Making it Happen: Encouraging Self-Determination in Early Adolescence

by Dale Pennell, C.A.S., Elaine Gould, M.Ed.

This is the third in a four-part Link Lines series. Part I (September/October 2008) emphasized the importance of teaching self-determination skills to children with disabilities.Part II (November/December 2008) presented activities parents may use to promote self-determination in their pre-adolescent children at home, at school, and in the community).

Adolescence is an exciting, yet challenging time for both parents and their children. As youngsters emerge from childhood they must satisfy a new set of developmental needs. These new demands of adolescence include becoming more self-aware, maintaining high levels of self-esteem, enjoying greater independence, seeking opportunities to take risks, and assuming increased control and mastery over their lives. As challenging as the accompanying behaviors may be, the ability to satisfy these developmental needs is critical for gaining a sense of self-determination.*

Ward (1988), who was among the first to define self-determination, described it as "the attitudes which lead people to define goals for themselves and to take the initiative to achieve these goals" (p. 2). Although families may be uncertain of the extent to which their adolescents with disabilities can engage in self-determined behavior, parents are in key positions to help their children master the skills necessary to behave in self-determined ways (Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005). The following suggestions support self-determined behaviors aligned with important developmental tasks of adolescence.

  1. Help your adolescent understand the nature of his disability.
  2. Teach your adolescent how to explain her disability to others.
  3. Support your adolescent's participation in activities at school and in the community that enable him to learn new things about himself.
  4. Encourage your adolescent to acknowledge and describe her personal qualities and  accomplishments.
  5. Allow your adolescent to participate in community and extracurricular school activities that capitalize on his interests, talents, skills, and aptitudes.
  6. Permit your adolescent to follow harmless trends in clothing, music, and entertainment that enable her to "fit in" with other adolescents - an especially important component of self-esteem during the middle school years.
  7. Structure opportunities for your adolescent to do things for himself that you usually do for him, even when it might be easier and more productive for you to do them.
  8. Have your adolescent assume responsibility for her homework and household chores and accept the consequences if these activities are not completed satisfactorily.
  9. Encourage your adolescent to reflect on results of decisions he has made so that he may recognize that consequences are directly linked to decisions.
  10. Talk to your adolescent about results of choices he has made. Help him analyze his decision-making process, identifying outcomes that were successful and considering alternative strategies for choices that did not bring about desired results.
  11. Allow your adolescent to participate in structured social and community service activities away from the family (in supervised, safe environments).
  12. Encourage your adolescent to set personal goals and plan the steps to achieve them; then have her monitor progress toward achieving her goals (Wehmeyer, 2002).

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA of 2004) acknowledges the importance of student self-determination. Further, federal regulations provide for active student involvement in the secondary transition IEP development process by requiring that students be invited to their IEP meetings. Indeed, data provided by students become the framework upon which IEP teams design postsecondary goals, annual goals, and transition services. Parents committed to encouraging self-determined behavior during early adolescence are preparing their children to be meaningful participants at their IEP meetings. The April/May Link Lines Parent Partnerships article will discuss how the skills of self-determination support students with disabilities as they navigate the process of developing the transition IEP.

*(A description of specific self-determination skills may be found in the November/December 2004 Link Lines Transition Time.


Ward, M. J. (1988). The many facets of self-determination. National Information Center for Children and Youth with Handicaps Transition Summary, 5, 2-3.

Wehmeyer, M. (2002). Self-determination and the education of students with disabilities. Retrieved December 15, 2008, from &CONTENTID=2337&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm.

Zhang, D., Wehmeyer, M., & Chen, L.J. (2005). Parent and teacher engagement in fostering the self-determination of students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26, 55.

Date: May/June 2009