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Developing Self-Determination Skills Through Student-Led IEPs

The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is “… to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living …” (IDEA, 2004, §601(d)(1)(A)). In order to prepare students for these future endeavors, IDEA requires the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) defined as a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a meeting in accordance with 34 CFR 300.320 through 300.324, and that must include:
  • A statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance …
  • A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals …” (34 CFR 300.320(a)] [20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)])

Functional performance includes social competence, communication, personal management, behavior, and self-determination (Training and Technical Assistance Center, 2014). Self-determination skills include self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, assertiveness, self-advocacy, choice making, problem solving, decision making, goal setting, goal attainment, self-observation, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. When students are provided with opportunities for active engagement in the IEP process, they are more likely to develop self-confidence and self-advocacy skills (Center for Family Involvement, 2009; Mason, McGahee-Kovac, & Johnson, 2004). Further, students who lead their IEP meetings are more likely to take ownership in their IEP goal implementation and their overall education.

The Virginia Department of Education’s (2015) I’m Determined website offers resources and videos for educators and families who support the development of self-determination skills of students with disabilities, including how to support students in participating in and leading their IEP meetings. For example, in the video Determined Student Involvement in the IEP, students, parents, and teachers describe the value and importance of student involvement in the IEP process.

While students should be involved in all parts of the IEP process – pre-meeting, meeting, and implementation, it is important to first assess students’ readiness for participation and leadership in each part of this process (Sitlington, Neubert, Begun, Lombard, & Leconte, 2007). Such information will inform the level at which students demonstrate readiness to participate as well as the need for specially designed instruction to increase that level of participation. To assess students’ knowledge related to the IEP process and their readiness to participate, use the rubric provided on the I’m Determined website.

As part of becoming ready to participate, it is important for students to understand the significance of the IEP process. For students who do not demonstrate readiness to participate or actively engage in this process, specially designed instruction may be needed (Sitlington et al., 2007; Wehmeyer & Field, 2007). For example, students will need to (a) learn skills that promote self-advocacy such as assertiveness and communication skills (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007); (b) understand the importance of expressing themselves openly and honestly within the IEP meeting process; (c) demonstrate both verbal and nonverbal communication skills, including listening, persuasion, and negotiation strategies; and (d) acquire self-evaluation skills so they can support data collection for IEP planning. The article How to Help Students Lead Their IEP Meetings (Mason et al., 2004) and the I’m Determined website provide resources to help students develop these skills and prepare for active involvement in their IEPs.

Properly prepared, students should engage at all phases of the IEP process; however, the level of participation during the actual meeting often varies from student to student (Sitlington et al., 2007), ranging from presenting limited information during the meeting to leading the entire meeting. For example, one student may present information related to preferences and interest only; another student may explain his disability, share strengths and needs, and describe helpful accommodations; whereas a third student may lead the meeting entirely.

The I’m Determined site includes resources to support students in planning for participation in the IEP meeting including:

  • It’s All About Me: Helping Students Create PowerPoint Presentations for IEP Meetings
  • Information on student involvement and templates to support participation for students pre-school through grade 12

In addition, the Center for Family Involvement (2009) also provides templates that students may find helpful in supporting the development of their IEPs. These electronic templates are also included in the book It’s All About Me! A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating My IEP. This book may be checked out at TTAC WM library (call #IE33).

Following the IEP meeting, students can partner with their teachers to monitor their progress on IEP goals. Thus, teachers can plan daily, weekly, and monthly activities that engage students in ongoing data collection at their readiness level. Charts, graphs, and other visual representations may assist students in this process (Peters, 1990). The resource Student Involvement in the IEP Process provides tips and strategies to support student participation in their IEPs and in progress monitoring during IEP implementation.

Finally, it may be helpful to gather feedback from students and parents regarding their experiences with student-led IEPs. The I’m Determined website provides access to surveys that may be used with elementary students, secondary students, and parents.

Student-led IEPs support the development of students’ self-determination skills and provide an avenue for them to have a voice and a choice in their education program (Sitlington et al., 2007). Important components of this process include assessing students’ readiness to participate, providing specially designed instruction for skill development to support participation, and supporting student engagement in progress monitoring. “Although the IEP process is only one forum where students with disabilities can demonstrate self-determination skills, it does provide a valuable context for assessing student readiness to initiate self-determined behavior in multiple settings both within and outside the educational setting” (Sitlington et al., 2007, p. 37).


Center for Family Involvement Partnership for People With Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University. (2009). It’s about me! A step-by-step guide for creating my IEP. Richmond, VA: Author.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. §300. (2004). Retrieved from

Mason, C. Y., McGahee-Kovac, M., & Johnson, L. (2004, January/February). How to help students lead their IEP meetings. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 18-24. Retrieved from

Peters, M. T. (1990). Someone’s missing: The student as an overlooked participant in the IEP process. Preventing School Failure, 34(4), 32-36.

Sitlington, P. L., Neubert, D. A., Begun, W. H., Lombard, R. C., & Leconte, P. J. (2007). Assess for success (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Training and Technical Assistance Center at the College of William and Mary. (2014). Transition planning for a brighter future: Designing IEPs for secondary students with disabilities. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education Self-Determination Project. (2015). I’m determined. Retrieved from

Wehmeyer, M. L., & Field, S. L. (2007). Self-determination: Instructional and assessment strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.