Self-Determination – Motivation to Change

Motivation.  A key to change

The word motivation is derived from the Latin verb movere, which means to move. That same Latin root gives us the words motion and motor. Action, action plan, change. Not passivity and not status quo.

With or without ADHD, we all could use more motivation. In fact, the single most common parental complaint to this pediatrician has been “why isn’t my child more motivated?”

As described in May’s Circle by Lisa Joy Tuttle, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is the specific theoretical framework focusing on motivation. The purpose of this article is to present definitions of SDT, its use in coaching, and its extended application to concepts of: resilience, grit, wellbeing, quality of life, student success, and self-advocacy. Information, including links, to ongoing research, self-evaluations, and commentary by the American Psychological Association are also provided.

The components of SDT were defined by Ryan and Deci in 2000, and are now widely accepted. In their 2000 article, these authors postulate “three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness – which when satisfied yield enhanced self-motivation and mental health and when thwarted lead to diminished motivation and well-being.” Empirically, they state that human beings have “inherent growth tendencies.” 

Ryan and Deci (2000) see motivation as concerning “energy, direction, [and] persistence;” they also acknowledge that motivation can be reached by many different developmental paths. Intrinsic (self-directed) motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation but is usually prompted only by activities that “have the appeal of novelty, challenge, or aesthetic appeal.” Of course, as coaches, we know that the bar needed for stimulation and engagement is higher for those with ADHD than without.

Field and Parker (2016) bring additional nuances to attributes of self-determination, as follows: having the capacity to choose; defining goals for oneself, based on self-knowledge; taking the initiative to reach those goals; engaging in an activity with full choice; and others.

Using Self-Determination Principles in Coaching
When decision making, goals, and change confront any of us, the core SDT principles of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are often forefront in our minds. The coach’s use of open-ended questions can help clients explore these key psychological needs.

For example, in relation to autonomy, open-ended questions might include the following: How does it work when we have to “get what we want” whenever we want to? How does autonomy work when we seek only our own needs and don’t think of others?  In what ways can both personal satisfaction and outreach to others become balanced and intrinsically desirable?

Regarding competence, questions could include: How does one arrive at a sense of competence?  How necessary is it that an acknowledgment comes from the outside? What kinds of acknowledgment, from whom, and expressed in what way is most meaningful? What things do we do which we intrinsically value?

In regard to relatedness: In what ways, and in what settings, do our contributions feel meaningful and appreciated? What are our unique contributions? What are the signs that our presence makes a difference, or that we are missed when we are not present?

Further extended positive effects of Self-Determination
Resilience and Grit
Field and Hoffman (2016, pp. 187-199) present arguments, backed up by many studies, showing how self-determination facilitates the development of both resilience and grit. They see resilience not as “an extraordinary phenomenon…but as having…behaviors, thoughts, skills, and actions that can be learned, developed, and encouraged.” Grit, a newer concept than resilience, is associated with “courage, conscientiousness, endurance, resilience, and striving for excellence.” Field and Hoffman see the satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs as actually encouraging resilience and grit.

Quality of Life
Curtis and Kelly (2013) studied eight non-clinical adults in a quality of life coaching intervention program. Their coaching, using self-determination theory, showed that this kind of coaching supported clients’ “expression of psychological courage and facilitated shifts toward autonomous motivation.” They describe psychological courage as “the psychological energy involved in confronting destructive habits, irrational anxieties [and] fears, and hearing the truth in daily life.”

LaChapelle et al. (2005), evaluated “the relationship between the self-determination and quality of life of persons with mild intellectual disabilities.” Replicating findings from a previous study, they showed the importance of self-determination in determining quality of life. They point out how, for intellectually challenged individuals, quality of life is likewise increased by the opportunity to do things for themselves, to make choices, and to solve problems.

The National Gateway to Self-Determination – Resources Information, and Research to Practice ( provides extensive educational resources for families, people with disabilities, and professionals, including a resource guide to promote self-determination and its relation to self-advocacy.

Student Success
The American Psychological Association (2004) made a formal statement claiming that student success can be increased through instruction in self-determination. The statement stresses that student goals are more often met when students are actively involved in setting them. The statement recognizes flaws in high stakes tests, contending that such extrinsic rewards may actually decrease motivation as well as undermine individuals “taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves.”

This statement identifies the program model of Field and Hoffman (see below) that stresses “instructional activities in areas such as increasing self-awareness, improving decision making, goal-setting and goal-attaining skills, enhancing communication and relational skills, and developing the ability to celebrate success and learning from reflecting on experiences.”

Additionally, the statement cites as among critical elements, “contextual supports
and opportunities for students, such as coaching for problem solving…” [emphasis added].

Field and Hoffman – advancing a model and developing an assessment tool
The longstanding research and initiatives of Field and Hoffman have both addressed self-determination and broadened awareness of its wide-ranging benefits. They have also set a benchmark of excellence with the development of evaluation tools as well as a formal educational curriculum with workbook applications of self-determination theory to everyday life.

The following are selected Field and Hoffman links demonstrative of their work:

•    2BSD – To be self-determined, explaining the characteristics of self-determination, outlining their model, and listing ongoing workshops and conferences.

•    What is self-determination? – a link providing the schematic for Wayne State University’s evaluation and educational program, highlighting the needed preliminary steps of knowing yourself and your context, as well as valuing yourself.

•    Wayne State University, College of Education, Self-Determination program – links to their curriculum, publications, online assessments, and projects (such as quantifying the effectiveness of coaching for college students with ADHD).

•    Steps to Self-Determination curriculum

•    Self-Determination Assessment internet (SDAi) – an online self- determination assessment.

(NOTE: Mile Ealy,, has offered to send to 50 ACO members, without charge, any three of the Self-Determination Student Scale Short Form (SDSS-SF) instruments, normed for students of college age. Disclaimer – I have been given the ProQuest instruction manual and associated DVDs for review. I otherwise have no business association with either ProQuest, which provided these products, or Early Education.)

A large body of peer-reviewed research evidence, with cumulative and broadening application, demonstrates the fundamental importance of self-determination. Self-determination is not only a mindset, nor just a skill, but in fact a personally experienced platform from which one can contend with life’s successes, failures, and future opportunities.


ron bashian - new photoRon Bashian, M.D.
ACO Research Committee Member




Bibliography & Resources

American Psychological Association.  Increasing student success through instruction in self-determination. July 2004

Bashian, R. ADHD Coaching and College. ACO Circle, July 15 2016.
(Original article link,

Bashian, R. Self-Determination Handout. (April 2017) ACO Conference.
(Email for handout with clickable links).

Curtis, D.F. and Kelly, L.L. (2013). Effect of a quality of life coaching intervention on psychological courage and self-determination. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. Vol 11 (1), 23-38

Field S. and Parker D.R. editors (2016). Becoming self-determined: Creating thoughtful learners in a standards-driven, admissions-frenzied culture.
Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Lachapelle Y., et al. (2005). The relationship between quality of life and self-determination: an international study. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. 49, 740-744.

Ryan R.M. and Deci E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facility of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55 (1) 68-78.

Sleeper-Triplett, J. and Fabry, C. Academic coaching: using a coach approach to build student self-determination. pp. 87-113. Becoming self-determined: Creating thoughtful learners in a standards-driven, admissions-frenzied culture. In Field S. and Parker D.R. editors (2016). Becoming self-determined: Creating thoughtful learners in a standards-driven, admissions-frenzied culture. Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Tough, Paul. How Kids Learn Resilience, The Atlantic, June 2016.

Wilma Fellman. (2006). Finding a career that works for you; a step-by-step guide to choosing a career. Second edition. Specialty Press.