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Promoting maintenance and generalization through cognitive decision making training.

This article investigates issues in the areas of work outcomes, self-determination, career decision-making skills, person centered planning, and transitional planning for students with disabilities. In particular, training in cognitive decision-making is suggested for students with mild disabilities. Educators and schools are charged with providing challenging, current, and useful experiences for students, including those with disabilities, so they may become fell members of society. Students with disabilities are often not taught cognitive decision making skills, and many leave high school with very little training in how to make decisions about careers. Little research has been conducted with this population investigating maintenance and generalization practices and student outcomes associated with self-determination, career decision-making, person centered planning, and transition planning. Students with disabilities can benefit from classroom instruction in skills needed for finding and maintaining successful work. Further research is needed to explore the characteristics, inhibitors, and supports that lead to successful outcomes sue to maintenance and generalization of career decision-making skills for students with mild disabilities.


The challenge for schools and educators is to provide relevant, challenging, and contemporary experiences in school for youth with disabilities, which will help them become lull members of society. One often-neglected strategy to aid these youth to become full participants is to teach them cognitive decision-making skills (Blackorby & Wager, 1996; Destefano & Wagner, 1993; Wehmeyer, 1993). Teaching such skills can promote maintenance and generalization of learned and observed behaviors in a variety of school and community settings. Teachers can incorporate cognitive decision-making training in classroom lessons, including experience relevant to the student social and economic needs (Burdick, Pond & Yamamoto, 1994; Ward, Wehmeyer, Martin & Marshall, 1993). Cognitive decision-making skills are essential for establishing and meeting goals, planning careers, exploring/investigating career choices, making decisions about the future, and establishing objectives and activities.

Building on efforts to increase awareness of cognitive executive decision-making skills for persons with disabilities, Wehmeyer (1993) defines cognitive executive decision-making as developing an improved self-concept, self-esteem and awareness of personal needs, interests, goals, strengths and limitations. Perceptions of personal career goals, including perceived control over outcomes, responsibility, and factors such as one's anxiety about the decision-making process are part of the process. Each of these skills, independently and collectively, can be taught.

Research on maintenance and generalization of career planning for persons with special needs has often been restricted to marginal topics and program conditions (Lichtenstein, 1995; Martin & Marshall, 1995; Miner & Bates, 1997a). Little investigative attention has been given to the decision-making skills, career/vocational development, and the relatively narrow range of career options for students with disabilities in today's labor market.

The purpose of this article is to review relevant research on cognitive decision-making skills and to demonstrate how these skills facilitate the overall development of students with mild disabilities (Wehemeyer, 1993; Dunn & Shumaker, 1997). Efficacy of work outcomes for persons with disabilities, strategies for facilitating self-determination. and development of career decision-making skills, and transition planning will be discussed. Finally, implications for classroom instruction will be reviewed.

Historical Work Outcomes

In the past few years, a number of studies have focused on adult adjustment and work outcomes of students with disabilities. Of central concern in these investigations was the employment status of these young adults as they left high school. Several researchers (Mithaug, Horiuchi, & Fanning, 1985; Dunn & Shumaker, 1997; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Sitlington, Frank, & Carson, 1992) reported that youth with disabilities experienced difficulties in obtaining and maintaining employment.

Mithaug, Horiuchi, and Fanning (1985) reported on a statewide follow-up survey of special education students in Colorado. The target population included 232 special education students graduating in 1978 to 1979 from each of the 45 administrative units in the state. Several interview instruments were used to gather data on high school coursework and information about post-secondary job experiences. Most graduates were employed but their earnings were at minimal levels, and most lived at home with their parents, suggesting a pattern of financial instability and family dependence. Respondents indicated a need for more training in specific areas, such as social participation and job search and selection. They also reported that special education teachers were more helpful in finding jobs for them than their parents.

