What Is Self-Determination?

This area of the expanded core curriculum (ECC) highlights the importance of developing confidence. Self-determination involves the student identifying his or her own interests, values, motivations, as well as a personal understanding of his or her own abilities and limitations. The student then takes this information to explore how this personal awareness relates to a variety of life choices.

For example, students learn from successes and failures how to achieve transition goals for education, employment, and personal relationships. Self-determination is the ability of individuals to control their lives, reach goals they have set, and participate in the world around them to the fullest extent possible.

Why Teach Self-Determination as a Specific Area?

Self-determined people are causal agents. They make things happen in their lives, are goal oriented and apply problem-solving and decision-making skills to guide their actions. These individuals know what they do well and where they need assistance. Self-determined people are empowered actors in their own lives. They are not merely acted upon, or directed, by others.

Self-determination is particularly important for students who are blind or low vision. The skills leading to enhanced self-determination, including goal setting, problem solving, and decision making, allow students to assume greater responsibility and control of their lives from early developmental milestones throughout the high school transition years into postsecondary education and careers.

Research shows that autonomous and self-regulated learning by self-determined youths in control of their own decisions is associated with more engagement and better academic achievement by these students.

Research has also shown that education and employment are impacted by an individual’s self-determination. Postsecondary work, education, and training are more likely outcomes for individuals who are blind or low vision who have achieved self-determination.

How Do TVIs Approach Instruction of Self-Determination Skills?

TVIs can promote self-determination by getting students actively involved in their own educational planning and decision making. The law requires that from 14 years of age onward, transition needs and services be addressed on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that goals related to these services be based on student needs, interests, and preferences. When these students learn the skills included in self-determination, they increase their independence, self-esteem, sense of personal satisfaction, and overall quality of life.

Transition planning provides a powerful opportunity in which to both teach and practice skills directly related to self-determination development. This includes engaging in goal setting, problem solving, effective communication and listening skills, assertiveness and self-advocacy, and decision making. Younger students in elementary and middle school should be involved in planning their educational and related activities as well.

Educational programs should promote the skills youths who are blind or low vision need to develop self-determination.

Practicing Self-Determination

  • Set personal goals (getting a specific grade on an assignment or in a class)
  • Solve problems that act as barriers to achieving these goals (finding a peer who can be a tutor)
  • Make appropriate choices based on personal preferences and interests (making sure that school work is done before engaging in leisure activities)
  • Participate in decisions that impact the quality of their lives (determining what goals the student wants in his or her IEP)
  • Advocate for themselves (asking a teacher to provide materials in advance so that the student can have them in an accessible format)
  • Create action plans to achieve goals (making a schedule of due dates for assignments and deciding when schoolwork will be completed during the week)
  • Self-regulate and self-manage day-to-day actions (getting up for school, dressing, eating breakfast, and gathering all of the materials needed for the day)

In addition, students with blindness or low vision may use assistive technology to access a digital version of their calendars. An accessible electronic braille notetaking device, a tablet with a built-in screen reader or screen enlargement features could be useful tools for students to monitor progress toward goals, create action plans, and manage daily routines.

Youths with visual disabilities can also learn self-advocacy skills by contacting community venues and asking about accessibility options before participating in class field trips or other relevant outings.

Finally, students with blindness or low vision should learn how to both request and refuse assistance in an assertive manner, meaning that they are confident rather than demanding or passive. These youths can understand that while they should be as independent as possible, there will also be times when they will need assistance from others, just as many people who are fully sighted do.

For example, students might politely ask for assistance from strangers if they become lost in the community or need help locating a particular item. Being able to request needed information, such as walking directions, is also important. Students can develop the skills and confidence to pursue or clarify specific information, like street names and words such as left/right or north/south, when taking directions from strangers.

How Can We Support Instruction in Self-Determination in Schools?

TVIs can promote self-determination by teaching the skills and knowledge students need to become self-determined, communicating high expectations, and emphasizing students’ strengths and uniqueness. They can also promote these skills by working with families and the school community to help others understand the need to support the student’s development of an accurate and positive self-concept. Simply asking another teacher to make sure to give the student direct feedback about assignments or observed behaviors can help school staff understand how to support a child with a visual disability.

One simple yet powerful activity that can promote student self-determination is to set high, yet achievable, expectations for the student, communicate those expectations, and support the specific qualities and skills the student possesses to meet those goals.

Students who are blindness or low vision are often all too aware of what they cannot do, but they might not be as aware of their unique strengths and abilities. Detailed feedback with specific examples of student strengths and corresponding outcomes from multiple sources including family, teachers, peers, and even a school counselor can facilitate the development of self-determination.

Youths might also benefit from talking with peers and working adults who are blind or low vision about what strategies they’ve used to develop confidence and self-awareness.

Self-determination skills are best facilitated by a fully qualified TVI working with the entire educational team. The TVI is the teacher or specialist most aware of the many aspects of self-awareness, executive function, and personal responsibility that youths who are blind or low vision miss out on and how this lack of awareness impacts their lives. This area should be addressed in IEP goals, and student progress on these goals should be recorded. However, instruction in self-determination is usually not a formal process.