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Epic Special Education Staffing - April 2023

Increasing Student Self-Determination

Increasing Student Self-Determination
Kelly Ott, M.Ed, MHS, CCC-SLP
February 25, 2019

Introduction and Overview

Before we begin, I have some relevant disclosures to share. I am the co-owner of SMARTER Steps, which is a consulting business for special educators, therapists, administrators, and parents of children with special needs. I speak nationally on public topics and receive honoraria and/or speaker fees. Lastly, I am the co-author of the book, SMARTER Steps Guide to Creating Smarter IEP Goals, and I do receive royalty payments from book sales. I do not have any relevant non-financial disclosures to report.

I would like to see what your backgrounds are, and what populations you serve. Here is a little bit about my background. I have been an SLP for over 25 years. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and learn from a very diverse group of professionals. Clinically, I have worked in hospitals, rehab centers, long-term care settings, and outpatient clinics. I have worked with medically fragile individuals of every age. In the educational setting, I have served as an SLP, a regular education teacher, a 504 case manager, an advocate, a special education director, an elementary and junior high principal, as well as a high school assistant principal. We laugh about the fact that I have really experienced most roles around the IEP table. I feel like that has helped me to be proactive and to focus on what the students really need.

I would like to take a poll to see what your backgrounds are.  Based on your answers, it looks like about 12% of you are in early intervention or kindergarten, and 18% of you work with first grade through fifth grade. We have a few middle school and high school SLPs.  It looks like the majority of you actually serve in multiple populations; with almost 20% of you indicating that you serve all of these groups.  You are seeing the full gamut!

Student Self-Determination

Self-determination has several definitions in the literature. Field, Marlin, Miller, Ward, and Wehmeyer (1998) define self-determination as a “combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior.” These are the skills that help students make choices, select goals, and then actively pursue those choices and goals.

Wehmeyer further defines self-determination as “acting with intent to improve one's quality of life.” This definition looks at factors such as asserting an individual's presence, making his or her needs known, evaluating progress towards meeting goals, adjusting performance, and creating unique approaches to solving problems. Really, what we are talking about are the basic life skills at every age and developmental level.

Research shows that it is important for people with disabilities to have control over their own lives. This seems like common sense, but what Ward found in 1996 is that having the ability and power to make one’s own decisions is also imperative for developing self-esteem and self-worth.

Components of Self-Determination

The National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center has identified these seven components on self-determination:

  • Decision making
  • Problem-solving
  • Goal Setting
  • Self-Regulation
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Advocacy

When I look at this list, I think about my transition-age and older students. I consider these skills in relation to the big picture of what we eventually want for our students, which is to be independent and successful adults. What I have come to realize over the years is that these skill sets are developing way before transition age. When we identify opportunities to increase these skills early in development, we could have a great impact on their overall attainment. I read an analogy from the student transition literature that put it like this: if you had a student who swam in the ocean with a life jacket every day for 16 years, could you expect him to swim independently if you suddenly took away the life jacket when he turned 16? Of course not; he would “sink or swim,” so to speak. This is what we do when we have students with disabilities and we make all the decisions for them, or we solve all their problems. If we wait until they turn 16 to give them any decision-making powers, how are they going to do that without guidance?

What does this all mean for students while in school? For me, supporting self-determination is a matter of practicality. I think about the fact that students will not be children forever. They need to learn responsibility, decision-making, and self-advocacy skills for life. Self-determination skill development is not something that happens overnight. It takes continual exposure and practice. It is an evolutionary process of exposure and opportunities. Children are our future in society, in the workforce, and I laugh sometimes because they are also going to be taking care of us in nursing homes. We have to give them the tools to be successful at every age and stage of development.

Soft Skills

When it comes to self-determination, there is a much broader scope of skills that can have an impact. We can influence many of these “soft skills” throughout the school day. Here are the main categories that soft skills can fall under:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Influence
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Personal Skills
  • Creativity
  • Professional Skills

They seem pretty straightforward, but this list is extremely general. In fact, it can be overwhelming to see these categories broken down into specific and discrete skills. We are not going to cover each skill under these categories in this course, but I want you to see the complexity of each category and their relationship to each other. I encourage you to begin mentally identifying examples or times during your school day that you can informally or formally address these skills. Reflect on possible opportunities to include soft skill development.

