Effects of Self-Determination and Career Education Curriculum on Students with Disabilities

By Victoria Tanaka

    Effects of Self-Determination and Career Education Curriculum on Students with Disabilities

    About the Author

    Victoria Tanaka
    School Counselor
    Fremont, CA, US
    1 Article Published
    Victoria Tanaka

    Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have had the luxury of growing up in a community immersed in various cultures and backgrounds. I recently graduated from California State University, East Bay with a Master’s of Science in Counseling, option in School Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy. I also possess a Bachelor of Art’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Child and Adolescent Development from San Jose State University. During my five years of experience in both school and clinical settings, I continued to work with special populations, such as individuals with autism, emotionally disturbed youth, as well as students with disabilities. These experiences motivated me to provide these individuals with the support and resources needed to thrive in our modern world. These experiences also inspired me to engage in my action research to implement a Self-Determination/Career Education program. This academic year, I obtained a position with Fremont Unified School District, serving both Brookvale and Oliveira Elementary Schools as a School Counselor for grades PK-6.

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    Project Summary

    The intended goal of this project was to equip high school seniors in Special Day Classrooms (SDC) with the tools and knowledge necessary in order for them to succeed as functional adults post-graduation. In order to expand on each student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) transition plan that was currently in place, interventions were chosen that allowed for individual exploration and reflection, in addition to hands-on activities that were applicable to real-life settings. These students engaged in open discussions around topics such as self-advocacy and assertiveness, as well as becoming familiar with the community college application process and résumé writing. The program also allowed students to participate in career assessment to determine their strengths and weaknesses in the workplace and the corresponding occupations that best meet their values and interests. These activities were designed to increase self-determination as participants were able to identify their personal strengths and skills, outline the steps needed in order to attend college, as well as set short and long terms goals that pertain to their interests and values. Upon completion of the program, students demonstrated the skills attained in relation to their career and college plans and displayed a higher sense of readiness and confidence to thrive in their post-graduation world. The program activities impacted the self-determination of high-school seniors with disabilities by providing students with experiences of self-advocacy, communication, and life skills such as learning how to budget finances and connecting with outside resources.

    Project Context

    The high school where I conducted this action research had an enrollment of 3,750 students based on available statistics for the 2016-2017 academic school year, with almost half being identified as socioeconomically-disadvantaged students (47.5%). Hispanic/Latino students served as the largest racial group of the student population (34.9%), followed by Filipino (22.6%) and other Asians (21.9%). Less than 7% of the student population identified as Black/African American, followed by Whites (5.8%), Two or More Races (4.8%), Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (3.0%) and lastly American Indian or Alaskan Native (0.3%). Looking further into the special population makeup, 14.2% were English Language Learners, 9.4% were students with disabilities, and 0.2% were classified as foster youth. According to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) administered to the

    eleventh-grade students for the 2016-2017 school year, 72% met or exceeded English Language Arts standards, and 40% met or exceeded Mathematics standards. Of the students with disabilities who were tested, 16.92% met or exceeded English Language Arts standards and 6.15% met or exceeded Mathematics standards. School administrators identified a concern surrounding the low rate of students with disabilities who met high school requirements (47.5%). This school was selected for action research as there were many students with disabilities who seemed to require additional education for future planning for after high-school graduation.

     Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Significance and Purpose of the Study

    With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 (P.L. 101-476), students with disabilities are required to have a postsecondary transition plan in place by the age of 16. In spite of this requirement, college attendance rates of students with disabilities remain low, with only 6% attending a four-year college institution after graduation (Cobb, Lehmann, Newman-Gonchar, & Alwell, 2009). In order to increase attendance rates, the construct of self-determination has been introduced in special education (SPED). Research has linked self-determination to more positive transition outcomes, including employment and independent living (Cobb et al., 2009). While studies have been conducted, the research in this area remains limited, along with the rate of implementation across SPED departments.  A review of school site data indicated that 1/3 of Special Day Classrooms (SDC) seniors from the 2016-2017 school year returned for a fifth academic year to compensate for missing credits. Therefore, as the principal action researcher, I (Tanaka) wanted to examine whether the current SDC seniors would benefit from workshops centered around self-determination and career education. Through initial investigation of the situation at the site I found that the school had a need to have a designated staff member deliver transitional curriculum to their SDC population. Informed by the preliminary finding of need, the subsequent action research was tailored to implement intervention workshops that would meet the current needs of the students, including both individualized and comprehensive support to ensure post-graduation readiness amongst the students and development of a lifelong skill of self-determination and self-advocacy. This research sought to examine whether workshops oriented to the theme discussed above were effective for participating SDC students.



    Students enrolled in two Special Day Classrooms for mild/moderate disabilities (13 males, 6 females) at a high school in northern California participated in the intervention workshops. Each student had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place and was enrolled in SDC because of a current learning disability. Of the participants, Hispanic/Latino students served as the largest racial group of the student population (42%), followed by Asians which made up 37% of the population. About 10% of the student population identified as 2 or more races, followed by Middle Eastern (5%) and White (5%). Of these participating seniors, 18 were seventeen years old, with one student being eighteen years of age.


