Making it Happen: Encouraging Self-Determination in Middle and Late Adolescence

by Debbie Grosser, M.Ed. and Dale Pennell, C.A.S.

This is the last in a four-part Link Lines series. Part I (September/October 2008) emphasized the importance of teaching self-determination skills to children with disabilities. Parts II and III (November/December 2008 and January/February 2009) provided suggestions for activities parents may use to promote self-determination in their pre-adolescent and early adolescent children at home, at school, and in the community.

Self-determined parents of children with disabilities know how to advocate for the services and support their youngsters need. However, "during the transition planning years (ages 14-21), it is important that students learn to develop these skills for themselves in preparation for life after high school" (Rahamin, Corbey, Ward, & West, 2000, p. 99). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) acknowledges in several ways the importance of student participation in educational planning. Specifically, IDEA requires Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams to:

  • Invite students to their IEP meetings when a purpose of these meetings is development of students' postsecondary goals and transition services

  • Develop postsecondary goals that reflect students' interests, preferences, and strengths as they relate to education, vocational training, employment, continuing and adult education, independent living, and community participation following completion of high school

  • Base postsecondary goals and transition services on transition assessment data that reflect students' visions for their adult lives   

Actively involving adolescents with disabilities in writing their transition IEPs provides the perfect opportunity for development of self-determined student behavior (Wehmeyer, 2002).

Planning is the first stage of the IEP development process (Konrad & Test, 2004). Planning involves collecting information about students' strengths, how students would like to capitalize on these strengths to plan the adult lives they desire, and associated needs that must be addressed while students are still in school. While parents inevitably play key roles in preparing their children for adult life, they should be aware of how their unspoken expectations may affect their children's transition planning process. "Most children want to make their parents proud; they want to live up to family expectations. By pushing for unrealistic goals, parents can unwillingly set their children up to fail." (Rahamin et al., 2000, p. 105). To prevent this from happening, parents may wish to (a) support their children in considering their unique interests, preferences, strengths, and needs for adult life, (b) encourage their children to cooperate in the process of collecting transition assessment information, and (c) support the development of appropriate postsecondary goals that reflect their children's visions for adult life.

Drafting is the second stage of IEP development (Konrad & Test, 2004).  By the time most parents arrive at the secondary transition phase of their children's lives, they have had much experience in the IEP development process (Rahamin et al., 2000). Now is the time for parents to transfer to their children the advocacy skills they have learned themselves. For example, parents can encourage their children to draft statements that (a) capture visions for adult lives that capitalize on children's interests in areas of strengths; (b) identify needs which can be translated into annual goals; and (c) suggest transition services, including coursework, to prepare them for the adult lives they have envisioned (Konrad & Test, 2004).

Meeting, the third stage, refers to participation in the IEP meeting (Konrad & Test, 2004). Active participation in these meetings gives students opportunities to practice the self-determination skills they have been learning. Prior to an IEP meeting, it is recommended that parents explain the meeting's purpose and format.  During IEP meetings parents can encourage their children to share with other team members the statements they have drafted, rather than doing so themselves. Parents can also encourage their children to lead selected portions of, and eventually, their entire IEP meetings by teaching them the skills necessary to do so. (A list of resources that support parents' efforts to engage their children actively in the IEP process may be found at the end of this article.)

Implementing the plan is the fourth stage in which students must be engaged (Konrad & Test, 2004). Adolescents who serve as IEP team members understand that transition IEPs provide roadmaps to the adult lives they have envisioned; therefore, they are more likely to invest themselves in the coursework and activities specified in these documents. Parents who teach their children how to manage and advocate for the services provided in their IEPs empower their children to meet the demands of adult environments following high school.

Young adults who emerge from adolescence with high levels of self-determined behavior are better prepared to navigate the adult world independently. Recent studies have found that these young people enjoy more positive adult outcomes in employment, access to health care and other benefits, financial independence, and independent living (Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005).  


Student-Directed Transitions: Tips for Parents and Students by Ginny Beigel

Helping Students Develop their IEPs [pdf]

A Student's Guide to the IEP [pdf]

Promoting Self-Determination Skills in IEP Planning

Student-led IEPs: A Guide for Student Involvement by Marcy McGahee, Christine Mason, Teri Wallace, and Bonnie Jones. Published by the Council for Exceptional Children, 2002.


Konrad, M., & Test, D. W. (2004). Teaching middle-school students with disabilities to use an IEP template.  Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 27, 101-124.

Rahamin, B., Corbey, S., Ward, M., & West, L. (2000). Knowing where you want to go and how to get there. In J. M. Taymans, L. L.  West, & M. Sullivan, (Eds.), Unlocking potential: College and other choices for people with LD and AD/HD (pp. 99-105). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

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