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Self-Determination: The Engine Powering Transition Planning and Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) established transition education as a fundamental directive of secondary education for students with disabilities. To operationalize this directive, the first paragraph of the law indicates schools need to provide students with disabilities with services that meet their needs and prepare them for postsecondary education, employment, and independent living. Educators use transition planning to implement IDEA’s (2004) requirement to develop students’ postschool and annual transition goals and specify transition services needed to facilitate attainment of transition goals. Engaging students in the transition process is one way to support students with making decisions about their futures, thereby fostering their ability to develop and exhibit self-determination. To ensure students have an active role in planning their future, the need for teaching students self-determination skills becomes obvious as IEP teams seek to discover students’ interests, skills, and desires.


What Is Self-Determination?

Numerous self-determination definitions exist, and each defines self-determination a bit differently depending on the definition’s theoretical origins. Self-determined individuals make choices, set goals, develop plans to attain their goals, take action to implement the plans, solve problems, evaluate progress, and make adjustments to the plan and their strategies as needed to attain their goals (Rowe, Alverson, et al., 2015; Wehmeyer et al., 2000).

What the Research Says

Self-determination skills are correlated with improved education and employment outcomes for students with disabilities (Mazzotti et al., 2021). In addition to improved postschool outcomes, self-determination skills are associated with increased academic performance (Fowler et al., 2007; Konrad et al., 2007). Students with disabilities do not automatically develop self-determination skills. These skills must be taught. In fact, Algozzine et al. (2001) identified 51 high-quality studies that documented individuals with disabilities who had learned self-determination skills through direct instruction. Because self-determination includes so many skills (e.g., solving problems, setting goals, evaluating progress), it is important to collect ongoing assessment data to know which skills students have developed and which skills students still need to develop (Rowe, Mazzotti, et al., 2015). Maintenance of these skills requires ongoing opportunities to practice across people and settings (Algozzine et al., 2001).

Although learning self-determination skills is often prioritized for students who are of transition age, these skills can be taught to all students, regardless of age or disability (Raley et al., 2018; Shogren & Wehmeyer, 2017). For example, goal setting and attainment are skills that students can learn in elementary school. Learning these skills at an early age allows multiple years for students to practice and refine their skills (Shogren & Wehmeyer, 2017). Without these skills, it is difficult for students to share their strengths, preferences, interests, and needs within the transition planning process mandated by IDEA (2004). Understanding this connection between self-determination and transition planning is important because students who are actively engaged in their transition planning are more likely to have improved postschool education and employment success (Burnes et al., 2017; Martin et al., 2006).

Guidelines for Practice
  1. Self-determination skills do not appear automatically as students age and progress through school. Educators must teach these skills.
  2. In order to know which skills to teach, educators need to use one or more self-determination assessments as part of their overall transition assessment battery.
  3. Goal setting and goal attainment are foundational self-determination skills. Students with disabilities should begin learning these skills in the late elementary school years and continue to learn and practice these skills throughout their remaining school years (Shogren & Wehmeyer, 2017).
  4. A variety of resources exist on self-determination. Review the “additional resources” section to gain insight on how to teach essential self-determination skills.
Additional Resources

The following websites provide self-determination information and resources.


Algozzine, B., Browder, D., Karvonen, M., Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2001). Effects of interventions to promote self-determination for individuals with disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 219-277.

Burnes, J. J., Martin, J. E., Terry, R., McConnell, A. E., & Hennessey, M. N. (2017). Predicting postsecondary education and employment outcomes using results from the Transition Assessment and Goal Generator. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals. Advance online publication.

Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, 129 U.S.C. 1802 et seq. (2015).

Fowler, C. H., Konrad, M., Walker, A. R., Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2007). Self-determination interventions’ effects on the academic performance of students with developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 42, 270-285. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004).

Konrad, M., Fowler, C. H., Walker, A. R., Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2007). Effects of self-determination interventions on the academic skills of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30, 89-113. 

Martin, J. E., Van Dycke, J. L., Christensen, W. R., Greene, B. A., Gardner, J. E., & Lovett, D. L. (2006). Increasing student participation in IEP meetings: Establishing the Self-Directed IEP as an evidence-based practice. Exceptional Children, 72, 299-316.

Mazzotti, V. L., Rowe, D., Kwiatek, S., Voggt, A., Chang, W., Fowler, C. H., Poppen, M., Sinclair, J., & Test, D. W. (2021). Secondary transition predictors of postschool success: An update for the field. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 44(1), 47-64. 

National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (2020). Effective practices in secondary transition: Operational definitions. National Technical Assistance Center on Transition.

Railey, S. K., Shogren, K. A., & McDonald, A. (2018). How to implement the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction in inclusive general education classrooms. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 51(1), 62-71.

Rowe, D. A., Alverson, C. Y., Unruh, D. K., Fowler, C. H., Kellems, R., & Test, D. W. (2015). A delphi study to operationalize evidence-based predictors in secondary transition. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 38, 113-126. doi:10.1177/2165143414526429

Rowe, D. A., Mazzotti, V. L., & Sinclair, J. (2015). Strategies for teaching self-determination skills in conjunction with the Common Core. Intervention in School and Clinic, 50(3), 131-141.

Shogren, K. A., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2017). Self-determination and goal attainment. Handbook of research-based practices for educating students with intellectual disability (pp.255-273). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis. 

Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Agran, M., Mithaug, D. E., & Martin, J. E. (2000). Promoting causal agency: The self-determined model of instruction. Exceptional Children, 66, 439–453.