Hasazi, Gordon, and Roe (1985) reported on factors associated with the employment status of youth with disabilities exiting high school from 1979 to 1983. Participants were 462 youths from nine Vermont school districts. Interviews were conducted to solicit current employment status, employment and training history, and use of social services. Over half the youths were employed, and 84 percent of the youths who found jobs obtained them through family members. Part-time or summer work during high school were predictors of duration of employment and level of earnings. After graduation. Participation in vocational education appeared to predict future employment status. Youth who participated in vocational programs in high school were more likely to be employed than those who did not.

Hasazi, Johnson, Hasazi, Gordon, and Hull (1989) provided a comprehensive review post-high school employment of youth with and without disabilities. One hundred thirty-three youth from nine Vermont school districts from 1984-1985 were involved in the study. Two sets of interviews were conducted, one in 1986 and one in 1987, to determine employment status, employment and training history, social services utilization, and residential status. Additional demographic information was obtained through individual student records. Results indicated students without disabilities had more favorable employment outcomes than students with disabilities. Across groups, males were more likely to be employed than females, and employment was positively associated with paid work experience during high school. Vocational class experience was positively associated with later employment for students with disabilities, but not for students without disabilities. Some changes in employment status over the two-year period did occur, but the majority of participants remained in the same employment status (full time, part time, or unemployed) for both years.

The National Longitudinal Transition Study of special Education Students (Blackorby, & Wagner, 1996) employed multiple data collection strategies through telephone interviews, analysis of high school transcripts, and surveys of teachers and principals to investigate work outcomes, wages, and independent status of students with disabilities five years alter graduation.. Findings indicated that although the rate of competitive employment rose 11 per cent for youth with disabilities between the time they left high school and three years later, it lagged significant behind the employment rate of youth in the general population. African American youth with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to be employed in 1990 than they were in 1987. The increase in the number of white students finding employment was much smaller, and quite similar to the 10-point increase noted for white students in the general population. However, overall, white youth with disabilities still had greater success in employment than their African American peers three to five years after secondary school. The authors noted that completing secondary school appeared to correlate positively with finding employment after graduation.

Many youth with disabilities leave secondary education with very little training in vocational and career decision making skills, or positive work attitudes that are important for successful transition from school to work or post secondary education. Burdick, Pond, and Yamamoto (1994) concluded that high school educators should initiate a developmental goal-directed plan that fosters skill development and helps students become contributing members of the community. They reported that when students with disabilities had experience completing job applications, interviewing, working, and utilizing and adapting their skills to meet changing work sites, they enhanced their work opportunities. The difficulty is that these behaviors cannot be taught in isolation. and must be part of an instructional strategy that seeks to foster identification of critical factors, analysis of those factors, decisions on inclusion or exclusion, and how decisions are used to guide subsequent behavior. One potentially fruitful avenue of research that may aid in fostering positive work outcomes is self-determination.


There is a growing interest in fostering self-determination training and experience for students with mild disabilities (Angel & Bates, 1997; Field, 1996; Wehmeyer, 1995). Investigations have yielded models and results that could improve learning and behavior, increase maintenance and generalization, and enhance self-determination (Wehmeyer, 1995; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997. Several investigators (Burdick, Pond, & Yamamoto, 1994; Wehmeyer, 1995; Wehmeyer, & Schwartz, 1997) have identified a variety of strategies for facilitating self-determination in individuals with disabilities. These strategies include (a) incorporating self-determination goals into individualized programs; (b) providing trans-disciplinary services in which each team member values self-determination as a worthy goal; (c) involving individuals in their planning and goal setting: (d) assessing individual preferences, (e) designing responsive, supportive, informal environments through alternative scheduling and modification of physical, social, and material resources; (f) providing opportunities for self-determined behavior by encouraging responsible choice making and active communicative participation; (g) responding to self-determined behavior by encouraging conversation and providing feedback, and (h) by teaching self-determination skills throughout the life span, using systematic instructional procedures as naturalistic teaching and learning opportunities arises.

Wehmeyer, Kelchner, and Richards (1996) evaluated four essential characteristics of self-determinaed behavior of 407 individuals with mental retardation. Analysis revealed significant differences between individuals who engaged in behaviors reflecting self-determination and those who did not. These characteristics were behavioral autonomy and choice-making opportunities, followed by indicators of self-awareness, self-regulation skills such as assertiveness and problem-solving skills, and perceptions of individual control.

