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By Mary Land and Cheryll Duquette


Self-determination stems from the notion of empowerment (Pennell, 2001), and Pocock and his associates (2002) explain that self-determination is knowledge about one’s strengths and limitations. They contend that it is necessary to foster a belief in oneself as capable, effective, and successful. Self-determination is also described as the extent to which a person assumes responsibility for his or her own goals, accomplishments, and setbacks (Ward, 1988).

Self-determination is considered essential for adolescents with learning disabilities (LDs) to achieve successful transition to postsecondary education and employment (Durlak, Rose, & Bursuck, 1994; Merchant & Gajar, 1997; Zhang, 2001) and is associated with greater quality of life and positive adult outcomes (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).


Although self-advocacy is a related term and is often used interchangeably with self-determination (Field, 1996); it is generally considered to be a key component of self-determination (Mishna, Muskat, Farnia, & Wiener, 2011; Wehmeyer & Berkobien, 1991). Self-advocacy is defined by Kotzer and Margalit (2007) as the ability to speak on one’s behalf and represent personal needs and interests. It involves understanding one’s learning strengths and developing the ability to communicate learning needs and required accommodations (Merchant & Gajar, 1997). According to Mishna and her colleagues (2011), self-advocacy is especially important for students with LDs, and is necessary to achieve maturity, confidence, and a sense of identity (Phillips, 2001).

While in school, students with LDs often rely on parents and teachers to make choices for them and to advocate on their behalf (Mishna et al., 2011; Zhang, 2001). They may not be aware of their strengths because previous experiences may have been too focused on their learning weaknesses (Vogel & Adelman, 1993). As well, learning disabilities are a ‘hidden disability’ and some people may perceive individuals with LDs as unsuited for postsecondary education or limited in employment choices (Egly, 1987).

Self-advocacy skills are regarded as a means of helping adolescents adjust to making decisions on their own and speaking out about their academic needs (Field, Sarver, & Shaw, 2003; Phillips, 2001). However, only a few adolescents with LDs acquire self-advocacy skills without instruction (Michaels, 1994). Schools, therefore, are viewed as an ideal venue to teach and practice these important skills (Mishna et al., 2011).

Teaching Self-Advocacy

Self-advocacy skills include (Durlak et al., 1994; Merchant & Gajar, 1997; Walker & Test, 2011):

  1. knowledge of academic strengths and weaknesses,
  2. an awareness of required accommodations and services that are available,
  3. knowledge of individual rights, and
  4. the ability to request information, assistance, and accommodations when required.

They should be taught explicitly and practiced in school settings, such as at individual education plan (IEP) meetings (Van Ruesen & Bos, 1994; Kotzer & Margalit, 2007) or when requesting accommodations (Durlak et al., 1994; Prater et al., 2014). Teachers in high school classrooms usually deliver instruction on self-advocacy skills; however, research shows that they may be taught to students with LDs in middle school (Mishna et al., 2011) and in an online format (Kotzer & Margalit, 2007; Lancaster, Schumaker, & Deshler, 2002).

Self-Advocacy in IEP Participation

In a study by Van Reusen and Bos (1994), high school students with LDs received self-advocacy strategy instruction on how to prepare for and participate in an IEP conference. These conferences are similar to Ontario’s Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) meetings. Within this study, students from two high schools and their parents were randomly assigned to one of two intervention groups. The contrast group (n=10) was provided with an informal group discussion about the procedures and goals of an IEP conference. It lasted approximately 2 h and was held outside of regular school time. The treatment group (n=11) participated in a similar discussion, but the students with LDs also received an additional three, 50-minute sessions delivered over three consecutive days to groups of 3 to 5 students during school hours.

Researchers provided explicit instruction in the use of the IEP participation strategy (IPARS). Students were taught to:

  • I - Inventory their strengths and needs
  • P - Provide this inventory information during the IEP conference
  • A - Ask questions
  • R - Respond to questions
  • S - Summarize the IEP goals

These skills were practiced in an IEP meeting that followed soon after the training.

