Improving Self-Advocacy Skills


Our 8th grade son with learning disabilities is reluctant to speak up in class, or do anything in school that draws attention to himself. He’s also naturally shy, which adds to his discomfort, especially when asking for things he needs, including the accommodations he’s entitled to. How can we help him develop better self-advocacy skills to ensure that he does not get lost in the large public high school he will be starting in the fall?

Kathrine J.
El Paso, TX

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Jenna Prada, M.Ed

Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.

At its most basic, self-advocacy is the ability to assert one’s needs, which is not as simple as it sounds. It requires a person to understand their needs, know how to address them, and then communicate those needs to someone else. For school-age kids, each one of those tasks can be challenging, especially when the person they’re asking is an adult. Wherever your child is in their self-advocacy journey, some or all of the ideas in the three-step process below can help them overcome their fears and become more comfortable advocating for what they need.

  1. Understand: This refers to getting clear on where support is needed most. Help your child to
  • Analyze their strengths. Encourage them to think about classes and activities that have gone well. What enabled them to succeed in those situations? How can they bring those same skills and strategies to other parts of their life?
  • Ask for feedback. For large projects, your child can complete a draft before the due date and ask their teacher for thoughts. Or make a study tool and have the teacher confirm that it includes everything that will be on the test.
  1. Know: Once your child has identified an area of need, the next step is to know how to address it.
  • Accept help. If someone offers to help – let them! Someone with more experience or knowledge such as a teacher or a counselor might be in a better position to help your child know what actions to take.
  • Ask questions. Teach your child to ask for clarification if they’re confused. If something is hard and they don’t know how to make it simpler, brainstorm ideas with them, discussing options until they land on a course of action.
  1. Communicate: Once they understand where they need support and know what form that support should take, they’re ready to communicate it to an adult who can help turn it into a reality.
  • Build a team. Help your child identify someone who cares about them, and is willing to help them get what they need. They’ll be surprised how many people are eager to see them succeed, which will also serve as a needed confidence boost.
  • Do it in writing. If it’s too scary to have a conversation, have them craft an email. If they do this, make sure that they follow email etiquette (start with “Dear Ms. Smith,” use full sentences, and finish with a thank you and their name).
  • Role play. Have them practice with you—or someone else they trust—what they want to say, so that when the time comes they’re not stumbling through the conversation.

As you work with your child to develop their self-advocacy skills, share examples from your own life as a motivator if they’re nervous about engaging in conversations where an imbalance of power exists. After all, it will often be an adult who has the power to grant or deny whatever your child is advocating for. Then, encourage your child to take a chance, reminding them that if they don’t ask, the answer is always no.

Students who are shy or fiercely independent may resist self-advocacy. They might see it as a display of weakness or associate it with the stigma of their disability, but the truth is that people who speak up for themselves are more successful across the board. In fact, students who get comfortable asserting their needs will likely have more opportunities throughout life than students who don’t.

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