Loading Add to favorites

By: Adrianna Arsenault & Dr. Jess Whitley

Creating a safe, inclusive and caring learning community is an important part of addressing students’ diverse needs. In an inclusive classroom, all students feel welcome and valued, see themselves in their environment, and have their learning needs met. However, online learning presents unique opportunities and challenges for teachers and students alike. As a result, the tools, practices, and approaches used to establish an inclusive learning environment will be different. One supportive element in the development of an inclusive learning climate is ensuring that learners have well-developed self-advocacy skills. Self-advocacy in the classroom refers to students' ability to recognize and effectively communicate their needs. When students are able to identify what supports they require to be successful and are made to feel comfortable sharing these requests, teachers are better able to adapt their teaching practices and create more effective learning supports. Helping students develop and practice self-advocacy skills is beneficial for all students, and has been shown to improve school retention rates and post-school success. Similarly, supporting students' self-advocacy skills is particularly important for students that are made more vulnerable in online learning, such as those with diverse learning needs.

In 2005, researchers Test, Fowler, Brewer, Wood and Eddy developed a conceptual framework for supporting the self-advocacy of students with disabilities that outlines 4 necessary components for the development of self-advocacy skills.

Figure 1: Four Components of Student Self-Advocacy (Test et al., 2005)Figure 1: Four Components of Student Self-Advocacy (Test et al., 2005)

Knowledge of Self

The first component of self-advocacy, knowledge of self, is for students to develop a deep understanding of their interests, goals, values, strengths, needs, and learning preferences. For students who identify as having diverse learning needs, it is particularly important that they develop an understanding of their strengths and needs, the accommodations they require, and how they like to receive or use these accommodations. When students know themselves, they are better prepared to share what they need to be successful with educators. Teachers can support students to develop their knowledge of self in a variety of ways.

One effective way teachers can support students' development of their knowledge of self is by adopting a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. It is important to recognize that all students benefit from learning and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Using a UDL approach, educators consider the strengths and needs of all students while planning instruction and assessment to optimize flexibility and choice for students.

Preparing lessons with UDL in mind, teachers:

  • Outline clear expectations
  • Offer a variety of approaches to instruction (ie, auditory, written, visual)
  • Encourage student choice, allowing learners to showcase their interests and show their learning in their preferred way (video, written work, oral presentation, art)

Many examples of a UDL approach can be found in the Ontario Ministry of Education Guide to Remote Learning for Students with Special Education Needs as well as the free course on Online Teaching available at http://onlineteaching.ca (Hagerman & Kellam, 2020).

When educators create a classroom climate that facilitates variety and student choice, in a supportive, low-risk environment, students have opportunities to try new things and better understand what does and does not work best for them. Gradually, students will become more comfortable with their preferences and become increasingly confident with their learning choices. However, learning preferences can change over time and students should be encouraged to continue to reflect on their learning choices and preferences throughout their academic journey.

Another way educators can support students is by implementing assessment as learning practices, as outlined in Growing Success (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). Assessment as learning focuses on ensuring students are actively involved in the learning process by having them set their own learning goals, assess their progress towards these goals, and support them in updating or making changes to their goals when necessary. When students set specific goals and monitor their progress, they develop self-reflection skills necessary for understanding their individual learning processes and become more aware of what steps they must take to succeed. It is important that teachers and students work together to outline class-wide learning goals for lessons as well as specific, personalized learning goals to be achieved throughout the year. Similarly, teachers should work together with students to co-create assessment criteria and define what success with these goals will look like. Directly involving students in the creation of learning goals and success criteria helps to provide students with a model of effective goal setting and planning. As students become more confident in understanding their learning processes, they will be better prepared to set their own learning goals and advocate for what they need to reach these objectives.