There are two very important points to note about soft skill development. First, soft skills are not necessarily hierarchically achieved, although they are interrelated. It is true that you need to have some of these skills in order to achieve competency in others, but there can be gaps. For example, we need to have effective communication skills in order to be professionally sound or to be an effective leader, but you can be creative and interpersonal without leadership skills. The second important factor to note is that these skills are rarely directly taught to most of us. For individuals with neurotypical development, many of these skills emerge with such subtlety that most of us are not even aware of the sophisticated complexity of their development.

Young adults with weaknesses in these areas often stand out as less successful in school, at work, and in social situations. They are often unable to figure out what comes readily to many of their peers. A recent study conducted by the Educational Testing Service looked at the soft skill development of 16 to 65-year-olds. The study found that millennials are among the world's least skilled workers in three key areas: following directions, teamwork, and problem-solving. While they had good technology skills, they lacked the basic critical thinking skills needed to be successful in the workplace. In fact, the study showed that despite the increase in education or access to education, each successive generation has declined in soft skill abilities. While the results of the study may not be surprising, this certainly proves that we need to find ways to change those trends.

Communication skills. Communication is the first soft skill category and includes:

ott figure 1

As SLPs, we know that the five purposes for communication are to inform, imagine, influence, meet social expectations, and express feelings. Besides the underlying purpose, the manner in which we communicate is also influenced by context, audience, and abilities. Let's face it: the ability to communicate is one of the most essential life skills. We learn how to have our needs met by requesting and protesting from early infancy. Over time, this ability develops into the social and professional competencies that help us get through school, hold a job, excel at a career, and have lasting relationships.

So, I encourage you to take a moment and reflect. Outside of your direct intervention in this area, what are some of the most common communication opportunities that your students experience during the school day? This list can also serve as opportunities for students to practice carryover skills throughout the school day. Examples include initiating conversation, introducing people, giving directions, explaining the purpose of a project. There are skills that we can directly teach or support indirectly, such as paraphrasing, summarizing, asking questions, verbally taking turns, presenting skills, and so on. Every age and grade level can work on these skills. Preschool through eighth grade can do “show and tell,” share what they know about a topic, or tell about their weekend. Our eighth to 12th-grade students can also learn how to debate topics, persuade others, and give presentations.

Leadership. As adults, these are the soft skills associated with leadership:

ott 2

When thinking about these skills, realize that they are like the others, in that they do not happen overnight. Many of us spend years developing and refining these skills, and it is an ongoing process. So what does that look like for children? How do we help them develop these leadership skills? I think about classroom projects, group work, structured and unstructured play, navigating circle time, social or athletic club events, peer editing, and even planning prom. These skills are developing continually - along with social skills - from early kindergarten through adulthood.

This is where it is so important for us to provide services in the regular education classroom, or a “class within a class” model. We can collaborate with regular education teachers, special education teachers, and even counselors so that we can assist students with speech, language, and soft skills. I have gone into classrooms and conducted mini-lessons on group work. My role was to help students identify roles in the group, their responsibilities, and help them monitor to make sure everyone is contributing and staying within timelines. I have co-taught with other educators during group projects, literature circles, science labs, debates, and so on. Regular education teachers generally appreciate the assistance and are much more open when they see the benefits of co-teaching with an SLP.

Influencing skills. Influencing skills include the following: 

ott figure 3

One of my favorite things to do as a classroom teacher was to have a suggestion box in the classroom.  Of course, there were ground rules and limitations. First, the suggestions had to be things I could actually change that were related to my classroom. They could not be a list of pet peeves about people or things that someone just merely did not want to do. The suggestions had to be respectful, and they had to offer one to three realistic solutions. Every Friday, I would take 10 to 15 minutes to read, discuss, and brainstorm the problems as a class. When I started this process, as one would imagine, there was a box full of silly requests, but I addressed each and every one of them, modeling for the class what was a realistic suggestion and how to brainstorm collaboratively, listening to all ideas, and really attempting to affect change. By semester’s end, the requests had lessened and I began to call on volunteers to read and facilitate the discussions. By the third quarter, there was no longer any need for the box. Students were problem-solving on their own, collaborating with each other for conflict resolution, and motivating others to change.

