4 self-determination skills to build during remote instruction

Students with disabilities engaged in distance learning may need extra help in learning skills such as choice-making, problem-solving, goal-setting and self-monitoring to prepare for life after high school.

The self-determination skills of students with disabilities may lag while they engage in periods of remote learning as the pandemic continues. But to be ready for postsecondary transition, students have to have opportunities to make their own decisions and achievements.

“Like any set of skills, self-determination requires practice,” says Kaitlyn Millen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Kansas. “It’s like a muscle. The more students have opportunities to practice self-determination skills, the more self-determined they will be. Adults can create some of these opportunities for students to work on those skills.”

Skills such as choice-making, problem-solving, goal setting, and self-monitoring can be worked on in any environment. “What’s challenging about remote learning is that students may not have the same type of support at home that they would typically have in school,” she says. “They may have more frequent contact with teachers and other adults in school that may guide them toward self-determination. At home, there may be varying levels of support and guidance.”

Review self-determination skills below and how to foster them in students with disabilities as they learn remotely.

1. Making choices

Students have to practice how to independently choose among multiple options, Millen says. One way may be, in collaboration with a student’s parents, to encourage the student to make choices about where he will learn and work on assignments at home. If there is some flexibility in his school’s remote learning schedule, he may also be given choices for when he will engage in learning and take breaks.

2. Solving problems.

Students have to strengthen their ability to come up with solutions to problems on their own, Millen says. For example, if a student mentions during virtual office hours that she is upset about not seeing her friends, don’t just give her ideas for how to safely connect with them. Ask her questions to guide her to come up with her own ideas. “It’s so much more powerful if the student figures it out,” she says. “You want to start out with general questions, then offer less support or more support as needed.” Try asking:

– What are some ways you may be able to connect with your peers online?
– What tools have we been using for school that you could use to connect socially?
– How are your parents connecting with family members who live out of town?

“If the student isn’t able to come up with ideas, then the teacher or parent can model the thought process,” she says.

3. Setting goals

Students need to know how to set their own goals, work toward achieving them, and monitor their own progress toward meeting them, Millen says. They also must recognize when they may need to revise or set a new goal or the action plan to achieve it. She recommends using the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction Teacher’s Guide from the University of Kansas to support students in this cyclical process.

“You can introduce SDLMI during synchronous online instruction,” she says. “The teacher could say, ‘We are going to practice setting goals,’ and share blank worksheets and filled-in ones with examples.” Students must ask themselves what they want to learn more about, such as finding a job in music, what they know about it now, what must change for them to learn what they don’t know, and what they can do to make this happen.

A student might work on two questions one day and two questions another day to provide some structure to the process. Then come back together to discuss. Sharing a visual schedule with students may help make clear what your expectations are.

The goals have to be measurable, specific and observable, Millen says. Rather than a student saying, “I want to get better at reading,” for example, steer him toward something like, “I want to be able to respond to 10 summary questions after reading a passage.” Maybe all students could share an example of what they think is an appropriate goal during a videoconference, then talk through which are or are not measurable, specific, and observable.

To check for student understanding, use an online poll, Millen suggests. This will also promote engagement. You can ask students to answer multiple-choice questions about setting goals, for instance, then discuss the answers as a group.

4. Engaging in self-monitoring

Encourage students to use a chart or checklist to monitor their own progress toward their goals to work on their self-awareness, Millen advises. Then prompt them to go over the sheet and think about why they may have been successful on some days but not on others. “As adults, it’s tempting to jump in and say, ‘Oh, well, you stayed up so late the night before, that’s why you had a hard time the next day,'” she says. “You have to give them the opportunity to think it through themselves.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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