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The Importance of Empowered Students. A parent's guide to self-advocacy in IEPs

advocacy iep iep coach parenting special education special needs
Smiling children raising hands in classroom.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the world of special needs or special education you’ve heard the term “self-advocacy”.  What is self-advocacy?  In a nutshell, self-advocacy is the ability to identify and communicate wants, needs and preferences, and to make informed decisions about your life.


How does self-advocacy apply to your special needs child?

Self-advocacy is important for children because it helps them develop the skills and confidence they need to take control of their own lives and make their own decisions. Some specific reasons why self-advocacy is important for children include:

  • Empowerment: Children who are able to speak up for themselves and assert their own rights are better able to navigate the complex systems and structures that they encounter throughout their lives. This includes being able to communicate effectively with teachers, service providers, and other adults.
  • Learning and development: Self-advocacy helps children to become more active learners and critical thinkers, as they learn to set goals, problem-solve, and make informed decisions. This will also help them as they grow, so they can better navigate their academic and career choices.
  • Building self-esteem: Children who are able to advocate for themselves are more likely to have high self-esteem and self-confidence, which can be especially beneficial for children who may be experiencing barriers or discrimination.
  • Preparing for adulthood: Self-advocacy is an essential skill for adulthood and will be very important for children as they grow and become independent adults, who will have to navigate the complexities of the adult world, including work, finance and social interactions.
  • Overcoming challenges: Children who have developed self-advocacy skills can more easily navigate and overcome challenges that may arise as they grow, such as dealing with bullying or discrimination, and learning how to access support and services they need.


What are examples of self-advocacy skills for children?

It's important to note that these are general skills and need to be tailored according to the child's specific needs and abilities. Also, some skills may be more appropriate for certain age groups or developmental levels than others.

  1. Understanding their own strengths, weaknesses and needs.
  2. Understanding and respecting their rights, and being able to assert those rights when necessary.
  3. Communicating effectively with others, including expressing their needs and preferences.
  4. Being able to make informed decisions and problem solve.
  5. Identifying and managing their emotions and behaviors.
  6. Setting and working towards achieving personal goals.
  7. Being able to seek out and access resources and support systems.
  8. Being able to advocate for themselves to different people and in different settings.
  9. Being able to form and maintain healthy relationships with adults and peers.
  10. Being able to navigate their environment independently.


How can self-advocacy be added to the IEP?

An IEP is a legal document that outlines the specific educational needs of a child with a disability and the services and supports that will be provided to support those needs.  Self-advocacy can be built into the IEP in a number of ways:

  1. Goals and objectives:  The IEP can include specific goals and objectives related to self-advocacy skills.  An example would be, “student will be able to identify and express their own feelings in appropriate ways, using “I” statements, such as “I feel sad when …” with 80% accuracy by the end of the school year”.  These goals will be individualized to the students developmental level and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable/actionable, relevant and time bound).  It is important to review these goals regularly for progress and make necessary adjustments.
  2. Accommodations and supports:  The IEP can include specific accommodations and supports that will help the child develop self-advocacy skills, such as giving them extra time to process and respond to questions, or providing visual aids to help them communicate more effectively.
  3. Transition planning:  The IEP can include transition planning that focuses on self-advocacy skills, such as helping the child learn how to navigate the education system, find resources and support systems, and plan for post-secondary education or employment.
  4. Collaboration:  The IEP should include the child and their family in the planning and decision-making process, which can encourage self-advocacy.  Children should be invited to attend their IEP meetings and encouraged to participate in a way relative to their developmental level.  Even very young children can be invited to sit with the team for a few minutes and offer their preferences, the rest of the meeting which may not be appropriate for their level of understanding can continue after they go back to class.
  5. Self-determination:  The IEP team can provide opportunities to the child to make their own choices, make decisions and take actions, which will help them develop self-advocacy skills.


It’s important to note that self-advocacy is an ongoing skill that needs to be nurtured and developed over time.  Parents and caregivers play a key role in helping children develop self-advocacy skills by providing guidance, encouragement and positive reinforcement.  Set examples and model self advocacy for yourself, involve your child in decision making and problem solving at home and emphasize the benefits of self-advocacy in their life at home, school and in the community.  If you’d like help in collaborating with the school to add self-advocacy skills to your child’s IEP I’d love to talk to you.  BOOK A CALL with me or CONTACT me for more information today.

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