The researchers reported that there was a significant difference in the number of goals identified by the two groups. The treatment group averaged almost five goals, whereas the contrast group averaged three goals. There were also significant differences between the two groups for verbal contributions during the conference that were related to describing learning strengths and weaknesses. The researchers concluded, therefore, that this type of strategy instruction is beneficial to adolescents with LDs and can increase their participation and self-advocacy during an IEP meeting.

Using Technology to Teach Self-Advocacy Skills

While the IPARS technique proved to be helpful, it also required a large investment of instructional time (to teach and practice each component of the technique). Lancaster, Schumaker, and Deshler (2002) investigated the use of an interactive hypermedia (IH) program that would reduce the amount of teacher time needed to teach self-determination skills. IH is a computer program that can include video and audio segments, texts, graphics, and animation, and it responds to the learner with individualized feedback and controls learners’ movement through the program based on their progress.

In this study of 22 students with LDs, six in a control group received no instruction, eight students were given live instruction by a teacher, and eight students used interactive hypermedia to learn about self-advocacy skills. The skills in this program had two separate components: SHARE and IPLAN.

The SHARE technique steps were:

  • S - Sit up straight
  • H - Have a pleasant tone of voice
  • A - Activate your thinking
  • R - Relax
  • E - Engage in eye communication

Once these skills had been learned, instruction in the IPLAN steps began:

  • I - Inventory strengths, needs, goals, and choices
  • P - Provide your inventory
  • L - Listen and respond
  • A - Ask questions
  • N - Name your goals

The IPLAN steps were based on an earlier model of strategy training developed by Van Reusen, Deshler, and Schumaker (1989) and are similar to the IPARS approach described above. Students in both the IH and live groups had opportunities to practice the skills with a teacher before their IEP meetings.

Data analyzed after the IEP meetings showed that the IH program involving a small amount of teacher instruction (one hour) was just as effective as the live instruction (three hours). In both cases, there were substantial increases in student responses, sharing information (e.g., strengths, weaknesses, learning and testing preferences, and goals), and participation in the IEP process after receiving these interventions. This study demonstrated that self-advocacy skills designed for IEP meeting participation can be taught using a computer program.

Explicit Instruction for IEP Conferences

Procedures to instruct self-advocacy skills for IEP/IPRC meetings:

  • Orientation stage – An overview of the strategy is provided.
  • Describe stage – Discuss the IEP/IPRC process and available services and accommodations, describe the major behaviours associated with the strategy, and provide a rationale for each step.
  • Model and Prepare stage – Participants complete the inventory form (learning strengths, weaknesses, and preferences; interests), the next steps in the strategy are modeled, and good and poor examples of the behavior are discussed.
  • Verbal Rehearsal stage – Participants memorize and elaborate on their understanding of the steps in the strategy and the behaviours.
  • Strategy Practice and Feedback stage – Participants are given a brief overview of the IEP conference and participate in a simulated conference, feedback is provided.
  • Generalization stage – Just before the IEP/IPRC meeting, there is a discussion of how these steps could be used in other situations, steps in the strategy are reviewed, and answers to questions that would be asked in the IEP are practiced. (Adapted from Ellis, Deshler, Lenz, Schumaker, & Clark, 1991)

Self-Advocacy when Requesting Accommodations

Students with LDs should be aware of their learning profiles and encouraged to participate in the IEP/IPRC process. They also need to learn to self-advocate for the accommodations written on their IEPs (Prater, Redman, Anderson, & Gibb, 2014). The work of Prater and her associates (2014) outlines specific lesson plans that were designed to teach self-advocacy skills, and in particular, the FESTA steps for requesting instructional accommodations.

