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How to Fight for Your Life

Helping Complex Learners Advocate for Themselves

Help Complex Learners Advocate For ThemselvesAs an adult, every day you have to decide when and how to advocate for yourself. At the grocery store, should you say something to the person in the 12-or-less check-out lane with the mountain of items in the carriage? When the cable bill is more than the mortgage payment do you call and negotiate a new monthly fee? At the height of the holidays do you decide to just buy the bakery pie and not make it from scratch so you can take a much-needed nap?

Some of these examples are minor while others may have a big impact on your well-being. But whether the situation is minor or important, you may not even realize that you are using self-advocacy skills because you have learned them over time and take them for granted.

However, when your child has learning and attention differences, you are his advocate early on with teachers, family members, service providers, and many others. In fact, you may advocate for him so much that you are worried he will never have the skills to advocate for himself. But part of being a good advocate for children with learning challenges is teaching them how to speak up for themselves. Ultimately, you want your child to have the knowledge and skills needed to participate in decisions that are being made about his life.

Some of the skills involved in self-advocacy include learning how to get information, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem-solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help, and making your own decisions about your life. Here are 3 key elements involved in self-advocacy:


A Complex Learner has specific needs around daily routines, school and learning, socializing, and engaging with others. Having self-awareness about these needs is the first step in self-advocacy. The more she understands these needs, the better she will be able to advocate. This can be as simple as knowing that crowds are overwhelming for him or that he struggles with taking a lot of notes in class. As a child gets older, knowing about her specific disability and how it affects her will actually improve her ability to advocate for herself.

Knowing What Helps

If a child knows what supports, strategies or classroom accommodations address his needs, he can problem-solve when he’s stuck. He might understand that a fidget helps his focus or that movement before homework is better than starting homework right away or that visual charts help him organize and keep routines on track. Knowing what strategy makes a difference in his ability to act allows him to be responsible for his routines, goals, and decisions.


Even if your child understands her needs and knows what strategies make a difference, she needs to be able to communicate this to others. If she is struggling in a class she might talk to her parents about getting a tutor. Maybe she needs more time on a project but is afraid to tell the teacher. Finding the courage to speak to the teacher about why she needs more time and feeling secure in the fact that this is a strategy she needs because of the way she learns is critical for your child’s sense of independence and self-empowerment.

What You Can Do

Here are 5 things that you can do to help provide a foundation for your child’s ability to self-advocate:

  • Talk with your child about strengths and weaknesses, and reinforce that we all have things we are good at and things that are harder for us to do. Help him discover his own strengths.
  • Have an ongoing conversation about learning and attention differences. Explain that this doesn’t define a person, but is only one part of them. Talk about the fact that many people, including famous celebrities, have learning challenges or think differently and experience success and happiness in their life. Find a role model for your child who has similar struggles.
  • Remind your child that asking for help is a good thing. Let your child know that you want to support him and are always available to hear what he needs. Role-play ways your child can ask for what they need.
  • Encourage your child to use classroom accommodations. Some children may feel like they are “cheating” or feel embarrassed and not want other kids to think they are stupid or different. Reinforce the message that these accommodations are put in place so he can find a way to learn and succeed. There is no shame in getting the help you need to do the work you know you can do,
  • When a problem comes up, give your child a chance to solve it first before stepping in. In addition, as your child gets older, let her have a say in decisions about school.

Self-advocacy isn’t easy for many Complex Learners, but effectively communicating and asserting ones’ needs is critical for experiencing success at school, work and even in personal relationships throughout your life. Giving your child the tools and confidence he needs to fight for himself is perhaps the greatest act of love a parent can offer.

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