Promoting Self-Determination: A Model for Training Elementary Students to Self-Advocate for IEP Accommodations

Article excerpt

Natalia and the rest of her third grade class were taking a unit assessment in mathematics. Natalia and her mother studied together all week, and she felt confident with the material. She knew how to successfully complete the problems on her own, but her reading disability made it difficult for her to read word problems independently. In order to address this concern, Natalia's MultiDisciplinary Evaluation Team decided that word problems would be read aloud as an accommodation in her most recent individualized education program (IEP), yet how this information was communicated to Natalia was not made clear.

As Natalia took the next mathematics tests, she kept saying to herself, "I know I can do this. It was so much easier when Mom read the problems to me at home. Maybe I can ask the teacher to read the problems to me, but I'm not sure if that is allowed. I don't know what to do. " Natalia sat and stared at her paper, trying as hard as she could to read the problems on the page. Before she knew it, her teacher was collecting the tests, and Natalia had completed fewer than half of the problems. Promoting self-determination among students with disabilities has been a principal focus of policy, research, and practice related to special education transition planning for nearly 2 decades (Ward, 2006), but how this occurs prior to the age required by law is not something that has received ongoing attention. Current research emphasizes the advantages of promoting self-determination in securing positive in-school and postschool outcomes for adolescents with disabilities (Cho, Wehmeyer, & Kingston, 2012), but how this occurs at the elementary level is limited. The outcomes of research do show though that youth and young adults with disabilities who have acquired self-determination skills have enhanced academic performance and more active class participation (Gilberts, Agran, Hughes, & Wehmeyer, 2001), improved employment and independent living opportunities (Wehmeyer & Palmer, 2003), and more positive quality of life and reported life satisfaction (McDougall, Evans, & Baldwin, 2010). All these outcomes provide great reasons to teach self-advocacy skills as early as possible to empower students to have the strongest future outcomes.

Self-determination refers to "acting as the primary causal agent in one's life and making choices and decisions regarding one's quality of life free from undue external influence or interference" (Wehmeyer, 1996, p. 24). Selfdetermined students assert themselves when appropriate, take pride in their accomplishments and abilities, and are able to act as self-advocates (Zionts, Hoza, & Banks, 2004). In their selfadvocacy, students gradually assume a more proactive role and greater say in their IEP (Sebag, 2010); have knowledge of their own strengths, needs, and interests; effectively communicate their own choices and decisions; and are able to evaluate their own behavior (Kleinen, Harrison, Fisher, & Kleinen, 2010). Increasingly, researchers have made calls to begin developing selfdetermination in students with disabilities from earlier ages, including early elementary-school age (Lee, Palmer, Turnbull, & Wehmeyer, 2006; Palmer & Wehmeyer, 2003).

Promoting students' self-determination at earlier ages and in order to increase more meaningful IEP participation is useful and important work for all professionals and parents to consider. However, a significant lag remains in the degree to which self-determination endeavors have been extended to and are reflected in the context of students' daily, lived IEP experiences, within inclusive classrooms at the elementary level. Teaching self-advocacy skills in earlier grades for students in inclusive settings is important because as Simpson (2004) noted, specially designed instruction to meet their needs is not always provided, and, moreover, some observations of inclusive classrooms have shown teachers struggle to make curricular accommodations for students with disabilities (Dymond & Russell, 2004). …