Field (1996) evaluated self-determination instructional strategies, and developed four self-determination curricular models to foster self-determination skills: (1) focus on individual beliefs, knowledge, and skills: (2) attention to self-determination as related to adult outcomes; (3) need for self-regulation; and (4) behavior developed from an ecosystems perspective. The investigation included curricula and strategies to help students develop beliefs, knowledge, and skills that lead to self-determination. One curriculum is the Steps to Self-determination, which is experientially based, and allows students to establish and work toward goals as they' acquire knowledge and skills delineated in the model. Several instructional strategies and environmental considerations were suggested to encourage self-determination, including (a) using models; (b) providing opportunities for choice making: (c) providing attribution retaining: and (d) using appropriate behavioral strategies.

Career assessment has received increased attention in planning the education of adolescents with disabilities (Burdick, Pond & Yamamoto, 1994; Elrod, Sorgenfrei, & Gibson, 1995; Miner & Bates, 1997b). This indicates a change from previous practices in which career and vocational training received minimal attention, while academic and social skill building received most of the assessment attention.

Past failures to address self-determination have left many high school graduates with disabilities working in environments not suited to their abilities. Failure for inadequate cognitive executive decision-making skills can be attributed to: (a) schools that fail to teach these skills; (b) inadequate student exposure to decision making experiences: and (c) failure to provide students with disabilities opportunities to make decisions. Self-determination is a cognitive mediating skill, and should be combined with a variety of other components to fully realize its personal, social, and vocational potential.

Three specific application areas are germane to the process of readying students for for transition from high school to work: (a) functional career decision making; (b) person centered planning within the construct of career/vocational education ; and (c) transitional programming. More research is needed to address the development of these areas, and their combined utility in the community and workplace.

Career Decision-Making Skills

The decision-making process involves helping students make appropriate decisions for themselves in their daily lives, and planning for their futures after high school. Taal and Simpaio ([997) investigated the relationship between adolescents' decision-making and their sense of control over the future. They found that knowledge of decision-making increases sense of control over achievements and enhances perception of school as an instrument for exploring future careers. Explaining means-end relationships to students, such as the function of education in realizing present and future goals, facilitates academic achievement. Secondary teachers of students with mild disabilities can incorporate decision-making skills in everyday lessons, and should include exploration of career issues.

Greenhaus, Hawkins and Brenner (1983) investigated career exploration among college students. Goals of the research were to examine (a) different types of career exploration in which college students participate; (b) relationships between career exploration and development of career decisions; (c) relationships between career exploration and satisfaction with career decisions; and (d)the impact of exploration on career decision making and satisfaction. They found that exploratory behavior may facilitate career decision-making, and self-exploration is valuable in the career decision-making process. Self-exploration activities included test taking, counseling, and attendance at career development seminars. Despite their apparent usefulness, these activities had lower participation rates than most of the other activities. It would be helpful to determine why student participation is low, and to identity, strategies for marketing and delivering these services.

Niles, Erford, Hunt and Watts (1997) examined decision-making styles and career development in college students, and found that career assistance must be sensitive to students' preferences for gathering and analyzing data in the decision-making process. Indications as to the type of career assistance different groups of students may find useful were examined. For example, groups of students were identified who needed assistance clarifying values, learning about interests and abilities, learning how to make decisions, learning about occupations, and learning about the career decision-making.

Wehmeyer (1993) identified perceptual and psychological factors in career decision-making of adolescents with and without cognitive disabilities. Students with disabilities were found to have more significant perceptional and psychological barriers to career decision-making than do peers without disabilities, even when those peers have experienced failure. There were significant differences between students with learning disabilities or mental retardation and non-disabled peers. These findings support the hypothesis that one contributor to less than optimal employment outcomes for youth with disabilities is their lack of self-determination. Without intervention, students' perceptions of lack of control, dependence on others, and avoidance continue into adulthood, and they will rely on other to find jobs for them, and will likely remain in lower paying, less responsible positions.

