Promoting Self-Determination for Transition-Age Youth: Views of High School General and Special Educators

By Carter, Erik W.; Lane, Kathleen L. et al. | Exceptional Children, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Promoting Self-Determination for Transition-Age Youth: Views of High School General and Special Educators


Carter, Erik W., Lane, Kathleen L., Pierson, Melinda R., Stang, Kristin K., Exceptional Children


Substantial efforts have been directed toward ensuring that transition-age youth with disabilities acquire the skills, experiences, supports, and linkages needed to attain important life outcomes after leaving high school (Alwell & Cobb, 2006). Indeed, transition planning is now firmly established as a critical component of educational programming for youth with disabilities The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) mandates that schools make coordinated efforts to facilitate students' access to an array of postschool activities, including integrated employment, postsecondary education and training, community participation, and independent living. But equally important are efforts to ensure that youth are equipped to direct those activities, align the activities with their personal goals, advocate for their preferences and needs, make informed choices, decide for themselves how they will achieve their goals, and assume responsibility for their own actions. This capacity to steer one's own life in personally meaningful ways and valued directions often is referred to as self-determination (Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998).

In addition to being associated with improved quality of life (Lachapelle et al., 2005; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1998), self-determination also may be a key factor influencing the extent to which youth attain important postschool outcomes (Wehmeyer & Palmer, 2003; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997). As a result, increasing the capacity of youth with disabilities to engage in self-determined behavior has assumed a more prominent role in discussions of transition services and supports for youth with disabilities (Eisenman, 2007; Field & Hoffman, 2002; Field, Sarver, & Shaw, 2003; Lane & Carter, 2006). Research indicates that special educators already place high value on promoting self-determination (Agran, Snow, & Swaner, 1999; Mason, Field, & Sawilosky, 2004; Thoma, Nathanson, Baker, & Tamura, 2002); and, increasingly, these teachers report focusing instructional efforts toward equipping students with the skills and opportunities they need to become more self-determined (Carter, Lane, Pierson, & Glaeser, 2006; Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005). In a national survey of secondary special educators, Wehmeyer, Agran, and Hughes (2000) found that more than two thirds of teachers indicated that some or all of their students had educational goals addressing self-determination on their individualized education program (IEP) or individualized transition plan (ITP). Moreover, the majority of these special educators reported that providing instruction in each of seven component elements of self-determination (e.g., decision making, goal setting, self-management) was very important. Further evidence of the high value placed on promoting self-determination is apparent in the plethora of available curricula (Bremer, Kachgal, & Schoeller, 2003; Malian & Nevin, 2002; Wehmeyer & Field, 2007) and the incorporation of component elements of self-determination in educator standards (e.g., Council for Exceptional Children, 2003; National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 1999).

Research suggests, however, that many youth with disabilities lack the knowledge, skills, and beliefs that could enhance their self-determination (e.g., Cameto, Levine, Wagner, & Marder, 2003; Houchins, 2002; Mithaug, Campeau, & Wolman, 2003; Zhang, 2001). For example, Carter et al. (2006) evaluated the capacities of high school students with high incidence disabilities to engage in self-determined behavior and found that youth with emotional disturbance were judged by their parents and special educators to have diminished skills in this area. Furthermore, lower levels of self-determination are apparent in the limited contributions youth with disabilities often make to educational planning (Martin et al., 2006), as well as evidenced in interviews with youth themselves (Kortering, Braziel, & Tompkins, 2002; Trainor, 2005; Whitney-Thomas & Moloney, 2001). …

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