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Self-Advocacy: Strategies for All Ages

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By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, MA, CEP


Students who know how to self-advocate have an important skill that supports lifelong success, yet few children actually are taught how to understand their needs and communicate those needs to others. Following are some tips to help your child acquire the skills that will serve her well as she goes through school and beyond.


Start Early

Young children often worry that teachers don’t like kids who remind them of accommodations or ask too many questions. Use the time before school starts to assure your child that teachers respect active learners.


Encourage Self-Awareness

As they progress through elementary school, students with learning differences should become increasingly aware of their specific assets and deficits and what accommodations they need to succeed. Help them articulate their growing understanding by practicing how to ask for help in a positive way. Use role-play and humor to rework situations that proved uncomfortable in the past or to simulate solutions for problems that lurk in your child’s vivid imagination. Reinforce the fact that at school, as in most of life, politeness and a positive attitude have beneficial effects.


Stay Positive

A child who is sensitive about LD during the unremitting tension of the academic year may be receptive to poolside conversations about learning preferences or fear of failure. Combine a trip to the ice-cream store with a casual conversation about negative and positive self-talk. Remind her of people with learning differences who have achieved astonishing success. A graceful dive might inspire the story of Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. A role in the camp play could trigger the story of Henry Winkler, whose parents called him “dumb dog” in a time before people understood that learning differences have nothing to do with learning ability.


Support Critical Thinking

When your child is in elementary or middle school, assure him that you will advocate for him before the special ed team makes decisions or changes. At the same time encourage him to begin to sort out strengths and weaknesses in non-confrontational settings. This will develop the confidence and awareness needed to speak for himself when he is old enough to attend IEP meetings. In the course of casual conversation ask, “Do you think you learn better when you hear about something or when you look at something?” “Do your teachers usually give a fair amount of homework?” “What happens when you can’t figure out what to do and the teacher doesn’t seem to know you need help?”


Engage in Problem-Solving

Try to discover which teachers clarify and which ones confuse; which approaches are calming and which are chaotic. After hearing your child discuss the issues he faces, brainstorm helpful coping strategies. Students who envision positive possibilities are better equipped to approach continuing challenges.


Promote Self-Advocacy

By the time children enter middle school, they should know the name and description of their diagnoses. They should also be aware of problems a diagnosis could cause in class, at recess, or in extracurricular settings. Let your child know that it’s appropriate to inform a teacher of strategies that support success: “I can’t seem to grasp what you want when you show us without explaining. Could you discuss each step you demonstrate? I think I’d do much better in your class with that help.”


Require Involvement

High schoolers should be encouraged to participate in the process that defines their learning. They should know their rights, be able to present a comprehensive description of their assets and deficits, and contribute actively to IEP meetings. Those using curricular modifications should be able to evaluate which accommodations are useful and which are not.


Plan for the Future

Long before graduation approaches, your child should play an active role in the transition planning that affects life after high school. Summer internships, jobs, or pre-college, campus-based programs can offer wonderful firsthand experience for real-world possibilities.


Build Self-Esteem

For students who learn differently, knowledge truly is power. Use your own creativity to help your child develop the skills she needs to help herself. Successful self-advocacy starts with self-esteem. Catch your child doing something right and praise, praise, praise. The strongest self-advocates are those who feel best about themselves.