How to Teach Self-Advocacy Skills in Schools

“Come get me when you don’t know what to do,” I tell the students who have known me longer who I know are able to move from their desk to find me.

Except for the fact that line I have said time and time again to my students with disabilities (and sometimes to their peers without disabilities just to make a point to my direct charges), is still a little bit too much. I’m often expecting students with severe executive functioning issues to:

  • sort out that they don’t know something
  • understand they don’t know the something and can’t get it any other way
  • And then come get me.

That’s three steps too much for most students with disabilities, even with prompting.

But since my world revolves around teenagers and being ‘cool’, I sit back and wait. And sometimes it’s a long wait during the beginning of the school year. To clarify, being cool, according to the information I’ve gleaned from students’ behaviors, involves, looking like you might do something, avoiding work overall, and giving the illusion that they don’t care, especially to peers. The wait over one hundred eighty academic days for the student to learn “last minute caring” isn’t quite a realistic choice in the long term.

Self-Advocacy is also a multi-tiered hurdle because it is different for every student. For one student, it may be literally to ask for help with the material being read to them, setting up technology to have the material read to them, or being given a task list. For another student, it is simply to state a variation of, “No, I want to do it this way.” Or perhaps simply raise their hand to get another adult’s attention.

I’ve gathered some things to consider when you’re teaching self-advocacy skills for students with disabilities.

[Self-advocacy] It’s at the heart of making relationships and helping a student attend to the teacher.

  • The whole class can learn self-advocacy. Success in self-advocacy is about being a concise communicator. These skills will evolve over time.
  • A general education teacher should have space to touch in with every student. Some days you’re going to miss a few, but education staff or support staff shouldn’t completely block out the general education teacher’s ability to connect with the student. For some students, I’ve made them say ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’ to their classroom teacher daily as appropriate in secondary because the student didn’t know all their teachers’ names. It’s at the heart of making relationships and helping a student attend to the teacher.
  • Provide task sheets. They don’t have to be fancy a sticky note on the desk hand printed (printing is key) for the hour or assignment just placed on a student’s desk. For regular tasks, go ahead and put it in a laminated pouch printed, and use a whiteboard marker with the goal of fading the tasks.
  • Use peers. Waiting on the entire class to have a specific page in their textbook? Waiting for students who don’t want to stop talking? Partner pair all the students have them check each other. Thumbs up/Thumbs down/Thumb horizontal for check-ins about understanding the homework. Repeat instructions back. All of these skills help cycle the students who may have a processing delay.
  • Teach why self-advocacy is needed explicitly to students with disabilities. This usually involves an aside conversation. Eventually, as a self-advocate continues in their academic career, “Don’t forget to ask for help because knowing when you need help is important for you after you leave high school.” For younger students, “When you ask for help from an adult, you are learning what works best for you.” This is also, “Thank you for raising your hand when you finished your list.”

Building on skills that students will need after they have left traditional education is important. Some students might not completely independently advocate for themselves, but all students need to have the choice and the chance to have the opportunity to learn to speak for themselves.

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