Date of Award

Spring 5-17-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Psychology and Special Education

First Advisor

Kathryn Wolff Heller, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Paul A. Alberto, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Laura D. Fredrick, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Juane Heflin, Ph.D.


For students with physical and health disabilities, the development of self-advocacy skills is critical to their future success. Characteristics that may inhibit the development of self-advocacy skills in this population include reliance on others for assistance across multiple areas requiring physical abilities, deficits in communication skills, and the development of learned helplessness. Instruction in self-advocacy is needed for this population of students in order to maximize future success and decrease learned helplessness (Angell, Stoner, and Fulk, 2010; Macdonald & Block, 2005; Roberts, 2007). For this study, the researcher provided instruction to four elementary age students with physical disabilities who exhibited characteristics of learned helplessness, including ineffective initiation of requests. Students used speech, sign, or gestures as their primary form of communication, and were able to use this form of communication as a reliable means of response during typical classroom activities, including social interactions and when responding to questions. When they needed to initiate a request for required materials during classroom activities, they made no response, ineffectively gestured, or made unrelated comments when prompted to complete an activity. Students who initiated requests ≤ 50% of presented opportunities were eligible to participate in this study.

The intervention consisted of combined use of environmental arrangement and the system of least prompts in a multiprobe multiple baseline across participants design. Environmental arrangement strategies included missing materials or materials that were out of reach. The system of least prompts involved the following levels of prompting: (a) independent, (b) verbal – restatement of direction, (c) indirect verbal, and (d) verbal/model. Analysis of the data indicated that three of the four students increased their effective initiation of requests during intervention, and generalized this skill to new materials and novel settings. The fourth student exhibited noncompliant behaviors that interfered with his ability to reach criteria during intervention. These results support the effectiveness of this intervention in decreasing learned helplessness and increasing the self-advocacy skill of initiating requests with students with physical disabilities who have no interfering behaviors.