Self-Determination Skills

A young boy listens to the sounds he can create with the guitar strings.
A young boy listens to the sounds he can create with the guitar strings.

People sometimes think that individuals with significant developmental disabilities, especially when they are functioning at a developmental age of under four years, are not capable of achieving self-determination skills. Sometimes, they think these skills are not important for them to learn. However, self-determination is at the very heart of an Active Learning approach.

Children need opportunities to be self-directed during play. They need to be able to choose what to play with, how to play with it, and for how long. They also need to be able to explore and experiment in any way they choose to learn what something can and cannot do. Too often, especially with children with significant developmental challenges, adults want to rush in and “show them how” to play with something. This is not what children at the developmental age of under 48 months need.


The development of self-determination skills is a process that begins in childhood and continues throughout one’s life. Self-determination is important for all people, but it is especially important, and often more difficult to learn, for young people with disabilities. Well-meaning individuals sometimes “protect” children with disabilities by making all their decisions for them. Also, sometimes people assume that people with disabilities can’t think for themselves.

Self-determination involves many attitudes and abilities including: self-awareness, assertiveness, creativity, and pride, and problem solving and self-advocacy skills. To take charge of your own life, you must be able to set goals, evaluate options, make choices and then work to achieve your goals.


Since self-determination skills are most effectively learned and developed by practicing them, students with disabilities should be given ample opportunity to use their self-advocacy, decision-making and socialization skills well before they leave high school to prepare themselves for working and living in their community.


PACER’S National Center on Transition and Employment

Active Learning and Self-Determination

Dr. Nielsen takes into consideration the emotional development that is necessary for children to become self-determined in her Five Phases of Educational Treatment. She wrote extensively about letting children feel success and gain pride in their own ability to make things happen. She encourages us to comment and not overly praise the achievements of the child, so that the child finds her motivation in her own self-initiated activity. The activities of Active Learning focus on developing both problem-solving skills and creativity. An Active Learning approach is child-led and allows many, many opportunities for choice-making.

Here are some ways you can help the child to develop self-determinations skills.

    • In the beginning, use offering and imitation to let the child make choices about which objects he/she is interested in exploring. Allow them to explore them in any way they choose. Imitate what the child does so he/she will know that you see what they can do.
    • Build independent play activities and environments around skills the child is currently demonstrating or attempting so he/she can experience success and gain confidence in his/her abilities.
    • If a child rejects a scheduled activity offer another activity that is scheduled for the day. You can always come back to that activity later in the day or the week.
    • If the child is reluctant to stop an activity, let them continue it for a little longer, if at all possible, or offer them another preferred activity. Be flexible with their schedule as much as possible.
    • As the child develops emotionally and can begin to withstand some disappointments, usually at a developmental age of 2 or older. Let him/her experience the consequences of their choices. “If you don’t get out of the swimming pool, we won’t be able to get ice cream from the ice cream truck.”
    • Regularly schedule times when the child is able to choose which activity or learning environment they will play in next. You may want to introduce a choice-making board to help them understand this is the time they can pick what they like.
    • As the child is able to anticipate and try to initiate a step in a familiar activity, make sure you give plenty of time to do things on his/her own. Offer support when it is needed, but give the child plenty of time to do as much as possible for his/herself.