1.01 - A Definition of Self-Determination

Self-determination is a complex concept with deep historical roots. Rather than review the various meanings and history of this construct, the following is intended to help the reader understand what we mean by self-determination. It is important to understand this concept in order to understand the model, how the model works, and how the model differs from a typical teacher or instructor directed model to a consumer directed, problem solving model. The reader is encouraged to refer to Wehmeyer (2001) for additional information on the history and development of this construct.


Self Determination: Wehmeyer (1992) states that self-determination refers to the attitudes and abilities required to act as the “primary causal agent in one’s life and to make choices regarding one’s actions free from undue external influence or interference” (pp. 305).

Wehmeyer, M. L. (1992). Self-determination and the education of students with mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 27, 302-314.


Wehmeyer (1996) asserts that “for purposes of education and rehabilitation, self-determination is:
  1. best defined in relationship to characteristics of a person’s behavior,
  2. viewed as an educational outcome, and
  3. achieved through lifelong learning, opportunities, and experiences” (pp. 22).

Causal Agent: A causal agent is someone who makes or causes things to happen in his or her life.

An act or event is self-determined if the individual’s action(s) reflects four essential characteristics:

  1. the individual acted autonomously,
  2. the behaviors were self-regulated behavior,
  3. the person initiated and responded to event(s) in a ‘psychologically empowered’ manner, and
  4. the person acted in a self-realizing manner” (pp. 24).

In order to achieve this, a number of component elements of self-determined behavior are suggested: choice making, decision making, problem solving, goal setting, self-evaluation, internal locus of control, positive attribution of efficacy, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-advocacy. This definition supports self-determination as an educational construct, as well as a developmental one (pp. 66).

Wehmeyer, M.L. (1996). Self-determination as an educational outcome: Why is it important to children, youth, and adults with disabilities? In D.J. Sands and M.L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the lifespan: Independence and choices for people with disabilities (pp. 17-35). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.


Self-determined behavior refers to actions that are identified by specific essential characteristics:
  1. the person acted autonomously,
  2. the behavior(s) were self-regulated,
  3. the person initiated and responded to the event(s) in a “psychologically empowered” manner, and
  4. the person acted in a self-realizing manner.

Wehmeyer, M. (1997). Self-directed learning and self-determination. In M. Agran (Ed.), Student-directed learning: teaching self-determination skills (pp. 28-59). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.


Wehmeyer (2002) stated that

“promoting self-determination involves addressing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students will need to take more control over and responsibility for their lives” (page 1) and that “self-determined people are causal agents; they make things happen in their lives. They are goal oriented and apply problem-solving and decision-making skills to guide their actions. They know what they do well and where they need assistance. Self-determined people are actors in their own lives instead of being acted upon by others” (pp. 1-2).

Wehmeyer, M. L. (2002). Self-determination and the education of students with disabilities (Digest No. E632). Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED470036)

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Additional References:

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1999). Self-determination theory: an approach to human motivation and personality. Retrieved August 9, 2004, from the University of Rochester, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology Website: http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/

Field, S., Martin, J. E., Miller, R. J., Ward, M. J., and Wehmeyer, M. L. (1998). A practical guide for teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

Gilson, S. F. (1998). Choice and self-advocacy: a consumer’s prospective. In P. Wehman and J. Kregel (Eds.), More than a job: securing satisfying careers for people with disabilities (pages 3-23). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.

Kennedy, M. and Lewin, L. (n.d.). Summary of self-determination. National Resource Center on Supported Living and Choice Fact Sheet. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Center on Human Policy.

Oregon Health Science University & Center on Self-Determination. (2003). What is self-determination? Alliance for Self Determination. Retrieved January 16, 2004 from Oregon Health and Science University Website: http://www.ed.pdx.edu/project/self/selfdete.html

Retrieved January 16, 2004 from Oregon Health and Science University Website: http://cdrc.ohsu.edu/selfdetermination/leadership/alliance/index.html

Powers, L. E., Sowers, J., Turner, A., Nesbitt, M., Knowles, A., and Ellison, R. (1996). A model for promoting self-determination among adolescents with challenges. In L. E. Powers, G. H. S. Singer and J. E. Sowers (Eds.), On the road to autonomy: Promoting self-competence for children and youth with disabilities (pages 69-92). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Ward, M. J. (1996). Coming of age in the age of self-determination: A historical and personal perspective. In D. J. Sands and M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pages1-16). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Ward, M.J. (1988). The many facets if self-determination. National Information Center for Children and Youth with Handicaps Transition Summary, 5, 2-3.

Wehmeyer, M. L. (1992). Self-determination and the education of students with mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 27, 302-314.

Wehmeyer, M. L. (2001). Self-determination and mental retardation. International Review of Research In Mental Retardation, 24, 1-48.

Mod 1 Index | 1.00 | 1.01 | 1.02 | 1.03 | 1.04 | 1.05 | 1.06 | 1.07 | Quiz 1

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