Students are taught to:

  • F - Face the teacher
  • E - Maintain eye contact
  • S - State the accommodation they require and the reason they are asking for it
  • T - Thank the teacher
  • A - Use the accommodation

In their research, a series of four, 80-minute lessons were taught to three classes of high school students with LDs on alternate days. The lessons followed a direct instruction format: use of a verbal advance organizer outlining the objectives of the day, the teacher models the skill and students practice, corrective feedback is provided to students, and the teacher discusses how the skill could help them improve their school work. The classes ranged from 8 to 15 students and four of the participants were followed for observation when requesting accommodations in general education classes.

The data revealed that the four students requested every accommodation they needed, but did not always follow the FESTA steps. Their teachers noted anecdotally that the students became more confident in their abilities and participated more frequently in the classroom following the self-advocacy instruction.

Durlak, Rose, and Bursuck (1994) also examined the effect of a training program designed to instruct high school students with LDs how to request accommodations. In their study, eight high school students were divided into two groups for training. Each group received twice weekly, then weekly, direct instruction on seven self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. The participants were able to practice and receive feedback individually within the sessions, and they all used the skills in non-training settings in the high school. Although none of the analyses of the pre- and post-test measures was statistically significant, the students all acquired the skills as a result of the direct instruction provided.

However, the researchers noted that the students felt some discomfort discussing their learning disabilities and accommodations. They therefore recommended that students with LDs receive repeated practice describing their learning disabilities and communicating clearly the required accommodations in order to become more comfortable and confident when discussing them with instructors or service providers.

Explicit Instruction for Requesting Accommodations

Procedures for teaching how to request accommodations:

  • The teacher describes the target behavior while the students follow on the printed material.
  • The students are taught the vocabulary to use when describing their learning disabilities to ensure clarity in their communication.
  • The teacher assumes the role of a student and demonstrates the behavior with the paraprofessional playing the role of the teacher or service provider.
  • The teacher gives students the opportunity to ask questions or clarify specific points.
  • The students rehearse the steps in describing their learning disabilities and requesting accommodations.
  • Peers and staff provide immediate feedback.
  • Students repeat the steps until mastery is demonstrated.
  • Students then practice requesting accommodations in their classes. (Adapted from Durlak, et al., 1994)

Summary of the level of evidence

A comprehensive search was conducted to find research that involved self-advocacy or self-determination strategies for students with LDs. Articles from peer-reviewed literature were read to identify studies that involved either an experimental design with a control or comparison group, or a single-subject design. Some studies were related to self-advocacy skills that could be used in IEP meetings and others focused on strategies for requesting accommodations in regular education classrooms.

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Supporting the Development of Self-Advocacy.

Click here to access the article A Teacher’s Journey with Student Self-Advocacy.

Click here to access the response to the question What does a student need to know about learning disabilities in order to be a self-advocate?

Click here to access the video Our Self-Advocacy Pamphlet Journey.

Click here to access the tip sheet for Fostering Self-Advocacy.

Click here to access the podcast Supporting Students on their Self-Advocacy Journey.

Click here to access the podcast The Journey to Becoming a Self-Advocate: Three Students’ Perspectives.


Durlak, C., Rose, E., & Bursuck, W. (1994). Preparing high school students with learning disabilities for the transition to postsecondary education: Teaching the skills of self-determination. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(1), 51-59.

Egly, N. (1987). Self-advocacy and assertiveness for the disabled college student and how to use self-advocacy skills. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 286 311. University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Ellis, E., Deshler, D., Lenz, B., Schumaker, J., & Clark, F. (1991). An instructional model for teaching learning strategies. Focus on Exceptional Children, 23(6), 1-24.

Field, S. (1996). Self-determination instructional strategies for youth with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(1), 40-52.

Field, S., Sarver, M., & Shaw, S. (2003). Self-determination: A key to success in postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 24(6), 339-349.

Kotzer, E., & Margalit, M. (2007). Perception of competence: risk and protective predictors following an e-self-advocacy intervention for adolescents with learning disabilities. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 22(4), 443-457.

