Setting the Stage for Success: Increasing Levels of Self-Determination

By Elaine Gould, M.Ed.  


February/March 2014


Children in the United States are dropping out of school at alarming rates, with the highest incidence occurring immediately following ninth grade (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009). Each year, one third of U.S. high school students (approximately 1.3 million) do not earn a diploma before exiting school, and in large urban areas, the dropout rate is as high as 47% (Lacefield, Zeller, & Van Kannel-Ray, 2010). Furthermore, the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities is about one-half the rate for students without disabilities (National High School Center, 2007). These results are unacceptable, but what can educators do to improve them? One factor related to keeping students in school is high levels of self-determination (Zhang & Law, 2005).

Wehmeyer and Schalock (2001) described self-determined individuals as those who

Know how to choose - know what they want and how to get it. From an awareness of personal needs, self-determined individuals choose goals, then doggedly pursue them. This involves asserting an individual's presence, making his or her needs known, evaluating progress toward meeting goals, adjusting performance and creating unique approaches to solve problems. (p. 2)

Embedded in this description are the skills necessary to increase levels of self-determination, including, but not limited to:

  • choice-making
  • decision-making
  • goal setting
  • problem-solving
  • self-advocacy
  • leadership
  • self-awareness
  • goal attainment
  • self-management

Self-determination is an important educational outcome and a core dimension of an individual’s quality of adult life (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001). Indeed, Zhang and Law (2005) proposed teaching self-determination skills as a dropout prevention strategy. While it is critical for secondary students to learn and use the component skills of self-determination, it is important to recognize that acquiring them is a developmental process that should begin early in children’s lives and span their educational experiences. For example, young children can be provided many opportunities to make choices; however, secondary students are more developmentally ready to learn decision-making and problem-solving skills in environments where they can apply them to real-life situations (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001).

To determine students’ levels of self-determination, teachers can assess student strengths using the free online Self-Determination Assessment Tools from the Zarrow Center for Learning Enrichment. Table 1 below lists instructional resources and ways teachers can support the development of self-determined student behavior and the achievement of positive student outcomes.

Table 1

Instructional Practices and Resources Used to Increase Self-Determined Behavior

Student Self-Determined Behavior

Teacher Behavior

Positive Student Outcomes


Educational goal- setting, choice-making, and decision-making (Carter, 2010)


  • choosing between two or more activities
  • identifying a situation for which decision-making is appropriate
  • identifying possible actions
  • identifying and evaluating consequences of actions
  • choosing the best option
  • implementing decision

Support, guide, and provide opportunities for students to:

  • connect learning with post-school goals
  • set goals
  • create action plans
  • reflect on outcomes
  • modify goals when necessary
  • learn and practice control and choice (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007; Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001)

Active engagement in learning, goal setting, and goal attainment (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007)

I’m Determined Goal Setting and Attainment

Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI)

Kentucky Youth Advocacy Project Goal Books

Video: Preparing for College: Skills for Success (visit The Teaching Channel)


Involvement in IEP development, leadership at the IEP meeting, and supported implementation of the IEP (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001)

Provide explicit instruction in self-determination skills that enable students to assume leadership at their IEP and transition planning meetings (Zhang & Law, 2005)

Self-awareness, self-advocacy, leadership, independence, actions based on specific interests and preferences; choice- making (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001; Zhang & Law, 2005)


I’m Determined One-Pager

I’m Determined Student Involvement in the IEP


Problem identification, analysis, and resolution (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001)


  • explicit instruction in the problem-solving process
  • opportunities to practice solving problems in day-to-day environments to encourage generalization to other environments
  • social skills instruction (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001)

Problem-solving skills, interpersonal and social interaction skills (Wehmeyer & Schalock, 2001)

Video: Learning to Think: A Foundation for Analysis (The Teaching Channel)

Research to Practice Lesson Plan Starters (NSTTAC)

Everyday Conversation Starters

The Problem Solving Process (NSTTAC)


In order to keep secondary-aged students with disabilities engaged in school, on the path to graduation, and prepared for a quality life after high school, educators must foster the development of self-determination skills and provide opportunities for practice throughout the school day.  Self-determination educational resources may be found at the Zarrow Center for Learning Enrichment.


Carter, E. (2010). Self-determination and transition-age youth with emotional or  behavioral disorders: Promising practices. In E. Cheney (Ed.), Transition of  secondary students with emotional or behavioral disorders: Current approaches for positive outcomes (pp. 51-71). Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Cohen, J., & Smerdon, B. (2009). Tightening the dropout tourniquet: Easing the    transition from middle to high school. Preventing School Failure, 53, 177-183.

Lacefield, W., Zeller, P., & Van Kannel-Ray, N. (2010). Graduation coaching high need urban high schools. Annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

National High School Center. (2007, May). Dropout prevention for students with disabilities: A critical issue for state education agencies. Washington, DC: Author.

Wehmeyer, M. L., & Field, S. L. (2007). Self-determination: Instructional and assessment strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wehmeyer, M., & Shalock, R. (2001). Self-determination and quality of life: Implications for special education services and supports. Focus on Exceptional Children, 33(8), 1-16.

Zhang, D., & Law, B. (2005). Self-determination as a dropout prevention strategy. The Journal of at Risk Issues, 11(2), 25-31.