LAWRENCE — When young people finish high school the societal expectation is that they’ll continue their education, find employment and become productive members of society. When it comes to students with disabilities, researchers at the University of Kansas have found that focusing on self-determination while they are in school can help them achieve those same goals when they’ve graduated.
Faculty members from KU’s Department of Special Education co-authored a study that surveyed 779 students with disabilities from a six-state area one and two years after they completed high school. Those who had higher levels of self-determination when they left school fared better than their counterparts who did not. And students who were taught self-determination skills in school — lessons that focused on skills such as setting goals, problem solving, self advocacy, self-management of behavior and allowing them to affect change in their own lives — showed more stability in the positive outcomes they achieved.
“Promoting self-determination among students with disabilities is predicated on the idea that it will lead to better outcomes,” said Karrie Shogren, associate professor of special education and associate director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities. “There was very little research that established this relationship, however. So we wanted to see if, with a larger sample, could we show that the self-determination intervention does in fact lead to better outcomes.”
The nearly 800 students who took part in the survey were part of two groups: one that took part in the KU-designed and supported self-determination intervention and another that did not have the intervention in their secondary education. They were surveyed in the areas of employment, community access, financial independence, independent living, ongoing education and life satisfaction.
Young people who left school with higher levels of self-determination were more likely to be employed and were able to take part in various aspects of their communities. And, those that were exposed to self-determination interventions in secondary school showed more stability in their employment and community access outcomes.
“That essentially tells us that the relationships we thought would be there were supported,” Shogren said.
Shogren co-authored the study, which was published in the Journal of Special Education, with Michael Wehmeyer, professor of special education and director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities; Susan Palmer, research professor at KU’s Life Span Institute; Graham Rifenbark, a former KU graduate student; and Todd Little, former KU faculty member and current Texas Tech University professor.
The findings illustrate the importance of including self-determination in special education instruction, Shogren said. While giving students training and support to be agents of change in their own lives seems like a natural fit in the curriculum, it is not widely included as a part of special education. The study’s results add to a growing body of research showing self-determination’s value. KU researchers have helped enact the interventions in schools across the country.
The researchers point out that many other factors can affect outcomes. Fore example, higher levels of self-determination did not predict greater financial independence. Students were not more likely to be paying their own rent, utilities and bills. The same was the case for independent living, which was measured as young people living on their own and paying their own rent. It does not mean, however, that self-determination education does not have value in those areas. Many young people continue to be reliant on family and others for housing and financial support at such an early stage in young adulthood and access to employment and housing influences outcomes in these areas as well.
The findings in employment and community access were both encouraging and significant, especially in employment, which was not just measured by whether an individual had a job.
“To me, employment is about more than just ‘do I have a job,?’” Shogren said. “It is also about ‘do I have benefits, and do I have career goals and opportunities?’”
The researchers plan to further study the numerous environmental and personal factors that affect outcomes in adult life. They argue, however, that the findings thus far indicate the value of educators spending time on self-determination instruction. In an era of limited instruction time, reduced budgets and numerous educational challenges, supporting self-determination training is proving its worth.
“The consistent positive relationship across research studies between self-determination and employment is very promising,” the researchers wrote. “It suggests that, in practice, teachers can consider self-determination interventions a useful component of their limited instructional time, particularly to promote employment and community access in adulthood.”