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Self-determination as process and outcome in the transition from special school to society

Transition: New Service Models

Sytske Brandenburg

Sensis, a Centre for Care, Education and Services

St. Elisabethstraat 4

PO Box 54, 5360 AB Grave

The Netherlands

0486 471003


1. Introduction

One of the tasks of the (special) school is preparing the student for the world of adulthood. Formerly we advised the student and the parents a half-year before leaving the school. The advice was formed on account of talks with the student, his parents and the teachers. Whether the advised direction was the right one became clear after leaving the school and regularly with a good many disappointments.

Beside this experience, another insight has changed our way of working. Often we heard afterwards that the students felt, that they were sent in a certain direction without any feeling of their possibilities in that direction.

Particularly with negative experiences we often heard:” they said this is the best direction for you”. Apparently we had consolidated them in their dependent position.

In our new way of working the student starts three years before school leaving, at the age of 15 or 16 years old, creating his own plan for his future.

This article elaborates the methodology for the students with a visual and mild mental impairment. We restrict us to preparing on labour. Of course, we also use the way of working with the students who have a wider range of choices and for the other areas of living: leisure activities and the independent living situation.


2. Definitions of transition and self-determination


According to Paul Wehman et. al. (1999) transition is described as:

“A methodology by which a multi-disciplinary team is responsible, together with the client, for the development and implementation of a plan shaping the future of students with an impairment who leave school within 3 to 5 years.

The objective is to shape the future with respect to the aspects: living situation, daytime activities and leisure activities”.

The transition plan is an instrument to adjust the skills already learnt and the skills and attitude still to be learnt to everyday reality after leaving school.

According to our description, transition takes place in the adolescence phase and is part of career education.


What do we mean by self-determination?

We stick to the definition of Abery et.al. (1999):

“Self-determination is the ability of an individual to exercise the degree of personal control they desire over those areas of life they consider important and over which they wish to exercise control”.

In order to strengthen the feeling of self-determination in the entire process we intend to elaborate the ability to exercise personal control in the methodology. We seek to realise that, upon leaving school, the student has the feeling that he himself has chosen this place in society.

3. Principles

Guides in developing the self-determination in transition:

·       Research results regarding adolescents with a visual impairment

On the basis of a study among sighted students and students who are blind or visually impaired, K. Wolffe (1997) concludes that the successful programmes that lead towards work contain the following basic components:

·       Paid work as outcome for the students

·       Collaboration between student, parent, teachers etc.

·       Job-readiness training

·       Setting realistic goals

·       Limited use of supports

·       Self-advocacy and volunteerism: instruction in self-determination and self-advocacy

·       Enthusiasm of the teachers and the parents: honest feedback, role modelling and interest.

·       Developmental tasks adolescence

Most important characteristics of adolescence are: change in social role, developing a higher degree of autonomy and own identity, breaking away from the parents and wanting to belong to the peer group. Involving the parents in transition is a logical result of this but also wanting to stand on one’s own feet, sometimes making other choices than the parents is part of the process of growing towards one’s own place in society.

Keeping open the dialogue with both parents and student and between parents and student offers most possibilities.

·       Empowerment

Respect for and trust in the possibilities of the student (and his parents) without losing sight of reality (Den Dulk, 1998 in Maes, 2001).

We assume that a person with impairment and his parents are competent to make their own choices. The student and the parents constantly point the way as to what steps to take.

·       Inclusion

Full participation in our society by allowing the student to gain work experience during the school period. On the basis of the experiences gained, letting the student decide in what residential and work community he will function best. During the school period his skills can be further developed in order to increase his possibilities.

·       Social networking

The student’s parents are the ones who are involved most closely. In order to find a trainee post, we ask the parents to use their network. These students have a greater chance of finding a job if they can gain work experience through the network of their parents. This sometimes leads to a job.

4. Self-determination during transition, put into practice

We want to ensure that it becomes the plan of the student instead of the plan of the team, for the student.

How can we make sure that the student keeps control over the drawing up and implementation of his own plan?

How can we put the organisation into service of the student, without doing damage to the interests of the other students?

How can we respect and support self-determination?

In our school, in two areas self-determination is supported intentional, during:

·       the transition meetings;

·       the practical lessons and work placements.