Figure 2: Reflective Questions for Universal Design of Online ClassesFigure 2: Reflective Questions for Universal Design of Online Classes

Knowledge of Rights and Options

The second component of self-advocacy, knowledge of rights and options, refers to the importance of students’ awareness of both their legal rights (ie: the supports they are entitled to as a student in Ontario) as well as the options available to them within the classroom. It is important that all students are aware that they have a right to an education and the tools necessary to facilitate learning. When students are aware of their rights and the options they can access in the classroom, they are better prepared to work with their educator to have their needs met.
At the start of the online class, educators can establish which tools will be required to ensure students’ success, which may include internet connection, a laptop or computer device, and/or headphones, and how students can access these required items if they do not already have them. Students should be made aware of what tools the school can provide and how they can arrange to receive them. It is especially important that students with diverse learning needs that benefit from specific assistive technologies are provided with a means of accessing these essential tools.
One of the ways educators can support their students in developing a comprehensive understanding of their rights and options in the classroom is by making class guidelines and expectations clear. It is important that teachers recognize that virtual class expectations often change across different teachers, classes, and platforms so students need to be familiar with the specifics of each course. Beginning the course by co-creating class guidelines and expectations as well as guidelines for appropriate online behavior ensures that students are not only aware of what is expected from them but feel shared responsibility for their actions. Along with supporting students' comprehension of why certain class expectations are put in place, collaborating with students also helps to establish that their perspectives and ideas are valued in the classroom, which is important for promoting self-advocacy.

Teachers can also support their students in understanding their rights and options by clearly outlining what accommodations are available through the school and what specific accommodations students have access to online. At the beginning of the course, teachers should create a list of online tools and supports that students can access to assist their learning.

Tools may include:

  • Speech to text/text to audio software that can be used on any device
  • Closed captions that can be activated on Zoom calls or YouTube videos
  • Customized font sizes that can be adjusted on devices
  • Screen recordings/image captures that can be used to save files or important information shown on the screen
  • Printable manipulatives

Support that can be accessed in online learning may include:

  • Class schedules or assignments in advance
  • Extensions on class assignments
  • Time allotted for students to get up from their seat and move around
  • Breaking down tests and assignments into smaller steps

In order for students to effectively advocate for their needs, they must be made aware of what accommodations they can request. Maintaining and frequently updating a list of supports helps clarify for students what they can access and ensures that they feel confident when requesting accommodations.
Similarly, educators can support students in understanding their rights and options by clearly outlining who students can contact for support. Creating a chart that clearly indicates a) who is available to provide help to students, including teachers, technical support, resource teachers, and members of the administration, b) what each individual's role in supporting the student is, and c) how they can be contacted (ie: email, phone, virtual meeting) as well as d) when it is best to get in contact with them (ie: during office hours, during working hours) can ensure students are directing their questions and concerns to the right place. Creating a clear list of people students can contact helps to foster student confidence in their self-advocacy as they can be certain that they are seeking support from the correct people or departments.

Figure 3: Contact Process Chart for Students to Connect with SupportFigure 3: Contact Process Chart for Students to Connect with Support


Once students are aware of their needs and their rights, they must know how to effectively communicate these requests. It is necessary for students to develop effective communication skills in order for them to successfully advocate for themselves. Communication skills include how to be assertive with requests, how to make compromises and how to engage in effective conversation through body language, emotional regulation, and listening skills.

One of the ways teachers can support students' development of communication skills is by being open to student feedback. Students should be given opportunities to communicate their thoughts, questions, and concerns. One effective approach of encouraging students to provide feedback is through exit slips. Exit slips are short questionnaires that allow teachers to informally assess where students are at in their learning and provide students with opportunities to reflect on what they have learned and to express how they feel about their progress. Exit slip questions can be adapted depending on the grade level of students and the type of information the educator is seeking. Questions can focus on informal assessments of students' learning and relate specifically to course content. For example, educators may ask students to share one thing they’ve learned today, or to reflect on the real-world implications of the day’s discussion.

