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Self-Advocacy: A Valuable Skill for Your Teenager With LD

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By Jodie Dawson, Psy.D.

Knowing His Rights

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.

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an education law guaranteeing special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a disability in programs that receive federal monies.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations.

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.

Participating Actively

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.

Educating Others

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.

Ongoing Evaluation

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.

Comments from readers

"This article is very helpful. I sheltered my son for many years and now I am taking these steps to ensure that he is confident and comfortable advocating for himself. I'm so glad you emphasize role playing. This is an extrememly useful tool in all areas of a child's life. We've role played emergency situations, and what to do if he is lost or confused and intimidated. This has helped him to be confident. People tend to forget that these beautiful children have feelings. They feel embarrassed, overwhelmed and anxious...just like the rest of us. The best thing we can do for our children or relative is support their desire for independence and emphasizing the importance of awareness and ways to get assistance if needed."
"I'm looking for information on self-advocacy in younger children. I started in elementary school with my son by simply giving him choices and letting him have input in educational goal setting. Are there any articles or books on this? Thanks, Dianna"