Laurie Powers2

Laurie E. Powers, Ph.D., Portland State University

Dr. Powers reviewed the research on the efficacy of My Life, a self-determination enhancement intervention model designed to improve outcomes of young people in special education and foster care who are transitioning to adulthood. The review was funded by IES and included rigorous randomized control trials and qualitative studies that sought to identify and test transition solutions for students in special education and foster care.

Why focus on youth in special education and foster care?

Youth in foster care are very likely to receive special education services and are more likely to experience stressors such as abuse, poverty, homelessness, and mental health challenges. Approximately 60% of these youth are in special education and up to 25 percent also have developmental disabilities which further lowers expectations for high school achievement, employment, social support and health. One consequence of these compounding factors is that youth in foster care are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of the general population.

How can My Life help?

Students who participate in My Life are paired with a coach who introduces them to self-determination strategies that bolster achievement, forming partnerships and self-regulation in the context of supporting them to strive toward their goals and manage challenges along the way.  The coach’s role isn’t to make decisions for the student but to ensure students have the information they need to make informed decisions about their own lives. Coaches provide a consistent relationship and offer guidance as youths navigate the real-life experiences that arise as they pursue their goals. Through the coaching relationship, youths can experience successes that allow them to believe in the possibility of their own achievement.

What kinds of outcomes did you find in the studies you reviewed?

We looked at five studies that covered the evolution of My Life, from development, to efficacy evaluation, to refinement and adaptation. In those studies we found moderate to large effects in most categories such as improved self-determination and mental health, better preparation for postsecondary education and career planning and reduced hopelessness. In achieving milestones, we found the rate of incarceration at one-year follow-up was 15.7 percent for the control group compared to just 5.4 percent for those who took part in the intervention. We also discovered notable improvements in postsecondary participation and employment. Participant comments such as, “I started making goals. I started changing my life,” reinforce these findings by demonstrating increased confidence and higher expectations.

Where does My Life go from here?

We expect to see a big impact from implementation of My Life. The Center for the Study of Social Policy recently designated it an exemplary national model for positive youth development, and the study was also incorporated into the What Works Clearinghouse. Several local and national organizations have adopted My Life, and a certification training program has been developed for coaches and supervisors. 

The most important take-away is that My Life has shown that young people with disabilities – even those doubly disadvantaged by foster care – can establish successful adult lives if we give them youth-directed support and the information and opportunities they need to become self-determined and pursue their goals.


Dr. Laurie Powers is an emeritus distinguished professor, former associate dean of research, and director of the Regional Research Institute at Portland State University (PSU). Dr. Powers has focused much of her extensive research and scholarly publishing on identifying, validating and disseminating effective practices for promoting the self-determination and successful transition to adulthood of youth with diverse disabilities, including those in foster care. Her research has featured many longitudinal randomized controlled trials and companion qualitative studies; community-based participatory research studies; and measurement design and validation studies. Prior to joining Portland State University, Dr. Powers founded the Center on Self-Determination at Oregon Health & Sciences University, and she directed the Hood Center for Family Support at the Dartmouth Medical School.