    Upon completion of the workshops, participants were administered a post-survey consisting of five questions regarding their perspective on the interventions and feedback for the action researcher. The post-survey was administered via an online survey collection platform with a 73.68% completion rate. The following 4 items were included in the post-survey and participants were prompted to answer from a 3-point Likert scale (1 = very likely/very helpful; 2 = likely/helpful, 3 = not likely, not helpful). In addition, Item 5 asked for student feedback and comments.

    1. How useful did you find my workshops?
    2. How likely are you to use the materials given in the workshops?
    3. Would you recommend these workshops for incoming seniors?
    4. Do you feel more prepared for life after high school after participating in the workshop?
    5. Please provide feedback and comments in the text area provided.

    The scores for each item were averaged as a measure of the effectiveness of the workshops designed to increase student’s level of self-determination and self-advocacy. After students answered the four Likert-scaled questions, they provided their insight regarding the intervention workshops. Teachers of these students were also encouraged to provide feedback.


    The workshops and the administration of assessments spanned an eight weeks period. Workshops were held on Wednesday mornings for a 45 minute time block from March 2018 to May 2018, with 8 workshops in total. An incentive was provided to the students at the beginning of the intervention and upon conclusion, which included donuts and bagels.

              First workshop. Prior to implementation of the first workshop, I collaborated with staff and organized a district wide field trip for SDC and Resource Specialist Program (RSP) seniors to the Disabled Student Resource Center at a nearby community college. During this field trip, I conducted the first workshop, highlighting the college application process, how to schedule an appointment with services staff for students with disabilities, as well as general guidelines for enrolling at a community college. I also highlighted the theme of self-determination throughout the field trip, reminding students of the power they hold to direct their lives by selling goals for themselves and using their personal strengths to reach these goals. In addition, I reminded students how they can advocate for their needs and accommodations throughout their college career in order to reach their full potential. I encouraged students to schedule advising appointments with a college counselor in order to create an academic plan and provided the students with the contact information and resources necessary. In addition, I encouraged students to become more informed of their disability so that they can vocalize and advocate for their needs to college professors more efficiently.

              Second workshop. The second workshop meeting consisted of the students creating a college and career action plan. Students completed a personality assessment, which provided them with their Holland Code results. Based on this, they explored corresponding occupations and chose their top three favorite occupations. In addition to this activity, they searched for the educational requirements as well as the expected salary to be attained in each field. I explained that participating in these assessments allows for more growth in their decision-making skills, reminding them that they have the power to decide what route they wish to pursue in their careers. To build on the idea of self-determination, I encouraged students to maintain positive attitudes and beliefs in order to achieve their goals and take control of their future.

              Third workshop. During the third workshop, students participated in a group discussion on budgeting and spending money after high school graduation. I spoke about types of banking options available to students after graduation, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of credit cards. Students who currently held a checking or saving account were invited to share their experiences of acquiring a bank account. Students then participated in a budgeting activity, where they put in their anticipated spending on living expenses, bills, and entertainment post-graduation. They then determined whether the income of their desired occupation was sufficient to meet their anticipated expenses/spending. Throughout the workshop, I reminded students how the lessons relate to self-determination as the focus was on learning how to solve problems in order to be self-sufficient and independent.

              Fourth workshop. The next workshop focused on the community college process and the steps needed to successfully apply to a program. I shared important deadline dates for two local community colleges and the appropriate contacts, such as the service centers for students with disabilities at each college. The lesson explained how to attain an associate’s degree as well as the transfer process to state universities. Students were also informed of the college’s extracurricular activities and tips to survive their first year at a community college. I reminded the students of how to connect with their college counselor to set up an advising appointment in order to create an academic plan as soon as possible to ensure college success. By reinforcing the idea that they need to take more initiative in order to be successful in higher education, students were given opportunities to build further on their self-determination skills.

              Fifth workshop. During the fifth workshop, participants were informed of how to increase self-advocacy and communication skills. Students listened to a Ted TALK segment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSz_zjiS3E8) where a college student with a learning disability explained the importance of self-determination and self-advocacy in both educational experiences and personal life. I explained the benefits of self-advocacy as well as ways to practice communication skills in everyday situations. Students then broke off into groups to discuss different scenarios where individuals were required to display self-advocacy. I then asked students to share their insights and problem solving ideas pertaining to each scenario.

              Sixth workshop. The sixth workshop covered community resources that are available to individuals with disabilities. During this session, students learned of local resources where they can receive job assistance, vocational training, as well as career planning tools. The programs that were discussed were within a 30 mile radius of students, and many were no cost or low-fee programs for those who qualify. Two representatives from the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) were also present to inform students of the services available to them post-graduation, which include transition support regarding independent living skills as well as career planning.

