By Jodie Dawson, Psy.D.
The ability to self-advocate is important for kids to learn in order to be successful at all stages of their lives. In the past, self-advocacy was a term applied mostly to adults with disabilities, but recently more focus has been placed on teaching this skill to preteens and teenagers.
Self-advocacy is understanding your strengths and needs, identifying your personal goals, knowing your legal rights and responsibilities, and communicating these to others. Because your child lives with his learning struggles on a daily basis, he must learn how to maneuver through life's challenges and obstacles to make sure his needs are met.
Until now, you've been your child's best advocate - protecting him from life's harsh realities. But the earlier you teach him to advocate for himself, the more prepared he'll be for life ahead - no matter what path he takes after high school. Whether in the workplace or on a college campus, your child must understand his strengths and limitations, know how they affect his performance, and be able to communicate this to other people.
Young people say they need to understand how they learn and be able to express this information in "plain English." Your teenager must be aware of his strengths and needs in the learning process, strategies that help him succeed, accommodations that bypass limitations, and the type of environment that facilitates learning. To gather this information, he should review assessment results with the specialists who tested him; talk to his teachers and/or tutors; and reflect on his own learning challenges, successes, and preferences.
A key component of self-advocacy is knowing how to communicate this self-knowledge about the learning process to others. Your child must be clear in his requests and prepared with explanations. The manner in which he communicates can either get others on his side or push them away. To many, what he's asking for may be new. Your teenager may need your help preparing ahead of time, planning what he will say, and making notes to take with him. Role playing is a great way to practice communication skills. By helping him anticipate different situations, you can raise his level of confidence.
It's important to help your child identify his support system early on. Whom does he trust and feel comfortable talking to - parent, relative, teacher, administrator, counselor, mentor, tutor? He needs to have people he can turn to for help, especially once he leaves home. This way he won't have to feel alone as he navigates through life.
High school is a great place to begin practicing communication with teachers and other school staff. Encourage your child to set up conferences with his teachers. This gives him an opportunity to discuss what's going well and what isn't, to get feedback, and to work out a plan to do better. After all, once he leaves high school and enters the workplace or college, he'll have to do this for himself. You won't be able to call his professor or boss; you have to pass on the advocacy baton.
If your child has been formally identified with a learning disability (LD) or diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), he may be protected under federal law. Your teenager should learn whether he is covered under any of these laws and, if so, what his entitlements may be.
If he's eligible under any of these laws, your child has certain rights and responsibilities. A child with a learning disability who has an IEP and receives special education services is protected under IDEA until he graduates from high school with a diploma. Section 504 and ADA may protect him in college by providing "reasonable accommodations." In the world of work, an adult with a disability is most likely protected under ADA.
A great way for a teenager to build self-advocacy skills is for him to attend and participate in meetings to develop his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. He'll learn how the school plans to help him succeed and hear the reasons behind their recommendations. These meetings give him an opportunity to share his own goals and have them included. With you present, these meetings can be a safe testing ground for discussing his strengths, interests, talents, and needs with school staff.
Preparing for the Future
By age 16 (if not before), a child who receives special education services will be invited to attend his IEP meeting to develop an Individual Transition Plan (ITP). He'll have an opportunity to express his future interests and goals. The transition plan is designed to help him move smoothly from high school to his next adventure - whether that's work, college, or another area of interest - and may include making connections with other community agencies and representatives or gathering tools to plan for college.
Throughout high school and beyond, your child will face many situations where he'll be required to educate others about his learning disability. Peers will ask questions about his "special attention" at school. Teachers unfamiliar with his needs must be taught more about how he learns. On the job, he may require a specific work-related accommodation. At times, these situations may feel uncomfortable for your child. But the more self-knowledge he has, the better he'll be at advocating for himself.
By empowering your teenager to self-advocate, you'll help him develop skills necessary for success in learning and life. Encourage him to take time regularly to reflect on what's going well for him and what isn't. Making a list of "positives" on the left side of the paper and "improvables" on the right side can help him put things in perspective. If something isn't going right, he can decide what action to take next. After all, self-evaluation often is where the greatest learning takes place.