Creating independence in our students: Food for thought

Stevie Wonder states,  “ If you don’t ask, you don’t get” (Wonder, 2010). Was I asking my students to be independent and promoting self-determination? As it would happen the other parts of my week set the stage for the theme of the week.


On Monday and Tuesday I attended a training for the ADOS which is the “gold standard’ for the evaluation of students with autism.  It consists of a series of “presses” in which you set up situations so that you can observe the behavior and communication skills of the examinee. The training consisted of live evaluations with the observers scoring what they saw and then there was a comparison of scores.  What however blew me away was that one of the young adults that was being tested was someone who I was the therapist for when he was a preschooler and then again when he was in early elementary school.



I truly wanted to cry as the examiner asked him “ How did you get your job?” and he responded, “ I don’t know they just gave it to me.”  This is a student that has ‘walked’ with his class and is now on extended school years until twenty-one.  I wanted to scream but what are we doing to make him independent!  He does not even know that he needs to search for a job and his concept of money was to trade his 5-dollar bills for twenties when he gets 4. There was no discussion of the cost of anything except for the price on a new X BOX.


The second experience that shaped how I did my reading was part of my administrator-shadowing task in which I observed mediation. There were seven people in the meeting representing the family and an equal number of team members all talking about a student and inclusion. The family put a large picture of the student in the middle of the table facing the team and then read a prepared statement describing their child. Meanwhile during the three hour meeting it was evident that the student who was not present was clearly telling us his needs, likes and dislikes. How would this meeting have been different if the child was present?  How would it have been different if we had trained him to self-advocate?


Prior to reading “ Promoting Self-Determination” (Hart, 2013) I never thought of beginning this process at the elementary age but it makes so much sense.  In the kindergarten class I taught today, children advocated for themselves (“ I can’t see the book?”  ,  “ I need to sit on a chair.” etc.). Last week I was observing in a class of fourth graders and they were doing a round robin reading from a basal reader. Unfortunately the group were such poor readers that they struggled reading the words and often skipped whole lines or put words in that made no sense (ex. “The mother put the food on their planets.”)  Not one child asked for explanations, assistance or accommodations during this session. They really could not have understood what was being read. What happened between kindergarten and fourth grade?  How did the children stop insisting on answers to their questions?  When did they stop telling us what they needed?


“ The outcomes of research do show through that youth and young adults with disabilities who have acquired self-determination skills have enhanced academic performance and more active class participation, improved employment and independent living opportunities and more positive quality of life and reported life satisfaction. (Hart, 2013)”    I had the perfect illustration of this with the boy who had no idea how he got his job.  What will happen when he needs to change jobs?  Will he wait for someone else to get him one?


“The Ten-Step Process to Teach Students Self-Advocacy for IEP Accommodations” was a nice blueprint for the instruction.  As a support staff I talk to my students about their goals and we break them down so they can understand and be able to meet them.  I feel strongly that people need to control their own destiny and one way is to assist them in this process if for them to know their strengths, needs and focus for the future. I however have never systematically taught self-advocacy skills at the elementary level and I thought the visuals included in the Hart and Brehm article gave excellent springboard for this instruction. (Hart, 2013).


I have my students write small step objectives that are part of their IEP goals.   As I work with very young children I have them put a picture on their goal that represents something they really like. Each time I see them we take out their goal and they try to meet it. If they do this three times they take that goal home to celebrate with their families and we make a new goal. They have such pride in knowing that they have accomplished their goal and strive hard telling me that they have taken the initiative to work on it on their own.


I use Whole Brain Teaching (Biffle) and as part of this I discuss with the students that everyone learns differently.  After reading the NICHCY’s article I realize that even at the elementary ages I need to reinforce and support my students in understanding their learning styles even if I am not talking about it in terms of“ disabilities” but more in the sense of strengths and weaknesses and what can be done to help them overcome some of their weaknesses.


As stated in my introduction to this reflection there is much to be done in terms of empowering students.  This might start at the elementary school with holding the child responsible for doing their own homework or bringing in their own materials. Then we need to build on their independence so that they have built the foundation of self-knowledge so that empowerment can be built on this.



Biffle, C. (n.d.). Whole Brain Teaching. Retrieved from Whole Brain Teaching: www.


Ellis, M. (2011). Empowerment through Engagement: Implementing Student-led IEPs. ASQ Primary and Secondary Education Brief , 4 (4).


Hart, J. E. (2013). Promoting Self-Determination: A Model for Training Elementary Students to Self-Advocate for IEP Accommodations. Teaching Exceptional Children , 45 (5), 40-48.


National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities. (2002). Helping Students Develop Their IEP’s. Technical Assistance Guide , 2.


Wonder, S. (2010). Quotes from people with disabilities. Retrieved 10 5, 2013, from Yes We Can Initative: peoplewithdisabilities.htm



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