Self-Determination and Friendships Among Students who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

The issue

Self-determination is the sense of being in control of one’s life; that you can set your own goals, and work to achieve them. Self-determination is an umbrella term that includes self-awareness, choice making, problem solving, self-advocacy, goal setting, and self-monitoring. Research shows that self-determination is important to develop in childhood because it is related to in-school and post-school success. Students with disabilities need opportunities to develop these skills.

What we know

We know that having friends is important for children and teenagers. Friends provide role models, help teach social skills, and provide an opportunity for companionship and intimacy. However, we also know that there may be barriers in place for students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) in terms of making friends. Communication and language may be affected for DHH students, which may impact their ability to make and sustain friendships.

We know that self-determination and friendships are important for everyone, especially for people with disabilities. But, are these constructs related? And, how can we help students develop friendships and become more self-determined individuals?

We used surveys to measure self-determination and quantity and quality of friendships among DHH teenagers who are primarily in mainstream/inclusive school settings. We found a correlation between friendship and self-determination, meaning these two constructs are related. Teenagers who had higher levels of self-determination also tended to have more friends and vice versa. We can’t say that either construct (self-determination or friendships) caused the other, since we only looked at if there was a relationship between the two. But, we know that friendships and self-determination are related, and both are important for children and young adults. We also asked students to list their friends and identify if they were hearing or were DHH. The majority of friends who students listed who were DHH were friends from a summer camp specifically for DHH students.

What we don’t know

We don’t know the nature of the relationship between friendships and self-determination. Does having more friends lead to greater self-determination or vice versa? Are self-determination and friendships different in students who are DHH based on educational setting or communication mode? These are questions that demand more research. We encourage researchers to continue to study these constructs specifically within students who are DHH.


We can confirm that self-determination skills and friendships are necessary for the success of students who are DHH. So, how can we help students develop these?

It is important that children have an opportunity to be around others who share demographics with them – i.e., students who are DHH should have an opportunity to be around other students who are DHH who understand experiences related to hearing loss. Summer camps for DHH children are an option. Deaf organizations and local chapters sometimes offer social events such as the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in the United States that offers some programs that bring together DHH youth. Children may also benefit socially from involvement in extracurricular activities such as sports teams with peers. Such programs increase opportunities for friendships, which are correlated with self-determination.

For developing self-determination, expanding the number of opportunities for daily practice is most important. It can begin in early childhood with making choices and problem solving (e.g., “You spilled your milk. What can you do about it?”). Here are some other examples of areas for skill development:

  • Self-awareness: Understanding one’s own hearing loss, communication implications, and hearing equipment, including understanding preferences
  • Choice-making: Choosing the ideal seat in the classroom, choosing preferred activities, choosing where to complete homework, choosing hearing equipment color
  • Problem solving: Troubleshooting hearing equipment, figuring out what to do when it’s hard to hear or understand friends
  • Self-advocacy: Role-playing and working on advocating for needs, such as asking the teacher to use captioned media
  • Goal setting: Setting goals in any area including academics, extra-curricular activities, and self-advocacy, as long as the goals are chosen by the student rather than adults
  • Self-monitoring: Tracking one’s progress toward IEP goals, graphing scores, and progress in academic areas

Regardless of the resources used, creating opportunities for children who are DHH to develop self-determination and friendships will have life-long positive impacts.

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Brittany Dorn
University of Northern Colorado

Kaitlyn Millen
University of Northern Colorado


Further reading