Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teaching Self Advocacy in the Special Education Classroom

Many times I had students enter my classroom that had no idea what their disability was or what it meant. They felt that it meant they were stupid and couldn’t do anything. In order for my students to be self advocates for themselves, I felt this was so important for them to know so at the beginning of each year, I would explain the different disabilities. I would never single out a person and explain that person’s specific disability in class. I would name the disabilities and explain the legal definitions and I also talk about how this influences funding for the school and then tell the students they are labels.

From there we brainstorm about how a disability could affect their academic work. The students are amazed at how they are not alone with the problems and how similar these are among their classmates. Many of the students don’t like to verbalize the problems because they feel like they are the only one who has this but when we brainstorm about what problems could a student have, this takes the focus off of them personally and they are willing to participate. One time I filled up a whole whiteboard with the difficulties they faced in mainstreamed classes and even other special education classes. After looking at these, I have the students see that sometimes we accommodate for these difficulties in different ways for different students. Just like we go to the grocery store and buy different foods because we have different needs, a teacher teaches some students by giving them different assignments. This doesn’t mean one student is better than another.

Once they understand their differences, we begin to brainstorm appropriate ways to compensate and overcome the difficulties. Again I make the list impersonal so students are more willing to offer suggestions. Students suggest ways that have worked for them which helps others who had not thought of these solutions. I usually make a copy of these suggestions and post them in my room so students can review them when needed.

But just knowing ways does not mean the students and teachers act upon this so we discuss how to ask for these accommodations in the mainstream class. Many students don’t feel comfortable asking the general education teacher for this, so again we brainstorm ways to do this. They usually mention the IEP meeting, asking parents to contact the teacher, having the special education teacher contact the general education teacher but my main goal is to teach the students to advocate for themselves.

We begin by listing what the student could say to the general education teacher and then really work on how to say it. This is very important because my students don’t perceive their tone of voice or body language as a possible problem. I usually have my students role play this and we videotape it so we can review and analyze. This really shows the students how they look which usually involves a strained or aggressive voice, hunched shoulders, no eye contact, and folded arms which the teacher could perceive as indifference or defiance. So we work on these behaviors and retape the scene. It is amazing what a difference it makes to change the tone of voice and body language.

Here is a big step: I ask the students to list one teacher they would like to try this with the next day and what accommodation they may ask for. They are usually reluctant to try and I explain to them that there is a possibility they won’t be successful but it is important not to get angry and to act appropriate. If they are not successful, we will rethink this and try another strategy. After I get the names of teachers, I usually try to give them a heads up and ask them to please listen to the student and give me feedback about how the conversation went. This helps me when I review the situation with the student on how the teacher perceived the conversation. By talking to the teacher ahead of time, they don’t feel threatened that I am teaming up with the student against them and helps smooth the way especially when I explain that I’m teaching the student to be a self advocate.

I love the spring annual IEP meetings that we have because I have my high school students conduct the meetings. We start preparing for this about 2 months in advance and talk about each section of the IEP and what it means. Then I have the students come up with a script so they can talk about the sections that are most important to them such as present levels of performance, transition plan, goals and objectives and the behavior plan if there is one. Then we come up with a PowerPoint presentation to help them when they can’t remember what to say and they include pictures from some of the job sites that they were at. Since the students do this for every year they have me, after the first year of stage fright, they usually enjoy this time also. After they introduce all the members of the IEP team and begin the PowerPoint, they usually get over their fears because they know I’m right there to help them.

These lessons have been very successful and helped the students throughout the year. I can see a big difference in their confidence level and self esteem by the end of the year because they feel like they have some control over their lives.

Photo credit: Art on the walls of the Wi’am lobby by delayed gratification


Lisa Parisi said...

This is fabulous. Becoming their own advocates is so important to being successful in life.

Cheryloakes50 said...

This is a terrific post which explains a great way of implementing this process. Thanks for sharing and the ideas.

loonyhiker said...

Lisa and Cheryl: I am glad you liked this post. I am amazed how many students tell me that no one has ever sat down and explained their disability to them before. By being a self advocate, they finally feel they have some control over their lives.

Anonymous said...

I love your ideas, and have been striving to help my students become self-advocates, too. I really like your idea of explaining the different disabilities, and having the students come up with difficulties and ways to overcome them. I am struggling with how to introduce this topic. I would like to discuss the different disabilities without drawing attention to any specific student, as you said. How would you introduce the lesson to the students? What types of things would you say to them? Thank you for your help.

loonyhiker said...

@Anonymous First I introduce the lesson by talking about grocery shopping. Many people have different dietary needs and get different foods. The same works with people who have disabilities because they have different needs. Different people like different foods which is like people who like different strategies. Some strategies work better for some people and not for others. Students can give examples of all of foods/strategies during the discussion. I hope this helps.