Self-advocacy is the ability for an individual to make their needs and strengths known so that they can not only be accommodated, but be successful in getting supports across environments. Many times, children with needs are left out of the decision making process as it relates not only to their education, but to their lives in general. This, however, does not need to be the case. If we educate our children to be successful, empowered self-advocates, we can create resilient and successful adults.
Self-advocacy begins with self-determination. Self-determination is the idea that, as a person, one can identify and achieve their goals. This is not something that can be taught in one sitting, or even multiple sittings. It develops over time as more choice and control over one’s life is afforded to them. Additionally, when speaking of choice, it is meant real, not forced, choice. It is not selecting from 2, adult provided options, it is of all of the things potentially available to you, which one do you really want? Involving students in their IEPs, 504, and transition planning can be a key to helping empower students to be self-determined.
In line with developing self-determination comes a set of prerequisite skills. We need to teach how to identify and set goals, and the necessary problem solving skills to attain that goal. We can’t just assume that we provide choice and the learner will automatically be able to identify the best choices that will lead to larger goals. Again, this development happens over time with mentoring and oversight.
Another key concept to fostering self-advocacy is in developing self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to identify and express strengths, needs, and preference. Teaching all children about various disabilities, different accommodations available, and how people with different skills still have many strengths can help breed self-aware and genuinely empathetic individuals.
Self-advocacy also requires a certain amount of leadership prowess. Empowering all students to be aware that they can all assume leadership roles in their lives, homes, and schools is a very important consideration. When you always have those one or two strong leaders taking the reins, other students may feel less self-worth, that they don’t have a loud enough voice, or resentment. The level of competitiveness (especially in today’s classrooms) is high. It is not uncommon for competition to be present, whether welcomed or not, in many of the day-to-day roles children may assume. Taking time to plan for all children to take charge and be leaders from time to time can go a long way towards developing self-advocacy. Additionally, having children learn to share leadership roles can help with relationship building.
One great tool for fostering leadership and self-advocacy is called I-PLAN. The acronym stands for:
1) Inventory your strengths, areas to improve, goals, needed accommodations and choices for learning
2) Provide your inventory information
3) Listen and respond
4) Ask questions
5) Name your goals (Van Reusen & Bos, 1994).
This is a great strategy for promoting participation (and leadership) in the various meetings and decision making processes that impact a child’s educational and day-to-day activities.
It probably goes without saying that self-esteem is going to be a key factor to developing self-advocacy. Even as adults, if our self-esteem is low, we are less likely to express our needs and wants that can help facilitate meeting our goals. This also ties into whether or not a child feels effective. If a child doesn’t think they have self-worth, and that they would be ineffective in expressing what they need, then the potential for them expressing it in an active and meaningful way is diminished. Providing small opportunities for success, and recognizing those successes, is the first step in promoting self-esteem. Of course we want self-esteem to develop naturally over time, but providing contrived situations at the start can help this natural development occur faster. Lastly, helping children identify WHY they are successful is going to promote their positive self-worth and positive attributions to their successes and identify what needs to be done differently next time if they are unsuccessful.
One last key strategy is providing appropriate, positive role models. Modeling is how all individuals learn a host of skills and abilities. For a very watered-down example, we aren’t born opening doors. We see someone do it, we try it, it works, and we keep opening doors thereafter. Providing positive mentors and role models who can take the time to help teach, demonstrate, and promote self-advocacy can go a long way in promoting the natural development of successful, empowered self-advocates.
As we’ve seen, self-advocacy is not only a key consideration for all people, but is made up of many other skill sets. Fostering these skills, ideas about self-worth and attribution, and allowing children to make choices that lead them to success is not going to happen overnight; however, the sooner we start teaching and promoting self-advocacy, the better quality of life we can ensure.
Van Reusen, A.K., Bos, C.S. (1994). Facilitating student participation in individualized education programs through motivation strategy instruction. Exceptional Children, 60, 466-475.