Building Self-Advocacy Skills

“My journey with student self-advocacy began on rocky terrain; it was a new concept for me, and one of the key missing pieces for my students. Throughout my years of teaching, I listened to my students get upset when a teacher was asking something of them that felt impossible.

I realized that, too often, I was having the difficult conversations with teachers about my student’s needs, when I should have been empowering my students to speak for themselves, and to communicate their needs.”

Julia Osborne, Special Education Resource Teacher, York Region DSB

female student hand raisedPromoting self-advocacy relies on supporting students to develop self-awareness and self-esteem; to feel effective and in control of their lives; to promote their rights and advocate on their own behalf; to set goals and pursue them; to make choices and decisions; to solve problems; and to engage in self-reflection and inner dialogue[1]. Only when students know themselves, their learning styles, and their strengths and weaknesses will they be able to advocate and succeed.

Understanding why students may not self-advocate

Two conditions are essential for self-advocacy: a sense of being capable of success and a sense of security. Students with LDs typically find themselves struggling or in need of help more often, and their feelings of competence and emotional security are more likely to be compromised. In school, they may work incredibly hard but the outcome may not reflect their effort. They may not feel a sense of control over their learning. Such students are less likely to become invested in a task, especially with any sense of self-advocacy [2]. Over time, it can be more difficult for a student to keep trying and they may begin to rely on coping strategies like avoidance or hopelessness.

Academic stressors can also lead to a lower sense of mastery and fewer opportunities to feel competent at something or to achieve success. Students with LDs may feel like they are not meeting others’ expectations or their own expectations, like they are letting down their caregivers and teachers, or like they are not working hard enough even when they are trying very hard. This can lead to the student experiencing negative feelings, including worry, anger, frustration, and sadness. Additionally, a study conducted by Bergeron[3] showed that if students are afraid of their peers’ reactions when they ask for help or are afraid to make mistakes in front of educators, they are unlikely to make themselves vulnerable or to take the kinds of risks and initiative that self-advocacy requires. When students do not have the confidence to ask for accommodations or when they do not feel like can succeed even with additional help, they will not advocate for themselves.

Listen to the following clip from the TalkLD podcast episode “The Journey to Becoming a Self-Advocate: Three Students’ Perspectives”. In this clip a student named Ava explains why, when she began secondary school she did not engage in self-advocacy.

Click here to read the transcript of the audio clip.

Click here to listen to the entire podcast.

[1] Wehmeyer & Field, 2007, Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998

[2] Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998

[3] Bergeron, 2013