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Self-Advocacy for Special Needs Students

student self advocate

Throughout their academic lives, special needs students will have individuals who are advocates for them. This may include teachers, administrators, therapists, counselors, and family members. They often work together at meetings to discuss what plan will be best for the upcoming school year. It is important to allow students to become a self-advocate. This may look different for each student, but it needs to happen. School counselors, special education teachers, and other trusted individuals must help students to work on these skills as they mature.

Starting the Process

As children get older, some may be aware of their Individualized Education Plans or 504 Plans. They may also know when something may not be followed and are able to let a substitute teacher or other individual know about their rights. This is an example of the student finding their self-advocacy voice. With the guidance of individuals at school and at home, this can be expanded over time.

One of the best times to start the process is when a child is moving from elementary to middle school. This is a big adjustment for children. Special education teachers and counselors may meet with individual students to check in with them about their fears of the change and what they think may help them in a new school. This process begins and allows them to be able to discuss their needs. As time goes on, they may get more involved in the process.

Participating in Meetings

Middle school is also the perfect time to invite a child to participate in their own Annual Review. They will likely know all people at the table and make it less intimidating. Explain to them why they were invited to the meeting and what their growing role will be as they get older. Give the child time to express how they feel things have been going in the current year. Ask them to let everyone know what they would like to see for the following year that would help. On the other hand, they may also have suggestions on what they do not need.

Tweens and teens need to be able to have a seat at the table – if they want to be there. This will allow them to have ownership on the future of their supports and path in middle school, high school, and beyond. The more this is done early on, the less intimidated they will be about meetings like this which they may need to attend to advocate for their needs.

How does your school district work with students to encourage self-advocacy in special needs students? Please share in the comments sections below what has worked well for different age groups within your schools.


We know that students need to learn how to be a self-advocate, but it’s also important for you as a professional to do the same. One way is to explore different career options – check out our current openings here to take the first step!

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