              Seventh workshop. The next workshop focused on résumé writing and the components that should be included in order to increase their chances of obtaining a job interview. I created a résumé template that was shared via Google Classroom, where each student can edit their individual resume. Participants were asked to include their contact information, a statement about their objective, as well as their educational background and experience. Participants were reminded of different experiences that could be included on a student résumé, such as community service, extracurricular involvement as well as leadership roles.

              Eighth workshop. The eighth and final workshop consisted of a brief overview for job interview tips and suggestions. Some key points that were mentioned on the distributed handout were body language, subject matter, as well as presentation. I then spent time with the students and facilitated a discussion addressing their post-graduation goals and plans. As each student shared their goals, I related their goal back to the theme of self-determination and reminded them that they have the power to direct their life how they desire. I also reminded them of the skills that they acquired, specifically self-advocacy, and further reminded them that self-advocacy is a lifelong process requiring assertiveness in their everyday interactions in order to accomplish their goals. Thereafter, students were administered the five item post-survey where they provided feedback on the workshops and their views of its effectiveness. The session concluded with treats (bagels and donuts) as well as students sharing one goal they would like to achieve over the summer.

    Results and Discussion

    A total of 14 out of 19 participating students (74%) provided post-survey responses through an electronic survey platform.

    For Item 1 (How useful did you find my workshops?), 86% of participants responded with “helpful,”, and 14% “very helpful.” For Item 2 (How likely are you to use the materials given in the workshops?), 78% of participants responded with “likely,” and 21% responded with “very likely.” For Item 3 (Would you recommend these workshops for incoming seniors?) 93% of participants responded with “yes,” and 7% “no.” For Item 4 (Do you feel more prepared for life after high school after participating in the workshops?), 36% of participants responded with “yes,” 50% of participants responded with “kind of,”, and 14% responded with “no.”

    For Item 5, participants were asked to input feedback and comments in the text area provided. Some examples of the student remarks included:

    • I really liked this workshop and it actually was helpful with resume and just life after high school.
    • Thank you I find your class very helpful for a future job, career, and college.
    • Thanks for giving me opportunity to practice and the lessons on life.
    • You help us a lot I appreciate it.

    A teacher whose students participated in the workshops also provided written feedback, stating “It has been extremely helpful to have Victoria provide transition support for our seniors. In addition to organizing and running the community college trip, she has also started a Career education/Self-determination group with our students. This is an 8-week transition unit geared at preparing our students for life after Logan.  She is very prepared, professional, and delivers relevant and meaningful transition lessons.”

    Following completion of the program, I gathered post-graduation data on the students regarding their current education or vocational status. Out of the 19 students that participated, 53% of the students (n = 10) were currently in community college or working full or part-time. Specifically, five students were currently enrolled in community college, 2 students were currently working full-time, and three students were enrolled in community colleges as well as working part-time.​

    The findings demonstrated that the workshops were effective as measured by the student’s ratings and the feedback provided by students and one of the teachers. The faculty perceived that through the workshops the students gained a greater understanding of the skills required to thrive in a post-graduation setting. Most of the participating students also perceived that they had become better equipped with the tools necessary to achieve their postsecondary goals, such as applying to a community college or part time employment through the application of self-determination skills. In reflecting back on the post-workshop discussion about post-graduation goals, there was a higher sense of confidence and determination amongst students, displayed by more solidified answers on their plans to reach their goals. The results reflects on previous literature in the field (e.g., Wehmeyer, Palmer, Agran, Mithaug, & Martin, 2000) and adds to the understanding that self-determination and career education curriculum can produce positive outcomes in public school settings. The researcher shared the findings and suggestions with school and community stakeholders.

    Suggestions for Future Action Research

    A number of suggestions are worth considering: (a) develop a pre-workshop instrument (or use an existing one) to assess levels of understanding regarding the construct of self-determination among participating students and (b) to gain a fuller understanding of participants’ sense of preparation for life after high school, semi-structured interviews can be conducted with participants. With less than 50% of participants expressing feeling “more prepared for life after high school after participating in the workshops” in the present project, it would have been helpful to have further evidence regarding how students were processing the workshop content and applying it to their thinking about the future. When time allows (which was not the case with the present project), results such as those found through the post-workshop survey can serve as an important input for the planning of a second cycle of action research, in which modifications based on the evidence from the first cycle are incorporated into planning for a subsequent workshop series.


    Cobb, B., Lehmann. J., Newman-Gonchar, R., & Alwell, M. (2009). Self-determination for students with disabilities: A narrative metasynthesis. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32, 108-114.

    Wehmeyer M. L., Palmer S. B., Agran M., Mithaug D., Martin J. (2000). Promoting causal agency: The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction. Exceptional Children, 66, 439–453.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Tanaka, V. (2018, December 12). Effects of self-determination and career education curriculum on students with disabilities. Social Publishers Foundation.  https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/effects-of-self-determination-and-career-education-curriculum-on-students-with-disabilities/

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