Teaching Self-Determination to Students with Disabilities

Instructor: Pamela Brezenski

Pamela holds a M.S. in Special Education and is ABD EdD Special Education. Pamela has experience in the following settings: 6th LA/SS, 9-10th LD/ED, K-12 and K-5 LD/ED/ID

We all want to be self-determined individuals and control our futures. Students with disabilities are no different. This lesson examines how teachers can promote self-determination for students with disabilities.


All students have the right to make decisions and own their successes and mistakes. Many students served in special education have a team of people that makes every decision for them. Parents and professionals often 'over support' students for fear that they may fail or that a situation is unsafe. The PACER Center, an organization serving youth and children with disabilities, believes that those who support youth do so with the best of intentions, but their 'over support' can cause significant limitations in self-determination.

The National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) identifies self-determination as a 'person's ability to control his or her own destiny.' While students don't always make the right decision in the minds of adults, we owe them the dignity to risk it all for the chance at success.

Allowing students to perform tasks on their own offers them dignity and respect. All educational goals strive for independent completion of tasks within the classroom. Students cannot be independent if teachers do not implement strategies and methods to increase student self-determination.

Core Competencies of Self-Determination

Psychologists Ryan and Deci (2000) developed a theory to identify the core competencies of self-determination. Understanding the competencies can help teachers develop a support and instruction plan to develop self-determined students. Developing self-determination is critical for students to achieve independence, which is characterized by autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


When students feel that decisions are within their control and they enter into them willingly, they demonstrate the feeling of autonomy. Students must be able to make choices in the classroom and at home. Personal validation is the goal, so students feel they own both their success and failure.

Many students in special education don't always feel they have a choice because of the nature of the special education system. Often all decisions are made by a team of the student, parents, teachers, agencies and other invited members. Surrounded by adults, students may believe that their life's decisions are made by those adults. The PACER Center identified that many adults believe that they are protecting students by making choices, when they are really limiting the autonomy of youth.


Everyone wants to feel competent to work independently, so those around students must give them the ability to risk failure. Even if students don't succeed, Ryan and Deci's theory of self-determination indicates that students should manage their future learning path.

We have all learned by failing at something. We learned that the action we took was not correct, but we created an alternate plan. Students must be allowed to make mistakes. Teachers cannot always 'save' students or 'protect' them by fixing their errors or telling them what they want to hear. Students often can tell when teachers downplay their errors, and they want to be told directly what is wrong and given a chance to fix it.


Students all want to belong to a group of peers and be accepted, understood and appreciated. Ryan and Deci defined this need as relatedness. Knowing that caring adults are connected matters to students. Knowing that they can be successful and appreciated matters even more.

Allowing students to be experts in areas helps them to see that they are part of a community. Sometimes students in special education do not always feel that they belong. Many feel that they sit outside the group, especially when they are pulled out of class or have a paraprofessional working right next to them. Increasing independence can help increase the feelings of relatedness that they experience.

Classroom Methods to Increase Competencies

NASET has clearly identified methods that teachers can use to increase students' self-determination skills, including the following activities.

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