Lancaster, P., Schumaker, J., & Deshler, D. (2002). The development and validation of an interactive hypermedia program for teaching a self-advocacy strategy to students with disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 25(4), 277-302.

Merchant, D., & Gajar, A. (1997). A review of the literature on self-advocacy components in transition programs for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 8(3), 223-231.

Michaels, C. (1994). Transition strategies for persons with learning disabilities. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group, Inc.

Mishna, F., Muskrat, B., Farnia, F., & Weiner, J. (2011). The effects of a school-based program on the reported self-advocacy knowledge of students with learning disabilities. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 57(2), 185-203.

Pennell, R. (2001). Self-determination and self-advocacy: Shifting the power. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 11(4), 223-227.

Phillips, P. (2001). A self-advocacy plan for high school students with learning disabilities: A comparative case study analysis of students’, teachers’, and parents’ perceptions of program effects. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(8), 466-471.

Pocock, A., Lambros, S., Karvonen, M., Test, D., Algozzine, B., Wood, W., & Martin, J. (2002). Successful strategies for promoting self-advocacy among students with LD: The LEAD group. Intervention in School and Clinic, 37(4), 209-216.

Prater, M., Redman, A., Anderson, D., & Gibb, G. (2014). Teaching adolescent students with learning disabilities to self-advocate for accommodations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 49(5), 298-305.

Van Reusen, A., Deschler, D., & Schumaker, J. (1989). Effects of a student participation strategy in facilitating the involvement of adolescents with learning disabilities in the individualized educational program planning process. Learning Disabilities, 1(2), 23-34.

Van Reusen, A., & Bos, C. (1994). Facilitating student participation in individualized education programs through motivation strategy instruction. Exceptional Children, 60(5), 466-475.

Vogel, S., & Adelman, P. (1993). Success for college: Students with learning disabilities. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Walker, A. & Test, D. (2011). Using a self-advocacy intervention on African-American college students’ ability to request academic accommodations. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 26(3), 134-144.

Ward, M. (1988). The many facets of self-determination. NICHCY Transition summary. National Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 5, 2-3.

Wehmeyer, M., & Berkobien, R. (1991). Self-determination and self-advocacy: A case of mistaken identity. The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps Newsletter, 17(7), 4.

Wehmeyer, M., & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63(2), 245-255.

Zhang, D. (2001). The effect of Next S.T.E.P. instruction on the self-determination skills of high school students with learning disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 24(2), 121-132.

Other Relevant Resources

The CanLearn Society has produced a resource for educators that will help them teach students understand their strengths and needs and how to communicate their needs to others. Click here to view the resource.

Chambers, C., Wehmeyer, M., Saito, Y., Lida, K., Lee, Y., & Singh, V. (2007). Self-determination: What do we know? Where do we go? Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 15(1), 3-15.

Kelley, K., Bartholomew, A., & Test, D. (2013). Effects of the self-directed IEP delivered using computer-assisted instruction on student participation in educational planning meetings. Remedial and Special Education 34(2), 67-77.

Representatives from the York Region District School Board and the Learning Disabilities of York Region created a tip sheet to help educators teach their students with learning disabilities how to self-advocate for themselves. Click here to view the tip sheet on the LD@school website.

horizontal line tealMary Land is currently a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. She worked for a several years as a high school teacher before returning to pursue graduate studies full-time. Her experiences in the classroom have encouraged her varied interests in the field of education, including literacy and language arts instruction for all students.

Cheryll Duquette’s research in the area of special education reflects her interest in the experiences of students with exceptionalities in inclusive classrooms. As a former teacher, she focuses particularly on strategies that may be used by classroom teachers to facilitate inclusion. Dr. Duquette is also the author of Students at Risk (2nd ed.), a book containing practical suggestions for working with students with exceptionalities and their parents. She teaches teacher education and graduate courses in special education at the Faculty of Education.