Luzzo (1993) examined career locus of control and career decision-making self-efficacy, in conjunction with the current occupation-career interest congruence (COCIC). Levels of congruence between college career interests and current occupations were compared, and results indicated that students employed during college in occupations congruent with their academic and vocational interests were more satisfied than students working in incongruent occupations. Findings underscore the importance of learning arrangements and internship programs that give students opportunities to explore various career options during college years.

Person Centered Planning

Providing training and exploratory opportunity to students with disabilities can influence subsequent decision-making and career outcomes. While closely allied with the career/vocational movement and the self-determination model, person- centered planning has experienced minimal systematic research attention (Cuvo & Figueiredo, 1998; Miner and Bates, 1997).

Person centered planning (O'Brien, & Lovett, 1992) is a process of assisting people in identifying support services needed for independent living, work, personal relationships, and community involvement. Person centered planning is based on the assumption that what people with disabilities want and need requires changes within service organizations and communities, and is designed to facilitate change and vision of the future.

Miner and Bates (1997a) reviewed effects of person-centered activities on the Individualized Education Plan/Transition (IEP/TP) planning process. The purpose of their investigation was to evaluate the impact of person centered planning activities on several variables related to a student IEP/TP meeting. Twenty two students with mental retardation and their families were recruited and assigned to either a prelim nary planning condition or a control condition. Person centered planning activities had a positive effect on parent participation in IEP/TP meetings, but not on discussion of post-school issues during the meetings. Although other meeting characteristics were similar across groups, parents in the treatment group reported perceptions of increased preparedness, participation, student participation, and preparedness to discuss action steps.

The McGill Action planning System (MAPS) (Vandercook, York, & Forest, 1989) is a planning activity that emphasizes the involvement of learners with disabilities ill school, community, regular classes, and other environments and activities. MAPS is designed to provide structure that assists teams of adults and children to dream, scheme, and produce results for students with disabilities into activities, routine, and environments of same-age peers in their school. Assumptions underlying and guiding the MAPS process include (a) integration; (b) individualization: (c) teamwork and collaboration; and (d) flexibility. The goal of MAPS is to develop a plan that meets individual student needs in regular education settings. MAPS capitalizes on resources of classmates without disabilities, and on family and educational service providers to plan for inclusion of children with disabilities into regular school life. This process could assist regular and special educators to merge resources and build integrated school communities.

Miner and Bates (1997b) presented a model for person-centered transition planning for students with moderate/severe disabilities. Students and families are active in the transition planning process, which involves three steps: (a) personal profile; (b) future lifestyle preferences; (c) action steps and responsible parties, and necessary changes in the service delivery system.

The facilitator and family construct a personal profile of the student; student and family members describe future goals for the student; and the facilitator assists the student and family in creating a vision of desired future goals and determining responsibility for assuring completion of each goal. Within step three, the family and facilitator help the student recognize steps necessary to reach each goal. The plan also addresses the need to adapt the current service delivery system. The plan emphasizes that transition planning is a required aspect of the IEP process for high school students with disabilities. Until students and their families assume a more empowered role in this process, they will not realize the potential benefits of transition planning

Whitney-Thomas, Shaw, Honey and Butterworth (1998) used a person-centered planning process, Whole Life Planning, to understand participation of young people in planning for transition from high school to adult life. They employed qualitative methods of participant observation and ethnographic interviews, and found that student participation ranged from highly active to nonexistent across the observation planning meetings. The level of student participation was influenced by conversational style, size of the meeting, and level of abstraction in the planning discussions, as well as expectations and behaviors of others.

Transition Planning

Transition planning for students with disabilities has been considered best practice for several years. With the passage of Public Law 101-476 (IDEA--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) transition planning was translated from a suggestion to a mandated service (Davis & Bates, 1997; Lindsey & Blalock, 1993).

Davis and Bates (1997) examined transition related IEP objectives to ensure functionality, technical adequacy, and generalization. They evaluated the effectiveness of an in-service training program based on objectives developed in response to written vignettes describing hypothetical and actual students. They found that in-service was effective in teaching participants to write technically adequate objectives that programmed for generalization, but had less substantial effects on functionality of objectives, because most were rated as functional prior to the in service. Positive staff changes can result from inservice activities that are relatively short, concentrated, highly structured, and endorsed by the local administration.

