, and Palmer (1996)

Early Childhood

  • provide opportunities to make structured choices

  • provide opportunities to generate choices that are both positive and negative

  • provide formative and constructive feedback on the consequences of choices made in the recent past

  • provide opportunities for planning activities that are pending

  • provide opportunities to self-evaluate task performance to a model

  • ask directive questions so that the child compare his or her performance to a model

Early Elementary

  • provide opportunities to choose from among several different strategies for a task

  • ask children to reconsider choices they’ve made in the recent past

  • encourage children to “think aloud” with you

  • provide opportunities to talk about how they learn

  • provide opportunities to systematically evaluate their work

  • help students set simple goals for themselves and check to see whether they are reaching them.

Late Elementary

  • provide guidance in systematic analyses of decisions

  • use the same systematic structure to analyze past decisions now that their consequences are evident

  • provide opportunities to commit to personal or academic goals

  • provide opportunities to systematically analyze adult perspectives

  • provide opportunities to evaluate task performance in affectively “safe” ways


  • provide oppy. to make decisions that have important impact on their day-to-day activities

  • make it easy for students to see the link between their goals and daily decisions

  • provide guidance in breaking students’ long-term goals into a number of short-term objectives

  • assist student in realistically recognizing and accepting weaknesses in key skills

  • assist student in requesting academic and social supports from teachers


  • Next S.T.E.P.

  • Steps to Self-Determination

  • Take Charge for the Future

  • Choice Maker

  • Whose Future Is It Anyway

  • 1-2-3 BREAK


  • The Next S.T.E.P. (Helper et al., 1997) is a self-determination curriculum that is designed to teach adolescents with and without disabilities, ages 14 to 21.

  • Teach skills that they need to participate successfully in a self-directed transition planning process.

  • Students learn to define their hopes and dreams, engage in self-evaluation, set goals and plan activities that will help them accomplish the goals.

  • Consists of 19 lessons clustered into four units.

  • The Next S.T.E.P. curriculum materials include a teacher’s manual, student workbooks, and a video. The teacher’s manual contains lesson plans, masters for overhead transparencies, and guidelines for involving parents or other family members in a student’s transition planning process. The student workbooks include worksheets used in the lessons, plan sheets, and other forms that students will need to produce their transition plans. The video contains a number of vignettes that play a motivational and instructional role in some lessons.

Choice Maker Self-Determination Curriculum

  • Purpose: Designed to teach self-determination skills they need to be successful in adult life

  • Components: Choice and decision-making; goal setting; problem-solving; self-evaluation; self-advocacy; IEP planning; self-awareness

Overview: Three strands with five units

Choosing Goals: “Choosing employment goals”

“Choosing personal goals”

“Choosing education goals”

Expressing Goals: “Self-directed IEP”

Taking Action: “Take action”

Whose Future is it Anyway?A Student-Directed Transition Planning Process

  • Overview: Written for students to read and work through at their own pace; teacher’s role:

    • Facilitate student success

    • Teach information requested by student

    • Advocate for students

  • Purpose:

    Students have opportunities & supports to:

    • Gain self-awareness of unique strengths & support needs and identify abilities, interests, & preferences

    • Learn skills to take a meaningful role in IEP/transition planning process

    • Prepare for a more active role at planning meeting

The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction

  • Is used in classrooms for goal setting for academic and transition outcomes (employment, post-secondary training or education, living, recreation/leisure)

  • Can be used in variety of settings and for a variety of goal areas

  • Three phases: Set a goal, take action, and adjust goal or plan

  • Each phase has three components:

    • Student questions – 12, written in first person voice for student focus

    • Teacher objectives – provide guidance for teacher on each question

    • Educational supports – support students to work through the goals

1-2-3 BREAKby Dalun Zhang & Nancy Woodruff

Goal of the Project

To design, field-test, and disseminate an after-school youth empowerment program that teaches essential and practical self-determination skills to school-age youth with developmental disabilities (ages 14 to 21) to enhance their participation in planning their educational and transitional services.


  • Program design

  • Curriculum development

  • Pilot-test the entire program and each of the core elements of the program

  • Disseminate program information to counties across the state and other parts of the nation.

Program Design

  • Review of the literature to identify key factors that influence youth with developmental disabilities’ acquisition of self-determination skills.

  • Target Population. The project will target school-age youth with developmental disabilities ages 14 to 21. This group has repeatedly identified as low achievers in the important adult outcome areas such as employment, postsecondary education, independent living, and community integration

  • Determine the core elements of the after-school youth empowerment program.

