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Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities

By Sharon Field & Christine Mason

For the last several decades schools have followed regulations to make sure students who are identified as having disabilities have Individualized Education Programs (IEP). As part of the same legislation, students participate in developing transition plans to facilitate their planning for their lives after they leave school. Most educators today are familiar with personalized instruction, a process whereby teachers put the needs of students first, and provide flexibility about where, when and how students learn. Today personalized instruction may have a high-tech component, which can be useful, when trying to develop personal learning programs for a classroom of 20-30 learners. Often with personalized instruction, students lead their own learning and students are encouraged to set personal learning goals.

Student IEPs, transition planning, and personalized learning all can include components for self-determination. Each of these components can facilitate higher student engagement, more meaningful and efficient instruction, and higher academic achievement.

Tools to Support Self-Determination

The following tools might assist teachers in implementation of self-determination:

  1. Steps to Self-Determination (Hoffman & Field, 2006) is a curriculum intended for use with middle and high school students with and without disabilities. It provides lesson plans, activity sheets and an assessment tool to help students gain competencies in the Action Model for Self-Determination described above. It was designed so that it can be infused into other academic content or offered as a separate class.  The Steps curriculum is available from

  2. Early Steps to Self-Determination (Field & Hoffman, 2017) and It’s All About Us! Encouraging Self-Determination in Early Childhood Education and Services are curricula based on the Action Model for Self-Determination targeted toward needs of elementary and early childhood programs. With the Steps to Self-Determination curriculum noted above they provide resources for a continuum of self-determination  instruction from early childhood through high school. For a limited time, they can be downloaded for free from

  3. Self-Determination Instruction and Assessment Strategies  (Wehmeyer & Field, 2006) is a teacher-friendly guide presents research-proven instructional techniques that empower students with disabilities to become their own advocates and use effective choice-making, problem-solving, and goal-setting skills. It is available from

  4. The Self-determination Assessment Internet (SDAI) is a web-based tool that measures self-determination competencies in students from the perspective of the student, advisor/teacher and parent. The three scales can be used independently or in combination. The SDAI is available from

  5. Student-Led IEPs (McGahee, Mason, Wallace, & Jones, 2001). A guide to help students plan for and implement their IEP meetings.

  6. Becoming Self-Determined:Creating Thoughtful Learners in a Standards-Driven, Admissions Frenzied Culture (Field & Parker (Eds), 2016) is published by the Association for Higher Education and Disability. It includes chapters on promoting self-determination in college settings for students with and without disabilities through appreciative advising, coaching, parent supports, universal design for instruction, mindfulness and contemplative strategies and grit and resilience. It includes several practical interventions for each of these topics. Although it was developed for use in colleges and universities, many K-12 educators have found the content and strategies to be applicable to their settings. It is available from

Implementation in Long Island

Through the Long Island Regional Special Education Technical Assistance Support Center (LI RSE-TASC), a State Education department grant funded program, a dedicated initiative is being implemented to support student and teacher self-determination.  Over the past five years, they have undertaken a comprehensive effort to provide teachers with professional development and access to resources to encourage student self-determination, with an emphasis on student involvement in the IEP process. Beyond providing teachers with existing resources, they have also supported teachers to be self-determined and develop their own curricula to promote student self-determination. To date over 1,000 students and more than 500 teachers, grades K-12 have been involved. Some of the most remarkable changes include: better relationships between schools and families, increased knowledge and skills in the ability of educators to develop student-centered IEPs, increased self-awareness that has led to more appropriate measurable post-secondary goals for transition aged students and increased knowledge and enthusiasm in teachers who participate in the initiative, regardless of the number of years they have been teaching.


Field, S., Hoffman, A. & Cornell, K. (2016). Early Steps to Self-Determination. Birmingham, MI: 2BSD: Resources for Self-Determination.

Field, S. & Hoffman, A. (2017). It’s All About Us! Encouraging Self-Determination in Early Childhood Education and Service. Birmingham, MI: 2BSD: Resources for Self-Determination.

Field, S. & Parker, D. (2016). Becoming self-determined: Creating thoughtful learners in an admissions-crazed, standards-frenzied culture. Huntersville, NC: Association for Higher Education and Disability

Hoffman, A. & Field, S. (2005). Steps to self-determination (second edition): Instructor’s guide. Austin, TX: ProEd.

Hoffman, A., Field, S. & Sawilowsky, S. (2014). Self-determination assessment battery internet. Trinity, FL: Ealy Education.

Hoffman, A. & Field, S. (2005). Steps to self-determination (second edition): Student activity book. Austin, TX: ProEd.

McGahee, M., Mason, C, Wallace, T.  & Jones, B, (2001). Student-Led IEPs. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Field, S. (2007). Instructional and assessment strategies to promote the self-determination of students with disabilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Dr. Sharon Field is professor Emeritus at Wayne State University and Founder of 2BSD. She is also a CEI Board Member.

See also articles in the March 2018 edition of Wow!Ed

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