Alternatively, questions can focus on encouraging students to reflect on how learning makes them feel, asking what part of the day’s lesson made them most excited to learn or what part made them most nervous. Similarly, questions can generate opportunities for students to evaluate lessons and teaching practices. For example, instructors may ask students to name one thing they would change about the lesson, or what content they think needs to be re-addressed. Ideally, exit slips would incorporate a variety of questions that focus on different aspects of student reflection and would also be available for students to respond to using a range of formats. In virtual settings, exit slips can be submitted using the chat box (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Zoom), by posting on a white board (e.g. Google Jamboard, Padlet), through a private form (e.g. Google Forms, Ziplet), or other programs such as FlipGrid (video comments). Most of these tools have privacy settings where teachers can decide whether to set comments as anonymous, private, or public.

Figure 4: Exit Slip Example using ZipletFigure 4: Exit Slip Example using Ziplet

Another way educators can support students in developing communication skills is by meeting students where they are at in their journey as a self-advocate. It’s important to take the initiative and open dialogue with students you suspect are experiencing difficulties or who you know have accommodations in place. Younger students may benefit from the involvement of parents in the initial phases of setting goals and sharing needs and preferences with new teachers. Those newer to the role of advocate might respond better to structured questions or short surveys where they can share their ideas. Older students and/or those more comfortable with self-advocacy may need only opportunities to connect.

Creating designated office hours where students are to connect and/or seek support can facilitate these opportunities. On many online platforms, it can be difficult for students to feel comfortable asking questions when they are aware that their peers are present and listening. As a result, establishing office hours where students can attend and speak to their teacher privately can help students feel more comfortable. Teachers may poll their students to determine the best time to set these hours to make sure they work for the teacher and for the students.


Once students become increasingly comfortable with self-advocacy, they may choose to share their skills by advocating for peers and taking on greater leadership roles within the classroom and in the creation of their own learning goals. Educators and school administrators can provide opportunities for confident advocates to mentor other students, deliver presentations to better educate staff and if applicable, participate actively in the development of Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Virtual learning provides multiple ways for students to connect with those within and beyond their class and school, and to participate in and contribute to meetings, workshops or conferences. They can also readily support others via virtual means using breakout rooms (e.g. Teams, Zoom, Google Meets).

Figure 5: Supporting Peer Relationships    Figure 5: Supporting Peer Relationships


Well-developed self-advocacy skills are important for empowering all students, especially those with diverse learning needs, to create agency over their learning and ensure that their needs are being met in ways that work best for them individually. Every student's strengths, needs, and preferences will vary, and as a result, it is important that educators take the time to support students in their progress toward a better understanding of who they are as learners. When students know themselves well, are aware of what supports they are entitled to and are comfortable communicating, they become more confident self-advocators and more successful learners.

Developing self-advocacy skills is essential for navigating remote learning spaces where students face unique challenges and learning experiences. It is necessary that educators are prepared to support students at any grade level throughout their journey towards self-advocacy.

For more information click here to view and download the "Guide to Remote Learning for Students with Special Education Needs"

Preview of PDF "Guide to remote learning..." released by ministry of Ontario


 Hagerman, M.S. & Kellam, H. (2020). Learning to teach online: An open educational resource for preservice teacher candidates. http://onlineteaching.ca

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation and reporting in Ontario's schools : covering grades 1 to 12. Toronto: Ministry of Education.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2021). Guide to remote learning for students with special education needs. Toronto: Ministry of Education.

 Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Wood, W. M., Brewer, D. M., & Eddy, S. (2005). A conceptual framework of self-advocacy for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 43–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325050260010601

Ziplet. (2021). https://ziplet.com/

About the authors

Adrianna Arsenault, (BSocSC, B.Ed, OCT), a recent graduate of Queen’s University's Bachelor of Education program and a current Master's student researching the experiences of students with disabilities in online learning platforms.

 Dr. Jess Whitley is a Professor of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. She conducts collaborative research at the intersections of education and mental health. Her research interests include inclusive education policy and practice, teacher preparation for inclusive education and the wellbeing of children and youth with mental health issues.