Interpersonal skills. The following is a list of interpersonal skills.

ott figure 4

There are daily opportunities for networking, conflict resolution, and dealing with difficult people at school. I encourage you to think about all the structured and unstructured moments in the day that impact these skills. Examples of these moments include standing in line, choosing recess games, selecting materials, doing projects in the classroom, even before- and after-school wait time, locker or in-between class time. There are many opportunities during the day. We have multiple opportunities to help guide students into healthy and productive interpersonal relationships, both with teachers and peers. Every moment can be a learning moment. Even when we cannot directly instruct students, or cannot be directly involved in helping them navigate these skills, we can talk about them.

I have seen many lessons on community in preschool and kindergarten, elementary and middle school lessons on Mayan civilization, all the way through civics and government lessons in high school. Each one of these affords us the opportunity to infuse knowledge, to model, and to talk about these skills.

Personal skills.  Below is a list of soft skills that are considered to be personal skills: 

ott figure 5

In researching this topic, I became immediately overwhelmed when I looked at these skills. I tended to read them with a negative undertone, wondering how I could ever directly address them in the classroom. Then I remembered a questionnaire that one of my schools gave to all their fifth through eighth-grade students. It was called the “Grit Test,” a self-rating scale of resilience. It served as a blueprint that we could work off of and help identify areas of weakness in motivation and perseverance.

There is a great video by Dr. Daniel Goldman that introduces the concept of emotional intelligence. I encourage you to search for his name on YouTube or search for “Introduction to Emotional Intelligence” and view it. He talks about emotional intelligence and defines it as how well we maintain ourselves and our relationships.

He discusses four domains. The first domain is self-awareness, and it refers to knowing what we are thinking and feeling. I think that is a precursor to everything we do. The second domain is self-management, which highlights handling your emotions in effective ways. The third domain is empathy, and the fourth domain is putting it all together in skilled relationships.

Dr. Goldman talks at length about brain development. The part of the brain responsible for many of these soft skills is the frontal lobe, which is the last circuitry of the brain to develop anatomically. He points out that because of neuroplasticity, the brain shapes itself according to repeated experiences. We know that our brains form neuronal connections based on what we do repeatedly in our life. When we first try to adopt a new behavior, we have to enlist our prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as our thinking brain. This is necessary to insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. When we perform the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in the brain, the behavior will require less effort and it could become an automatic default pattern.

Dr. Goldman argues that this is why we should be teaching kids these soft skills in a systematic way over time. We could help build this process for our students gradually. Every time we are working with students to increase executive function skills, either directly or indirectly, we are reinforcing many of those soft skills mentioned earlier. Every time we model self-talk, we are teaching a strategy to help students increase reasoning and problem-solving skills. These are tools that can be indirectly addressed in every lesson.

Creativity. Skills that are involved in creativity include:

ott figure 6

Moving onto more soft skill categories, it is important to note that creativity is spurred by optimal self-confidence levels. Insecure, unmotivated, depressed or withdrawn students will more than likely struggle with creativity; I think about many of our rigid thinkers here. Higher level critical thinking and problem-solving skills can be directly taught over time. As SLPs, we are in the best position to tackle higher level language and critical thinking skills, in areas like vocabulary, inferencing, humor, making connections, “if-then” causality, social thinking, perspective taking, abstract concepts, and so on.

kelly ott

Kelly Ott, M.Ed, MHS, CCC-SLP

Kelly Ott, MEd, MHS, CCC-SLP Co-Owner, S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps®:  With over 24 years of experience as a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, consultant, educator and administrator, Kelly has served children and adults with a diverse range of speech, language, swallowing, learning, and communication needs. She has provided direct speech pathology services, specialized educational services, professional development training, business communication and presentation training. Kelly is dedicated to providing students, educators, and parents with specialized strategies for achievement.

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