Designing culturally appropriate self-determination curricula for students and parents


The use of self-determination curricula is an effective strategy for promoting increased student involvement in transition planning. While many curricula exist for students, few are designed specifically for Sfiidents from indigenous or immigrant communities. Curricula are frequently based on an individualistic orientation that is discordant for students from a collectivist orientation. This paper presents strategies for modiIying or creating a student self-determination curriculum that is appropriate for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. Guidelines for developing a companion curriculum for CLD parents are introduced. Descriptions of units and examples of lessons are included.

Secondary special educators and transition specialists generally assume primary responsibility for assuring that transition plans focused on post-school outcomes are developed when students eligible under IDEA turn 16. Students often need additional support that will enable them to participate fully in the IEP process and articulate their long-term goals after high school. This support can be provided in a variety of ways including the use of curricula that emphasize self-determination, a practice that is evidence-based (National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center, 2013). Guidelines for selecting a self-determination curriculum for your students is simplified by Test, Karvonen, Wood, Browder, and Algozzine (2000) who identify eight core components of self-determination and seven key questions to facilitate the selection process.

The first two questions Test et al. (2000) present, pertain to the match between the curriculum and students’ needs. Special educators and transition specialists working with indigenous students or in immigrant communities may encounter difficulty finding curricula that are suitable for their students. Curricula are frequently based on a more individualistic view of self-determination that is dissonant to students whose orientation is Collectivistic (Black &Leake, 2011). For this reason, it is important to develop or modify self-determination curricula in a manner that is respectful of the unique cultural orientation of your students. Moreover, parents of CLD students often experience difficulty supporting their children’s transition planning and can benefit from a companion curriculum.

This article will describe a process undertaken to develop two curricula (one for students and one for parents) that were field tested with Native Hawaiians, American Indian, and Alaskan Native students and parents. Detailed recommended steps will highlight important considerations when modifying curricula for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students and their parents.

Development of self-determination curricula for students and parents was part of a federally funded project investigating the efficacy of culturally responsive approaches to transition planning for indigenous students with high incidence disabilities and their parents. The development process was predicated on the belief that a mismatch often exists between special education and CLD students and families and that the unique cultural resources of students should be recognized. Self-determination is often viewed differently by individuals with a collectivist orientation who emphasize a shift from dependence to interdependence with family and community, rather than independence (Ewalt&Mokuau, 1995; Frankland, Turnbull, Wehmeyer, &Blackmountain, 2004).

Studies reveal that CLD parents frequently lack a full understanding of the transition process and are not fully engaged in their children’s IEP and transition planning (Landmark, Zhang & Montoya, 2007). To address these issues, the “I” in the IEP project developed a parent curriculum using a cultural brokering model (Goode, Sockalingam, & Snyder, 2004). The cultural broker model involves individuals from the cultural community who facilitate communication between professionals and parents.

Recognizing the importance of the roles of parents and community in the transition process for CLD students, two curricula were developed, one for students and one for parents. The purpose of both curricula is to strengthen the student’s cultural foundation to pursue his or her own goals encouraging self-determination, selfadvocacy, and person-centered planning with appropriate support from the family. Both curricula were field tested with 143 Native Hawaiian, American Indian (Navajo), and Alaskan Native students, and 57 parents. Teachers, students and their parents participating in focus groups were positive about the curricula. Furthermore, the level of student participation in IEP meetings was more favorable when parents participated in the parent curriculum.

The student curriculum has seven units and can generally be completed over a traditional semester. These units were initially created using Hawaiian culture as the foundation. They were then adapted for the Navajo and Native Alaskan students. The units focus on self awareness, social conscience, social justice, self-determination, social action, advocacy, and self advocacy, and unit lessons address the eight core components of self-determination curricula described by Test et al. (2000).

The parent curriculum initially developed in Hawaii includes six sessions focusing on self awareness; social consciousness; materials and resources; resources/priorities and decision making; using resources; and self-determination, and social action. The units can be explored in 1 day or over several meetings, thus can be completed in a timeframe appropriate for the parents in your program. The goals of the parent curriculum focus on building connections between parents and educational and rehabilitation professionals and compliment those of the student curriculum. Specific goals for each of the six sessions are presented below.

Parent Curriculum - Sessions

Session 1

  1. Recognize their role in helping their child be successful in school and in life
  2. Increase their knowledge about child’s needs
  3. Increase their knowledge of self, what strengths they have to offer child, and what they need to build within themselves to meet the needs of their child
  4. Increase knowledge, awareness, and understanding of viewpoints of others involved in the IEP process
  5. Identify support connections, and use effective problem-solving to make decision.