The transition meetings

First meeting: student’s wish, clarification of the wish

·       Student and parents are invited; personal coach of student and a maximum of two other persons from school are present. Principle applied: the school does not send more participants than the student so that a real dialogue may be effected.

·       Student follows the school curriculum for at least another three years.

·       Starting with the student’s wish: asking for explanation so that we all have the same idea of this wish. For example: a boy with learning difficulties who says that he wants to work in the catering industry provokes a first reaction that this is impossible. When asking for further explanation it appears that the boy wants to load and unload the dishwasher in the washing-up kitchen of a restaurant.

·       If the parents’ wish differs from that of the student, it is stated separately in the plan. If the wishes of parents and student differ, the student’s preference is examined first.

·       Together with the student and parents, examining whether the present school curriculum will sufficiently equip the student for the future.

·       Prior to the meeting, the school team has formed a temporary judgement about possible perspectives: paid work at a regular company or sheltered workplace or a form of unpaid work.

·       The parents and the student give their opinion about the most suitable form of work. We mention the judgement of the team. Initially, we base ourselves on the assessment of the student and his parents.

·       The student chooses a department (kitchen, restaurant, household department, garden, technical department) where he will work during a number of weeks to see whether those activities suit him and where he can gain insight into his role of employee.

·       The student and the parents get a report of each talk in the form of an individual transition plan with objectives, agreements and evaluation.

Continuation, implementation, adjustment en evaluation of the plan

·       Each year, if necessary every six months, the next work placement is agreed upon with the student and his parents. The school has a work placement scheme in which the periods have been set down. The student outlines his own placement scheme with regard to type of work and preferred company.

·       Keeping the wishes of the student and the parents in mind, we constantly “take stock”, we evaluate the placement and focus on the kind of work and company that are most suitable for the student.

·       We pursue a rather strict policy in this process. If a placement and the assessment have proven that working at a regular company is not possible, then we will not continue to search for placements at regular companies.

·       Matter for consideration by school staff: the student himself must draw conclusions instead of us. This requires a different attitude than what we are used to.

·       If it is not possible to gain experience in a certain profession, the student interviews a person with that profession.

·       The student and the parents get an information file containing all legal provisions and facilities for visually impaired people. The student is encouraged to collect information himself, for example inquiring of the career adviser. If the parents and student appreciate it, other officers can be invited to give more detailed information.

·       The personal coach is the coordinator for the colleagues at school and also of the plan. This coordination task is shared with the student and the parents. The personal coach coordinates in close consultation with the student and the psychologist.

The school curriculum

Orientation within work placements

·   Work placements take place both in and outside the institute.

·   In the case of external work placements, we ask the student and parents to actively seek a trainee post themselves. We have noticed that addresses following from the parents’ network increase the possibilities for the student. In addition, the involvement of the parents is very direct.

·   The students evaluate themselves on the basis of a 5-point rating scale, which is also filled in by the training supervisor. The discussion of both evaluations (of both student and supervisor) provides the student with an image of himself which does not come across as “they say that…” but which, on the other hand, is based on observable behaviour which can be checked by the student himself. This form of giving and receiving feedback also takes place within each practical skills training.

·   The feedback the student gets during the work placement contains the strong and weaker skills, but also the role of vision during the activities.

·   A separate form of work placement is an assessment within a sheltered workplace. There, the students carry out activities with an increasing degree of complexity, which increasingly appeal to their independence skills. On the basis of observation, a written advice is given whether paid work, either sheltered or in regular company, is possible or whether a form of unpaid work would be most appropriate. This information is more objective than the information yielded by short work placements and is therefore a welcome supplementation.

The practical lessons

·   Two times a week, the students have practical skills training (care, gardening and printing trade). Each practical session takes 3 ½ hour. They work by means of handouts, which describe the assignment they have to carry out in very small steps. The students carry out different activities in the same practical training room. One student is ironing while another is making coffee or is mopping the floors in the school corridor. By means of the steps, they learn how to carry out a certain skill. The teacher walks around and observes the behaviour and coaches if it is needed.

·   At the end of the lesson, the students evaluate their own behaviour, which is also evaluated by the teacher. The student formulates his own matter for consideration. The points for consideration may also follow from an evaluation of the practical training (for example independence skills, associating with teachers).

