The Importance of Self-Advocacy for Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
Email Email
Chat's logo Chat's logo

At a Glance

  • Self-advocacy is the ability to speak up for what you need.

  • Being a good self-advocate can help your child academically and socially.

  • You can help your child develop the skill of self-advocacy at any age, but it’s good to start early.

When your child faces challenges, you advocate. You talk with teachers, family members, and others about your child’s needs. And you help your child get support in and out of school.

Part of being an effective advocate is teaching kids the skills they need to speak up for themselves. It’s something you can start working on early with your child—and continue to work on over time. You can build the foundation for self-advocacy when your child is young and then teach more complex skills to grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers.

What Is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is a skill that enables kids to understand their strengths and weaknesses, know what they need to succeed, and communicate that to other people.

Self-advocacy can be broken down into a few key elements:

  • Understanding specific needs. (This is part of self-awareness.)

  • Knowing what help or support will address those needs, like tutoring or classroom accommodations.

  • Communicating those needs to teachers and others.

Let’s say your child struggles with writing. A history class requires taking a lot of notes for homework. Without some kind of writing support, this is going to be difficult for your child.

Here’s an example of self-advocacy in action:

Your child understands that taking notes is going to be a challenge and knows that technology can help with note-taking. So your child communicates to the teacher that writing is a challenge and asks to use a note-taking app.

If the teacher says yes, your child’s needs are addressed. If the teacher says no, your child understands to talk to another person, like the special education case manager.

Explore self-advocacy sentence starters your child can use for different types of challenges.

The Benefits of Self-Advocacy

Self-advocacy helps kids learn by creating solutions for challenges in school. In the note-taking example above, the child would do better in class by using technology.

Of course, a parent could also advocate. But when kids self-advocate, there are extra benefits. Kids who exercise self-advocacy can:

  • Find solutions to challenges parents may not be aware of

  • Build self-confidence in their ability to learn

  • Create a sense of ownership over their learning

  • Develop independence and self-empowerment

These extra benefits can make a big difference in the long run. Instead of feeling powerless and dependent on others, kids with self-advocacy skills are prepared to take on life’s challenges. (Read one mother’s story of how she learned it was time to empower her son to speak for himself.)

The benefits of self-advocacy go beyond academics. Kids who can effectively self-advocate can communicate in social situations and even explain to friends why they sometimes need extra help.

How to Build Self-Advocacy in Kids

Because self-advocacy is so important, you may want to take specific steps to help your child build this skill. Here are some ways to help your child develop self-advocacy:

As with any valuable skill, self-advocacy takes practice. Role-play situations that may come up to help your child feel more comfortable about asking for help.

You can also download a self-awareness worksheet to help your child outline strengths and weaknesses. Or you can fill out a 3×3 card together to give to the teacher.

Self-advocacy isn’t easy for many kids. Shy kids, for example, may need different support in learning how to self-advocate. Other kids may feel awkward or even guilty about asking for help or for an accommodation. That’s especially true if your child feels embarrassed about challenges in school. (Read one young adult’s story of coming to terms with the feeling of “cheating” by using accommodations.)

Teaching self-advocacy can be an important part of your own journey as an advocate. Self-advocacy skills can help your child deal with current challenges and the ones that will arise in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • Self-advocacy is an important skill that can help your child do better in school and be more independent in the long run.

  • You can take specific steps to help your child learn self-advocacy.

  • Self-advocacy isn’t easy, but with practice your child can develop this skill over time.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

Did you find this helpful?

Stay Informed

Sign up for weekly emails containing helpful resources for you and your family.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Please wait...

By signing up, you acknowledge that you reside in the United States and are at least 13 years old, and agree that you've read the Terms and Conditions. Understood.org does not market to or offer services to individuals in the European Union.