Curriculum Development

  • Based on Review of the Literature, Identified 10 topics

  • Developed 15 Lessons to Address the Topics

  • Major Features: Activity-Based, Interactive, Standard Procedures, and Theme repetition

  • Draft Was Reviewed by Many

  • Field-Testing in Oconee & Pickens

The 10 Topics

  • Personal Strengths and Weaknesses

  • Identifying Needs and Wants

  • Goals

    • Characteristics, Setting, Planning, Accomplishing

  • Choice-Making

  • Decision-Making

  • Problem-solving

  • Educational Planning

  • Employment Goal Planning

  • Problem Solving at Work

  • Independent Living Goals

Curriculum Components

  • 15 Directed Lessons

    • Objectives

    • Materials

    • Focus

    • Guided Practice

    • Independent Practice

    • Closure

  • 14 Workbook Activities

    • Individual

    • Group

  • Pretest and Posttest

Kickoff to Self-Determination

Who Am I – My Metaphors

Needs and Wants

What is Success? (S-T Goals)

What is Success? (L-T Goals)

Decision-Making and Choice-Making (1)

Decision-Making and Choice-Making (2)

Problem Solving

Educational Goal Planning

Educational Planning and Transition Portfolio

Goals Setting for Employment

Coping with Problems at Work

Independent Living Skills

SD Review, Reflections, and Posttest


The 15 Lessons

Standard Procedures

  • Students with disabilities need a structure to follow

  • The structures in this program is “1-2-3 Break”

  • The structures emphasize steps need to take for making choices and decision, setting goals, and attaining goals.

1, 2, 3 BREAK

  • 1 – Know yourself

  • 2 – Value yourself

  • 3 – Plan your life

  • B – Be in control

  • R – Realize your options

  • E – Evaluate your options

  • A – Act out the best choice

  • K – Know you did the best

Activities and Interactions

  • The Hall of Fame Posters

  • Guest Speakers

  • Role Playing

  • Videos

  • Digital Pictures for Self-Reflections

  • Independent Goal Setting

  • Class Discussions

  • Workbook Activities

Field-Test: Student Information

  • Districts

  • Classes

  • Regular High School & Career Center

  • LD & MD

  • Gender

  • Placement

  • Teacher Support

Major Activities

  • Kickoff in Seneca: Coach Jones and Radio (Video)

  • Poster: Famous People with Disabilities

  • Strengths and Weaknesses – Pictures

  • Student Participation Level

Keeping Activities Realistic

Be Engaging

Encourage Group Involvement

Focus on Abilities, not Disabilities


Extensive Reading

Extensive Writing

What Works, What Not

Issues and Considerations in Self-Determination Assessment: What to Assess?

  • Observable Behaviors versus Internal Processing

  • Typical Performance versus Highest Potential

  • Objective versus Subjective

  • Personal Expectations versus Societal Expectations

  • Exceptional versus Typical (Do typical people do these?)

  • School versus Home/Community

  • Home Living Routines versus Job Performance

  • Family Background versus Cultural Norm

Issues and Considerations in Self-Determination Assessment: How to Assess?

  • Qualitative (In-Depth) or Quantitative (Checklist)?

  • Commercially Available versus Self-Developed

  • Scenario-Based versus Multiple-Choice

  • Curriculum-Based versus Standard-Based

  • Norm-Referenced versus Criterion-Referenced

Issues and Considerations in Self-Determination Assessment: Who to Involve?

  • Student Role in Self-Determination Assessment

  • Family’s role in Self-Determination Assessment

  • Educator’s Role in Self-Determination Assessment

  • Service Personnel’s Role in Self-Determination Assessment

So, What, Who and How?

  • Purpose determines focus areas for assessment

  • Purpose dictates participants of assessment

  • Purpose determines methods of data collection

  • Purpose dictates usage of assessment results

Purpose of Assessment

  • Promoting self-awareness

  • Instructional planning

  • Service Determination

  • Student progress and evaluation of interventions/services

  • Making accommodations in the environment

Examples of Available Instruments

  • The Arc’s Self-Determination Scale (Wheeler, 1995)

  • The Self-Determination Battery (Hoffman, Field, & Swallows, 1995)

  • The Self-Determination Profile Package: An Assessment Package (Curtis, 1996)

  • Choice Maker Self-Determination Assessment (Martin & Marshall, 1996)

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