Session 2

  1. Increase understanding of students’ rights and responsibilities in school and parent’s rights and responsibilities
  2. Increase their use of effective problem-solving
  3. Recognize in and out of school that can help their child learn better
  4. Increase understanding of resources available to help them support their child’s educational goals

Session 3

1. Increase their cultural/social capital for navigating the future of their child

2. Increase understanding of how to effectively access and maximize the resources available to them

Session 4

1. Increase their cultural/social capital for navigating the future of their child

2. Increase understanding of how to effectively access and maximize the resources available to them

Session 5

  1. Increase understanding of the social and cultural meanings of disability
  2. Increase understanding of the laws that apply to disability and special education and how to effectively use these as support resources
  3. Learn the content of an IEP

Session 6

1. Improve preparation for an IEP meeting

2. Use effective self-advocacy for children

Following are the steps we recommend to develop a culturally appropriate self- determination curriculum for students.

Step 1: Formulate a team of curriculum specialists, transition specialists, and cultural brokers.

Identify individuals who can assist with curricular modifications appropriate for your students. These individuals may include teachers, transition specialists, and community members with cultural knowledge, curriculum specialists, and students, as appropriate. It is important that you have individuals who are well connected to the cultural context where your students reside. Elders are often quite knowledgeable and would be appropriate to include on your team.

Step 2: Convene the team to plan process for integrating culturally-relevant content.

All members of your team should share a common understanding of the tasks that need to be completed. Assure that the curriculum provides cultural foundations that enable your students to understand how their identity is influenced by their own culture and the mainstream culture. This should include exploration of personal and family values and history, cultural assessments, and culturally appropriate supports. Building upon this foundation the curriculum should strengthen the student’s ability to develop decision-making skills and strategies for communicating effectively in the mainstream culture. These skills will promote improved skills pertaining to Individual Education Plans (lEP’s) and transition planning including goal setting, identifying needed accommodations and resources, and leading team meetings.

Step 3: Investigate relevant evidence-based practices.

Members of the team should become familiar with evidence-based practices pertaining to transition, self-determination, curriculum development and modification, culturally appropriate instructional design, and delivery. Use this knowledge in completing the development process. Your students may benefit from materials presented in certain formats or approaches, based upon their cultural orientation.

Step 4: Select an appropriate curriculum or create one that addresses all dimensions of self-determination.

Test and his colleagues (2000) outlined eight components that should be included in a self-determination curriculum. These include “choice/decision-making; goal setting and attainment; problem solving; self evaluation, observation and reinforcement; self advocacy; inclusion of self-directed IEP; relationships with others; and self awareness” (Test, p. 48). A wide range of self-determination curricula for students exist, and a number of those have been field-tested and critiqued in the literature. You may also want to design your own curriculum, although this process can be time intensive.

Step 5: Translate key topics and terminology into the native language as appropriate in all materials.

Translating core concepts into their native language will enhance your students’ understanding of critical constructs related to self-determination and transition planning. Figure 1 illustrates translations of a lesson for Native Hawaiian students. You may want to adjust the terms you translate if your students are more acculturated or are not fluent in their native language.

Step 6: Locate resources and materials that will support teachers in implementingthe curriculum.

This step is particularly important if teachers are not very knowledgeable about the cultural heritage of their students. Additional articles or visual materials will enhance presentation of lessons in a manner that is culturally appropriate. This step is also important to consider after piloting the curriculum and reviewing feedback from students and teachers.

Step 7: Find and insert appropriate graphics or work with students to create them.

Graphics of cultural symbols, depiction of familiar settings, people, or activities and geographical representations are important additions to the modified curriculum. For example, graphics for the student curriculum for Navajo students featured cultural art, photos of traditional homes, and members of their tribe.

Step 8: Pilot the curriculum, soliciting feedback from teachers and students.

You can choose to solicit feedback from students as you progress through the curriculum, or wait until you have completed all of the units. We met with both teachers and students discuss their perspectives of the units and lessons. Teachers may want to take notes after each unit to note possible changes and to track what went well.

Step 9: Modify the curriculum as needed.

If only minor changes are needed, this can probably be handled by one or two people. It may be necessary to re-convene your committee to discuss further curricular modifications.

A similar approach is recommended for developing a parent curriculum. Identify a team of individuals with expertise in the cultural beliefs and practices, educational curriculum development, and transition. A cultural broker is selected who is a member of the community who is also a parent of a child with a disability. The cultural broker is trained to establish personal relationships with other parents and work with them in identifying and resolving conflicts and misunderstandings that may be hindering collaboration with professionals. The cultural broker will meet with a group of parents and introduce cultural activities honoring cultural traditions and facilitate a respectful group setting in which parents can learn more about their role in transition and student- directed IEPs.

