Home : Project : RRTC on State Systems and Empl... :

Self-Determination and Struggle in the Lives of Adolescents

Research to Practice 23


Originally published: 9/2000

Suggested audiences:


As students approach high school graduation, they face new expectations for their behavior and achievements. Adolescents are often expected to move from a position of dependency on others to taking responsibility for themselves. Many students who have developed skills of self-determination are better able to successfully cope with the stresses of this transition. The self-determined individual practices decision-making, knows what he/she wants out of life, and understands how to access the necessary supports to achieve these goals (Mithaug, 1996). An important part of developing self-determination is one's capacity for self-definition, a concept explored later in this brief. These skills may be more difficult for students with disabilities to master, as they often face additional obstacles in achieving independence (Hanley-Maxwell, Whitney-Thomas and Pogoloff, 1995, Schulzinger, 1998). Obstacles include: poor match between student interests and potential jobs or careers, social isolation, and the frustration of arranging for accommodations with the Social Security and school systems (Timmons, Schuster, and Moloney, 2000). This study examined the development of self-determination in a sample of teenagers, both with and without disabilities, who were poised to leave high school. The researchers set out to better understand the process by which youth develop a sense of themselves.

Methodology and Participants

This report describes the experiences of eleven students in their junior and senior years of high school, living in a working-class suburb of Boston. A small sample size was chosen in order to gain a richer level of detail in a topic of emerging importance. The researchers obtained data through four voluntary, in-depth, open-ended interviews with each student, conducted over the course of the 1998-1999 school year, supplemented by interviews with school staff and participant observations. Two participants did not receive a final interview; one left school for psychiatric treatment and the other had a change in foster placement. Of the eleven participants, six had a disability;defined as being on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP);and five did not. Surprisingly, only four of the six students were aware that they had an IEP, and only two out of the eleven (one with an IEP, one without) defined themselves as having a disability. See Table 1 for more information on the participants.

Table 1: Participant Demographics

There was a total of 11 students. The demographics of the student participants are as follows

Age: 8 were 17, 1 was 18, 2 were 19

Sex: 5 male, 6 female

Race: 9 white, 2 black

Year in School: 2 juniors, 9 seniors

Living with: 6 both parents, 5 mother only or other living arrangement

IEP: 6 yes, 5 no

Considers self to have a disability: 2 yes, 9 no

Findings and Implications

The concept of supported independence, which emerges from these findings, can seem almost contradictory. In order to gain an adult sense of self-definition, adolescents need opportunities to make decisions and explore their interests independently. However, they also need continued, reliable support from adults and peers. This support enables them to make sense of their experiences, gives them a sense of security, and reduces the severity of stressful situations.

The researchers classified students with regard to two concepts closely linked to the development of self-determination: struggle and self-definition.

Struggle: The extent to which students reported difficulties in their lives with, for example, family, friends, drugs, and health.

Students with high struggle often:

- handled adult-level responsibilities, such as caring for a younger sibling;

- were involved with one or more government or social services agencies, such as foster care, mental health, the Social Security Administration, or the police;

- were frustrated by their unhealthy lifestyle or friendship choices, but felt powerless to change them.

Students with low struggle:

- felt physically and emotionally safe and supported in their endeavors;

- had secure connections to adults, both in school and at home;

- had social, school, and family lives that inter-linked and supported each other.

Self-definition: A reported sense of purpose, knowledge of one's own strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to communicate this information to others.

Students with high self-definition:

- could describe themselves in detail

- identified experiences which had taught them about themselves;

- knew their resources and how to use them;

- had both specific goals for the near future and dreams for adulthood; and

- had confidence in their ability to achieve their goals.

Students with low self-definition:

- lacked confidence, consistency, and accuracy in describing themselves;

- had difficulty identifying learning experiences;

- lacked awareness of helpful resources and how to use them;

- had vague or no plans and visions for the future;

- struggled with issues of independence, and felt uncertain about their ability to achieve goals.

Categories of Students

This study identifies four categories of students, three of which are at risk: Full Array, Peer Dominated, Parent Dominated, and Replacements (see Figure 1). Each group faces different obstacles and thus requires different support strategies.

Figure 1: Struggle - Self-Definition Matrix

The diagram shows four quadrants, each of which identifies a category of students. The x axis is labeled "self-definition" and the y axis is labeled "struggle." More extensive discussion of the four categories follows after this figure.

The top right quadrant is labeled Replacements (high self-definition, high struggle, N=3). These students have low parent support and replace family with friends and school for support.

The bottom right quadrant is labeled Full Array (high self-definition, low struggle, N=3). These students have multiple sources of support (family, school, peer, etc.) and are comfortable seeking and using supports.

The bottom right quadrant is labeled Parent Dominated (low self-definition, low struggle, N=2). These students are not well connected to peers; their families make decisions and dominate relationships with school staff.

The top left quadrant is labeled Peer Dominated (low self-definition, high struggle, N=3). These students struggle with their families, rely on peer support, and have difficulty seeking or using support.

1. Full Array

Students classified as Full Array are not at risk; these students had multiple sources of support they felt comfortable using. They consistently made daily and long-term decisions that were well thought-out and had positive consequences. One student, when asked who has helped him, replied, "My boss...has helped me along the way. My parents. I talk to my art teacher. [She's] pushing me the right way." When asked about events that helped shape the person he is now, he said, "I... learned from a lot of people. A lot of my friends...started getting into drugs and drinking and stuff like that, but I saw my way through to the right direction...I wanted to do something with my life."

