Why Self-Advocacy Matters: Q&A with Christa Dieckmann
Asking for what you need: it sounds simple, but this is one of the most important strategies a student with learning disabilities can acquire. At Churchill, we teach students to be their own best advocate, not only in the classroom, but also among friends and family.
To learn more about teaching students to advocate for themselves, we sat down with Christa Dieckmann, auditory visual and individual tutorial teacher here at Churchill. Mrs. Dieckmann works with students to develop the language and confidence to ask for exactly what they need to be successful in the classroom.
Churchill: Why is self-advocacy important?
Christa Dieckmann: We teach self-advocacy so that students with learning disabilities can ask for help in the classroom, in the community, in their families, and anywhere else.
We’ve found that the more we teach students about self-advocacy, the more self-confidence they have — and that’s self-confidence that they take to their schools after Churchill. When we hear back from those schools, that’s what the teachers are most impressed with: that the students know themselves so well and then speak out about it.
“We’ve found that the more we teach students about self-advocacy, the more self-confidence they have — and that’s self-confidence that they take to their schools after Churchill.”
Churchill: How can self-advocacy skills help in high school, college, and beyond?
CH: Self-advocacy gives them the confidence to not be afraid to ask for help and not be afraid to talk about their learning disability. When many of our students start at Churchill, they are ashamed. They think they’re behind, they think they’re lazy or just out of control. Being able to advocate for themselves gives them the confidence needed for a school interview or a job interview, or if they have a question writing a research paper for college.
Churchill: How can self-advocacy help in social situations — for example when their learning disability comes up in conversation with friends, family members, or classmates?
CH: It makes a big difference just to give them the right language to use in those social situations — whether it’s to stand up for themselves with their peers or even in their family. Sometimes people in their family don’t understand the learning disability, so we make sure they have the right verbiage to use. It helps them put into words what’s going on in their head, which can be difficult.
Being able to tell their peers, “I just learn differently” — that’s such an empowering statement for a student, especially with children their own age. It’s so important that they own their learning disability and are okay with it, instead of it being a shameful thing.
“Being able to tell their peers, ‘I just learn differently’ — that’s such an empowering statement for a student, especially with children their own age.”
Churchill: How is self-advocacy taught at Churchill?
CH: Self-advocacy is taught explicitly through the demystification process in our individual tutorial and auditory visual classes. It’s threaded throughout the entire school day, even in something like motor skills class, where, if there is some problem, the student learns to go to the gym teacher and say, “I’m having trouble doing this, can you help me?”
Whether it’s literature, websites, or interactive games, they learn about themselves and that’s really our starting place: to learn about your own strengths and your own challenges, and then we build from there. We also have a lot of discussions where the students give out their ideas about how they can advocate, or have advocated for themselves.
We’ve had many past students come back and talk to our students as guest speakers about what it was like when they transitioned to a new school, and what they did to be successful in the classroom. I try to recruit guest speakers that have recently transitioned back into traditional school settings because a lot of the current students know them and it gives them a real connection to them.
Churchill: Why is it important for students to be involved in their own Independent Education Plans (IEPs)? Do students typically have this opportunity?
CH: A lot of the time, the parents will think at fifth grade, “Oh you’re too young to go to an IEP,” and as a whole, educators don’t usually ask for the input of the students. It’s more like, “Okay, we’re going to come up with a plan and then implement it with the student.” But if it’s about that student, that student should be involved.
Churchill: How does Churchill incorporate IEPs into self-advocacy curriculum?
CH: As early as fifth and sixth grade we start talking to students about going to the IEP and advocating for themselves in that process so that it’s not just their mom and dad that are saying, “this is what my child needs.”
We encourage them to go to the IEP and tell their teachers, “This is what I need to be successful.” We expose them to the different kinds of IEPs so that they know what kind of accommodations and modifications are available.
I had a fifth grader a couple years ago who said, “I went to my IEP and it was awesome and I could tell them, ‘no I don’t need books on tape, but I might need a copy of the teacher’s notes.’” It’s very empowering for the student to be able to say, “yes I need this; no, I don’t need that.’”