The team identifies appropriate cultural activities for sessions establishing a safe and welcoming environment that would encourage parents to make meaning of their roles and contributions in supporting their children within their unique cultural contexts. For example, Native Hawaiian parents make a lei, Alaskan Native parents make a song and dance, and Navajo parents make a cradle board. Native language is used as appropriate to represent different concepts. For example, native words for collaboration may be more meaningful to participants.

Following are the steps involved in the Session 1 activity for Native Hawaiian parents. Notice how self awareness is promoted through the shared activity (making the lei) and the use of Native Hawaiian language and constructed meanings.

The following is a sample activity for lesson 1 of curriculum for native Hawaiian parents:

  1. Pule (prayer)
  2. Discuss the lei as a metaphor for family empowerment.
  3. Provide materials parents will need to make a lei (string, needles, flowers, or ti leaves).
  4. Discuss the representations of each element of the lei: Talk story about family genealogy, and personal narrative. Explain the ‘lei string’ or the ‘ewe’ umbilical cord to demonstrate how everything is connected together. How the ‘ewe is our connection to the past, present and future with family and where we live (our sense of place).
  5. Ask participants to identify and describe their place/relationship within their 'ohana (extended family unit); relationship to and with their kupuna (elders), who they are accountable to and responsible for and their sense of place. (This may be done at home with a graphic outline/guide to bring back for the next session).
  6. Discuss mookuauhau (genealogy) because that is our source for what we know today, for what our kuleana (personal responsibilities) is, and for further perpetuation what ispono (our sense of order, balance, and doing the right thing).
  7. The aina (land) and our sense of place help us to connect. Give overview of how Hawaiians viewed their environment. This overview is important to give personal power to the parents. Is the environment inanimate or animate, living or dead? It’s alive. Hawaiians gave names to everything (land, wind, rain, cloud, and ocean, and plant) to personalize, to acknowledge their life essence. From the time you are born, respect for the environment translates to having respect for other things, like one’s social environment, spiritual environment, etc.
  8. Instructions: Participants will select their materials, and they will prepare their materials (cut string/cord, select flowers)
  9. Discuss building awareness by looking at differences. The reasons Parent A selected a variety of flowers, versus Parent B possibly selected only one type of flower, or the string/cord length.
  10. Relate these differences to viewpoints, values, school, and home cultural values.
  11. The group can choose what flowers or pattern (try to have at least 3 types of flowers) to use.
  12. Relate these choices to problem solving and decision-making.
  13. Collect the material the participants prepared and hold them in a lei container for the next class activity (only necessary if utilizing the curriculum over many sessions).
  14. Pass out handouts for activities participants should research/do and bring back to next session.
  15. Start to teach parents the lei chant. Teach parents that they have a unique voice. Manakaleo- power in their voice. I kaolelokeola, i kaolelokamaka-in the word is life, in the word is death. Chant especially written for them by Kawena and is used to celebrate and honor their child. Reaffirm their commitment to doing what is necessary for their child to succeed.

Teachers and transition specialists can and should support their students to become more active participants in transition planning. If we want our students to become more empowered (Jones, 2006), we must reach all students by using more culturally sensitive approaches with students from indigenous or immigrant communities. Including parents in this process strengthens the student-school connections, and also assists in bridging the gap, that often exists, between home and school culture.



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  2. Ewalt, P.L., Mokuau N. (1995). Self-determination from a Pacific perspective..SLao/hor/c, 40(2), 168-175.
  3. Frankland, H.C., Tmnbull. A.P., Wehmeyer. M.L..Blackmormtain, L. (2004). An exploration of the self-detennination construct and disability as it relates to the Dine’ (Navajo) culture.Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 39(3). 191-205.
  4. Goode, T. D., Sockalingam. S., Snyder. L. L. (2004). Bridging the cultural divide in health care settings: the essential role of cultural broker programs .National Center for Cultural Competence.
  5. Jones, M. (2006). Teacliing Self-Detennination.Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(1), 12-17.
  6. Landmark, L.J.. Zhang, D. D., & Montoya. L. (2007). Culturally diverse parents’ experience in their children’s transition: Knowledge and skills. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 30(2), 68-79
  7. National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center (2013).Secondary Transition Evidence-Based Practices and Predictors of Post School Success.
  8. Test, D.W., Karvonen, M.Wood. W.M., Browder D., &Algozzine, B. (2000). Choosing a self-determination curriculum.Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(2) 48-54.
Year: 2016
Category: Pedagogy