2. Peer Dominated

Peer Dominated students had independence but insufficient support, struggled with their families, had difficulty reaching out or using support, and consistently relied on their peers for most of their needs. These factors often led to emotional distress and poor decision-making. One young man said, "I cannot stop smoking...because of my friends."

These students are at the most immediate risk and may appear to be the most troubled, as their struggles are often acted out in a more public fashion. The two students who failed to complete the study were classified in this category.

Suggestions for Support

The lack of both self-esteem and awareness of existing resources prevents these students from accessing support. Until the student develops trust, adults may need to initiate support in a way that respects the student and his/her concerns. Adults can also be very helpful as positive role models.

- Increase self-esteem by initiating activities in which students can succeed;

- Discuss available resources and how to use them;

- Build social connections with a broader range of peers by encouraging students to join clubs, teams, etc.

3. Parent Dominated

Conversely, Parent Dominated students had insufficient independence. They tended not to be well connected with their peers, and their parents often made decisions for them and dominated their relationships with school personnel. While these students face fewer overt struggles, they may have difficulty building self-directed adult lives. One young woman stated that she "[hadn't] really had to make any" major decisions. When asked, "Do you think there are other people in your life who make decisions for you?" she replied, "My mother." Thus, these students may have fewer experiences on which to base plans and dreams for adult life, and feel less control over their futures. It is interesting to note that the two students who belonged in this category were both on Individualized Education Plans (IEP's), enrolled in classes that were not integrated into the school as a whole, and had more significant cognitive disabilities than the other participants.

Suggestions for Support

Students whose needs may hinder their ability to be "independent" in the traditional, culturally defined sense may require more creative ways of achieving independence. Try to create opportunities for supported independence, and be available to talk to students about their experiences. To build confidence and skills, encourage students to:

- take on leadership roles in school or outside organizations;

- set goals, starting with the short-term;

- make smart financial decisions, like saving money for college or paying their own auto insurance;

- advocate for themselves, and become comfortable talking to adults and authority figures about their needs.

4. Replacements

Replacements lacked strong parental or family support. They "replaced" these missing support figures with friends, teachers, or other school personnel. In that sense, these students seemed fairly self-sufficient in attracting and building their own resources for support. One young woman told the researchers, "I make every decision with my close friends and my fiance. They are part of my life...we kind of all come together and compromise...we make the decision [like a] family." Unfortunately, this system is not necessarily stable, and may deteriorate as the student's status or environment changes over time.

Suggestions for Support

These students may encounter struggles that their social support systems can not accommodate.

- Respond when a student expresses the need for support, matching the intensity of support to the student's needs. For instance, adolescents may need extra encouragement as they make the transition from home to a more independent lifestyle.

- Encourage these students to build security by forming relationships with more stable individuals or groups, such as religious institutions, supportive family members, adults who can serve as mentors, and peers who are less at risk. Commitment to a particular career or interest may also provide stability.

For All Students

The study participants expressed that the interviews helped them define their needs, challenges, strengths, and goals. This type of experience could be a useful tool to increase students' self-definition.

- Learn to recognize the self-definition and support needs of students with, and without, significant disabilities. If possible, arrange for intervention (i.e. counseling, career-planning opportunities, mentoring programs).

- Talk to students about supports that are available, and how to use them.

- Consider activities to encourage self-exploration and self-awareness in young adults.


National Program on Self-Determination: www.self-determination.org

Wehmeyer, M.L., Agran, M., and Hughes, C. (1998) Teaching Self-Determination to Students with Disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Center on Self-Determination at Oregon Health Sciences University: www.ohsu.edu/selfdetermination.

www.self-determination.com: "The purpose of the collaborative is to change the nature of the support and service system for individuals with disabilities, using the principles of self-determination to help all persons create the lives they want, connected to and with their communities."

Massachusetts Partnership for Transition: Message board and resources at www.communityinclusion.org/icinet/forum/


Hanley-Maxwell, C., Whitney-Thomas, J., and Pogoloff, S.M. (1995). The second shock: A qualitative study of parents' perspectives and needs during their child's transition from school to adult life. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 20, 3-15.

Whitney-Thomas, J. and Moloney, M. (in press). "Figuring out who I am and what I want": Relationships between adolescents' sense of self and their struggles. Exceptional Children.

Mithaug, D.E. (1996). The optimal prospects principle: A theoretical basis for rethinking instructional practices for self-determination. In D.J. Sands and M.L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 147-165). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Timmons, J.C., Schuster, J. and Moloney, M. (2000). Unpublished data. Boston: Institute for Community Inclusion.


This brief reflects the contributions of David Temelini, Michael Dower, Steven Graham, Julie Armentrout, Jennifer Schuster, Joanne Maranian, Susan Woodin, George Erickson, and Justin Aguirre.

For more information about this study, contact:
Mairead Moloney
Institute for Community Inclusion/UCEDD
(617) 287-4300 (voice); (617) 287-4350 (TTY)

This is a publication of the Center on State Systems and Employment (RRTC), which is funded by the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR) under grant #H133B980037 of the U.S. Department of Education. This research was funded by a Mary E. Switzer Fellowship (#8133F980016) from NIDRR. The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education.

Institute for Community Inclusion/UCEDD
University of Massachusetts Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, Massachusetts 02125

This publication will be made available in alternate formats upon request.

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities