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Teaching Self-Determination to People with Developmental Disabilities

written by: jenniferterry • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 9/11/2012

Learning self-determination skills are the most important factor in quality of life outcomes for all people. Teaching self-determination to people who have developmental disabilities can be difficult, but the impact is immeasurable.

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    What is Self-Determination?

    Self-determination is the determination of one's own fate based upon a freely determined set of criteria. This does not mean people are free to do whatever they choose without ramifications for poor decisions. It does mean a person should be given the opportunity to succeed or fail in pursuit of their own happiness.

    When emphasis is placed on the independent determination of choices the true value of self-determination is lost. No one is ever truly independent. Regardless of the presence or absence of a diagnosis, everyone is interdependent on others around them. The influences which shape who we are, come from surrounding people, whom we trust and past experiences.

    Supporting a person with a disability includes providing that person with complete information, presented in a matter they can understand in order to make an informed decision.

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    Why Teach Self-Determination?

    In a broad sense, self-determination describes a role a person takes in determining his/her own pathways. For most people, this skill comes from life experiences. People who develop typically will have naturally occurring opportunities to make decisions, make mistakes, and learn from the process. Due to a limited ability to make correlations between two abstract occurrences, people with mental retardation or certain other disabilities may need to be actively taught self-determination.

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    Self-Determination in Elementary School

    Learning self-determination should begin early. In elementary school this can mean a child should be allowed (taught if necessary) to make his own choice of clothing to wear, choose his own lunch items, or choose which DVD he will watch. He should be given guidance at first but allowed to make his own decisions. If he decides part way through his DVD that he chose a bad movie he should not be allowed to change DVD's at that time. This will teach the child the consequence of his poor decision. This allows the child to begin to develop an understanding of the power and rewards of choice-making.

    Of course, we must consider the health of the child, but he should experience the same success and failures in choosing appropriate clothing as well. When a child picks out a tank top on a winter day, you may allow the child to test this idea by opening the door or standing on the porch in order for the child to feel the cold air. If she insists on wearing the tank top, you can insist she add a jacket.

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    Self-Determination in High School

    As the child ages, he will need more responsibilities and decision-making opportunities. The young adult will need self-advocacy skills which he will learn through self-determination. The young adult needs to know, not only that he can make his own decisions but that he has a right to make his own decisions.

    The young adult student should have an active role in planning his own curriculum, daily schedule, rules and punishments. The young adult with a disability should have these privileges beyond those provided to another student of the same age. The goal is to begin a transition of the young adult into the afterschool adult life style.

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    Self-Determination at Home

    For a self-determination program to work, everyone must be involved. It is very important to get the family involved in the process. The teacher may need to take the lead and explain to the parent what the goals of the program are and why choice-making is so important even at a young age.