Making It Happen: The Importance of Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities

by Dale Pennell, C.A.S., and Tina Spencer, M.S.

Self-determination skills are important for everyone. Children who are self-determined are able to:

  • Appreciate their strengths and acknowledge their limitations 

  • Set demanding, yet realistic goals for themselves 

  • Create plans to achieve their goals 

  • Make appropriate choices and decisions 

  • Accept responsibility for their choices and decisions 

  • Develop problem-solving skills 

  • Assert themselves when necessary 

  • Advocate for themselves 

  • Achieve their goals

Self-determined children make positive things happen at school, with friends in their community, and in their families. As they enter adolescence, these young people are better able to cope with the academic and social demands of life in middle and high school. After high school, they are more likely to transition successfully to adult life.

Despite the clear bluefits of self-determination, Landmark and Zhang, (2006) found that parents of children with disabilities are less likely to teach their children self-determination skills than are the parents of children who do not have disabilities. Specifically, "parents of children with disabilities provide fewer opportunities for their children to make choices and decisions, to engage in trial and error activities, and to set and work on personal goals" (Landmark & Zhang, 2006, p. 4). Opportunities include involving children and youth in activities such as household chores, interacting with salespeople and others in the community, goal setting, and making choices and decisions when dealing with unexpected situations. The more practice individuals receive in developing and strengthening self-determination skills, the more likely they are to make better decisions in school and among their peers. Opportunities to practice skills that support self-determination also lead to greater independence and self-advocacy.

The next three issues of Family Partnerships will offer suggestions for how parents can promote self-determination in their children and adolescents at home, at school, and in the community.


Landmark, L. J., & Zhang, D. (2006). Parent practices in facilitating self-determination skills: The influence of culture, socioeconomic status, and children's special education status. TASH Connections, 32(5/6), 4.

Date: September/October 2008