·   The school must be flexible if the parents and the student choose for another approach than the general learning guide. For example if a student wants to leave school prematurely, before the five-year programme has ended, the programme of this student is adjusted to the objective to acquire a suitable place in society.

·   Each student gets a social skills training; they practice general social skills and more specifically, the skills that are mentioned in the individual transition plan. During the first exploratory talks about the placement, the student prepares for these talks so that he is able to present relevant information about himself and in particularly about his visual impairment.

5. Discussion

·       The student really learns that his behaviour has consequences. If he makes a choice, the staff members listen to him and it will actually be carried out.

·       The student gets to know his possibilities in a positive way but he is also confronted with his limitations in situations that he himself has chosen.

·       By taking self-determination as a principle, a student’s reaction like “I do it because you tell me to” is a good feedback moment for us: we have not succeeded in letting the student draw his own conclusions.

·       By being constantly aware of the question of the student, making plans for it and evaluating them with the student and the parents, we increase the possibility to really change our teaching activities if demands are changing.

·       Our experience is, that the way of controlling one’s own future is not connected with intelligence: rather, having an insight into your own possibilities and limitations and gearing them to wishes for the future seems to be a personality trait.

·       During the discussion of the plan, unreal expectations become more real; this means that it needs attention for the emotions of the parents and the student: if the work placement results are disappointing it needs adaptation of the self-image of the student.

Our method may possibly advance this adaptation with the positive result that the student gets another chance to look for new possibilities.

·       The reverse also occurs: the parents and the student have higher expectations than we have. If the student tries out and he succeeds, it causes an emotional reaction by us: we have to accept this and to learn that we are not the super professionals.

·       If the group is not too big during the meeting, there is a real dialogue between the student, parents and school staff, where all parties come up with new initiatives and must adjust their ideas.

·       More time for the parents, the teachers and the student is required in our way of working. Some examples:

-               The student himself sorts out problems; the personal coach keeps an eye on things, however.

-               The parents are directly involved; in the case of an interim change there is more frequent contact with the parents. The school does less on their own initiative

-               The personal coach is responsible for the communication with the other team members about the content of their subject if it is mentioned in the plan. For example, switching to practical arithmetic assignments instead of doing sums from a book. She will discuss this with the teacher.

-               In a meeting with the team members taking place prior to the meeting in which the plan is discussed, the personal coach takes stock of the team members’ views. She will incorporate these views in an advice, which is presented in the plan meeting.

6. Conclusions

This article elaborated how we put into practice the self-determination of the students in the curriculum as well in the transition meetings.

Our new way of working costs more time than the traditional one. We hope that the student, the parents and the school staff, share the experience that this methodology is as an essential part in the transition-process to adulthood.

How the students and the parent look back at this form of process coaching, a thorough follow-up study could provide more clarity about this.

The close contact between students, the parents and the school staff about the content of the school programme, gives us the opportunity becoming a demand-based school.

The greatest task for us is to change our attitude, a real challenge!!


S. Brandenburg

Psychologist Sensis

Grave, the Netherlands


Abery, B. (1999). Supporting self-determination for youth and young adults with deafblindness. Impact, volume 12, nr. 2, summer 1999.

Lierop, B, van.(2001). Reïntegratie na scholing. De brug tussen arbeidsongeschiktheid en arbeidsparticipatie. Den Haag, Elsevier.

Maes, B., Goffart, K. (2001). Trajectbegeleiding voor personen met een handicap: een conceptuele verkenning. TOKK, 01(26) 2-14.

McConnell, J. (1999). Parents, adolescents, and career plans of visually impaired students. Journal of Visual Impairments, 99(8).

NICHCY Transition Summary (1999). Transition Planning: A team effort.

Schraven, J., Ario, L. Van VSO-MLK naar praktijkschool. Speciaal Onderwijs, jrg 72, nr. 1.

Wehman, P., Moon, S., Everson, S., Wood, W. and Barcus, M. (1988). Transition from school to work. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Wolffe, K. (1997). The Key to successful school-to-work programs for blind or visually impaired students. Journal of Visual Impairments, 91(8), 5-7.

Wolffe, K , editor .(1999). Skills for succes. A career education handbook for children and adolescents with visual impairments. New York, AFB Press.


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