Benz and Halpern (1993) described vocational programs and transition planning services needed and received by students with disabilities. Three samples of participation were the locus of this study, and results indicated that 35% of teachers believed students needed both specialized and regular vocational instruction. The majority (89%) of students with mild mental retardation were identified as needing some type of vocational instruction. Approximately 40% of students with mild retardation, emotional disabilities, and learning disabilities were identified as needing both specialized and regular vocational instruction, with parents and teachers rating the majority of students with disabilities as performing insufficiently. According to parents, even the best performing students with disabilities failed to perform as well as the comparison group of students without disabilities. Both parents and the teachers of students with disabilities rated male students as more competent than female students. Areas of perceived student transition need were vocational training (68%), post-secondary education (57%), and remedial academics (33%).

Botuch, Levy, Rimmerman, Murphy, Levy, and Kramer (1993) examined job training, job placement and job retention of urban young adults with mental retardation. Ninety four percent of individuals who completed training were competitively employed, supporting the relevance of training as a preparatory phase and as a mechanism to transition individuals into competitive employment, as well as long term, on-the job supports to assist employed individuals in meeting job requirements.


A review of the literature pertinent to career decision-making skills provided some consistent themes. For instance, a majority of the studies discussed increased knowledge and awareness of decision-making skills. Training raised students' sense of control over achievements and perceptions of school as an instrument for future careers, employment, and independence. A review of self-determination training indicated that too many students with disabilities remain unemployed, underemployed, working in low paying jobs and low status jobs, and are socially isolated. This missing ingredient is believed by many in the field of special education to be self-determination (Angel and Bates, 1997; Wehmeyer, 1995). The literature also indicated that self-determined youth tend to be (1) goal-oriented. (2) self-motivated, and (3) empowered. These skills are essential for students with disabilities if they are to be successful in the work place. Furthermore, the educational system should place more emphasis on activities involving students with disabilities in educational planning, decision-making and program implementation in order to become productive, vested participants in the community.

Implications for Classroom Instruction

Research has suggested that programs for students with disabilities should emphasize vocational education integrated with self-determination (Hasazi, Gordon. & Roe, 1985; Hasazi, Johnson, Hasazi, Gordon, & Hill, 1989; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Dunn & Shumaker, 1997). Vocational education appears to have a positive correlation with post-secondary job acquisition. Martin, Marshall and Maxson (1993) identified four areas in instruction that should be targeted and integrated with classroom and vocational programs. They are (1) decision making. (2) independent performance, (3) self-evaluation, and (4) self adjustment. During decision-making, students could identify needs, interests and skills, consider alternative future directions, and select goals. In independence performance, students should follow through on action plans, and performance may be enhanced by teaching self-management strategies. Students with mild disabilities can self-evaluate by monitoring and recording performance outcomes, and compare results with goals and performance objectives. In classroom and work situations, students can perform self-evaluations by examining homework completion, grades, social interaction, productivity, accuracy, and earnings. Students with disabilities can learn to adjust by using self-evaluation skills to determine the most desirable actions. They may change goals and tasks, and develop new self-management strategies for future goals based on self-evaluation.

Developing classroom instruction, as well as vocational programs integrated with self-determination skills, can contribute to development of positive work ethics and social skills. Students are thus empowered to take responsibility for their decisions and to systematically monitor whether decisions are yielding desired outcomes. If students with mild disabilities can develop and maintain adequate cognitive decision-making skills, along with positive academic performance, good social skills and work ethics, they have greater potential to achieve positive community and work outcomes, as well as social integration.


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Cecil Fore III, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Special Eduation, University of Georgia, Susan E. Riser, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, AUM, School of Education, Department of Counselor, Leadership and Special Education.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan E. Riser, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, AUM, School of Education, Department of Counselor, Leadership and Special Education.
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Author:Riser, Susan E.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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