Last spring I read Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It by Harvard neuropsychologist Jerome J. Schultz. Of the many things he advocates for in his writing, one in particular touched me. He tells the story of one child that he had helped learn to advocate for herself, and how they worked together to create a document that explained how she learned best. Later, the girl told her mother there was no way she would ever give the document to her teacher. Then the following year, the girl’s mother contacted him to share that her daughter’s new fifth grade teacher had started the year with a writing assignment titled “How I Learn Best.”
The teacher started the school year with a dialogue, asking her students to communicate their learning needs.
The girl had learned how to advocate for herself, yet she was too self-conscious or perhaps defeated by her learning struggles to give a teacher the document that she had created with Dr. Schultz. Thankfully this perceptive teacher knew to ask her entire class to advocate for themselves.
As we get ready to start another school year, I have pondered this simple idea. Special education teachers often train their students to advocate for themselves as they mature, and yet, isn’t self-advocacy something that all students should learn? We ask students to write about their favorite pets, colors, foods, books, sports, games, and other personal preferences, which is part of self-awareness. Shouldn’t that include awareness of their academic strengths and needs, and how to explain them to someone? And once we decide to ask our students to advocate for themselves, how do we help them learn that life skill?
We can start by making it age- and ability-appropriate using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Let younger children draw small books about themselves, or speak in a video, or use augmented communication with a picture exchange system. Ask them to tell you about the things that are easy and the things that are hard for them. For the very young, try prompting them, perhaps using pages with pictures, and ask them to circle things that they like, don’t like, find easy, or find difficult. Older children can create a digital or hand-written one page profile, and some may be able to reflect on their educational challenges and what they have done in the past to work through them. Encourage students to communicate what the teacher can help with.
There is even a free IOS app by The I’m Determined Project, which teachers can use to manage digital one pagers for an entire class. Students can use the app to create their one pager, a personal goals plan, and a good day plan. The app even lets the students take a photo of themselves to go along with their profiles.
Once we ask students to advocate for themselves, then we must challenge ourselves to listen and act. We can start thinking about ways to differentiate learning so that students can reach mastery goals. If students say that writing is hard for them, clarify if the physical act is hard or if getting their ideas down on paper is hard. If students communicate that mastering math facts is difficult, find out if memorizing is hard or if working with numbers in general is hard. If students say that they have a terrible time with spelling, then add some multi-sensory techniques to the word study. Think about the challenges and plan the next steps.
Self advocacy is about autonomy, and we can lead students to be independent people who take charge of their own learning. An independent learner is a lifelong learner.
More About Self Advocacy
- I’m Determined One Pager and app (The I’m Determined Project)
- Self advocacy: One of the most important skills we can teach our students, by Nancy Barile (Center for Teaching Quality)
- Using one page profiles for your special needs child, by Debs Aspland (Special Needs Jungle)