Making it Happen: Encouraging Self-Determination in Pre-Adolescent Children

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

This is the second 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 provides suggestions for activities parents may use to promote self-determination in their pre-adolescent children at home, at school, and in the community.

Family members play a critical role in teaching self-determination skills to their children with disabilities. Thoma, Williams, and Davis (2005) define self-determination as "both the attitudes which lead people to define goals for themselves and their ability to take the initiative to achieve these goals" (p. 104). Parents have the earliest opportunity to model and promote self-determined behavior in their children, thus laying the foundation for continued skill development (Palmer & Wehmeyer, 2003; Sands & Doll, 1996).

The table below identifies skills that foster self-determination and as well as corresponding examples of activities parents may use to encourage self-determination in preschool and elementary-aged children. The following suggestions are based on the work of Palmer and Wehmeyer (2003), Sands and Wehmeyer (1996), Sands and Doll (1996), and Thoma et al. (2005).

Strategies for Developing Self-Determined Behavior
Self-Determination Skills
Choice- Making

Allow your child to make choices/decisions, such as:

  • What to wear to school (from among several choices)
  • Which of several entrees to have for dinner
  • Which of two social activities to attend

Discuss with your child:

  • How to resolve an argument with a schoolmate
  • What to do when there is homework to do, but friends are asking him to play outside
  • How to deal with unhappiness about not getting as much playing time on the soccer team as she would like

Model these behaviors by:

  • Posting a schedule of your daily chores and checking them off as they are completed
  • Listing on a calendar the steps you will follow to create a summer vegetable garden
  • Involving your child in planning a family vacation

Provide your child with:

  • Opportunities and time for independent self-care activities, such as filling the bath tub, washing her hair, making her bed, packing her own school lunch
  • Instruction in how to do chores and the opportunity to do them without help
  • Time to complete homework independently, even if he makes errors

Teach your child to:

  • Ask for help before he gets too confused or frustrated
  • Discuss the positive and negative consequences of her actions
  • Participate in extracurricular activities to promote her self-worth

Encourage your child to:

  • Order and pay for his own lunch at a restaurant
  • Organize a recreational activity for the family
  • Run for a student organization office

Teach your child to:

  • Identify his interests and strengths
  • Explain his disability and how he learns best
  • Recognize the challenges his disability presents

Parents who seize these early opportunities to encourage their children's self-determination promote the development of students who are in control of their learning and behavioral outcomes (Sands & Doll, 1996; Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005).


Palmer, S., & Wehmeyer, M. (2003). Promoting self-determination in early elementary school. Remedial and Special Education, 24(2), 115-126.

Sands, J. S., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (1996). Self-determination across the life span. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

Sands, D., & Doll, B. (1996). Fostering self-determination is a developmental task. Journal of Special Education, 30(1), 58-76.

Thoma, C., Williams, J., & Davis, N. (2005). Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities: Will the literature help? Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 28(2),104-115.

Zhang, D., Wehmeyer, M., & Chen, L. (2005). Parent and teacher engagement in fostering the self-determination of students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 55-64.

Date: November/December 2008