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Learn more about LDs and ADHD, and find helpful information and insights on the assessment, diagnosis and management of these learning and attention challenges. 

We know that even as adults, self-advocacy can be really tough. Whether we are explaining to our school principal that we need more supplies, the house painter that the job needs to be done this month, not next, or our physician that a medication is not working for us, we are advocating for ourselves.  It can be hard getting others to listen, but we also know that it is necessary and provides a sense of power over our daily lives.

In our classrooms, self-advocacy for students goes hand-in-hand with metacognition, the personal awareness of how we learn. First, this requires an acknowledgement on the part of the teacher of the diversity of learning, recognizing that we all learn differently.  Second is the understanding that self-advocacy is a life skill which is important to teach; the bonus being that it makes classroom management easier.


Modelling self-advocacy in the early grades

As always, good teaching begins with modelling.  In the early grades, we instruct our students about classroom routines such as coming to the story circle or settling in after recess.  Model for your students what works best for you.  

“I’m most ready for reading circle when the papers are off my desk so I can see where our reading book is.” 

Have them each tell what works best for them for coming to the reading circle.  They will have a lot of different ideas:  

“When my shoelaces are tied.”  

“When I’ve checked the visual agenda.”  

“When my learning buddy gives me the signal.”  

Once your students have established what works best for each of them, you can just provide statements that remind them.  “I am clearing the papers off my desk to get ready for story time. Is everybody doing what they need to do to get ready?  Great! Now we’re ready to move to our circle.”  This takes the pressure off you and puts the power and responsibility where it belongs, in your students’ hands.


When they reach upper elementary

In upper elementary grades, as students begin moving from class to class, teachers can model the same technique.  At the beginning of each term, set the tone of accepting diversity in learning.  Then model self-advocacy in your classes.  You can begin saying something like:

“It works best for me if you all know what we are going to do in class, so I’ll put a mini-schedule for each period on the board.  That will give you a minute to decide what you need to do so you’re ready to learn.” 

That can be followed by a class discussion of the different ways students can demonstrate that they are ready to learn.  It might seem like this takes too much extra time, but you’ll make that time back, because when students feel you are allowing them some control over their learning, you’ll spend much less time in organizing them and in managing the behaviour that results when students don’t feel they have power over their own learning.

When self-advocacy is modelled this way by teachers and expected of all students in a class, it becomes the norm for everyone.  It creates the expectation that everyone has not only responsibility for their learning but has power over their own learning.  It creates a culture of acceptance that means that students with special needs feel that they, too, have power over their learning. 


Stepping up self-advocacy in high school

In junior and senior high, many students come to us with specific needs that must be individually accommodated.  In my experience, most teenagers are not very skilled in self-advocacy.  Most, but not all.  I had a first-hand lesson in self-advocacy one day as a tiny blond tornado whirled into my office.  Her jacket was half off, one shoelace was undone and her backpack was exploding papers, pencils and lunch bags in her wake. As she arrived, she waved some papers at me and said, “I have an IPP and my mom said you would help me.”  Her statement was so unique that it opened my eyes to the fact that the other teens I worked with were not advocating for themselves.  

With that insight, I realized that I’d been advocating for my students instead of giving them the power to do it themselves.  So, I changed my practice.  When students needed extra time, a quiet place to write, or to complete only some instead of all the math problems, we would rehearse together the conversation that needed to happen.  First, my students needed to understand that the format of the conversation needed to be respectful, but also that expectations needed to be clear.  They needed to understand, themselves, that they were not asking for a favour, they were explaining the need for appropriate accommodations so they could engage in learning.  We made sure the conversation always started with some version of, “I learn best when…”  or “I can show what I know if I can…”  Once the conversation was ready, we would make an appointment with the teacher.  I always went with the student for the first meeting and always offered to go to the next one.  Surprisingly, that was never necessary!  It seemed that once my students knew they could advocate for themselves, they were more than happy to do it independently.

Independence with self-advocacy is enhanced when teachers set the tone early in the semester or school year.  Acknowledging to the whole class that everyone learns differently and that some people may need accommodations for their learning will open the door for students to approach teachers to explain what they need.  One university instructor I know does it in his introductory lecture. Then he invites anyone who requires learning or testing accommodations to meet privately with him to plan what will work best for the student’s learning.  He also reminds students that it is very hard to provide accommodations if he doesn’t know about them until twenty minutes before the final exam.  He gets a great response from students who need accommodations – and he doesn’t run around in the minutes before exams anymore trying to match accommodations to student needs.  It’s a method that works at the university level and it works just as well at junior and senior high school levels.


Self-advocacy is for every learner

Teaching self-advocacy starts with the acknowledgement of learning diversity.  Everyone learns differently, not just those with special needs.  Teachers who model self-advocacy demonstrate that it is important for all of us, that we all require different things to meet our needs sometimes and it is acceptable to ask for and expect to receive these. It paves the way for responsibility and accountability in the learning process. When we create a learning culture where self-advocacy is the norm and when we model that accommodations are necessities, not favours, we enable all our students to seize the power for their own learning. 

From a parent’s perspective…

Self-advocacy is a skill that needs to be learned, but developing this skill by those with a Learning Disability (LD) and/or ADHD can be a real challenge that takes a lot of time and practice.

When my daughter with LD was young, I was her main advocate. I learned how to work with educators and other professionals and would speak up on her behalf. But, I knew that as she got older, she would need to become her own advocate.

Helping her learn self-advocacy skills had to be a priority for us if she was to become a confident adult. Getting there was much more difficult and time consuming than I anticipated.


What are the first steps?

For us, the first step was helping her to understand what her specific challenges were and what supports and accommodations helped her to be successful. Encouraging her to take those initial self-advocacy steps came next. She was diagnosed in grade 4 and that year was largely focused on us simply getting our heads around the diagnosis and what it meant. Beginning in grade 5 and in consultation with the school, we started to put actions in place with an IPP

Those first steps were very simple: just learning how to ask for help. For example, during a test, she would cough when the teacher walked by if she needed clarification about a question on the test. However, despite the agreement of the teacher to use this prompt to get his attention, he never responded to any of her “coughs”.  Even when I spoke with the teacher immediately before the tests and he reiterated his support for that action, he never responded. We then tried having her drop her pencil as he walked down the aisle of desks. That too didn’t lead to acknowledgement or support, despite the fact that test accommodations were clearly outlined in her IPP.  First brave steps even if they didn’t quite work out.

We also began to focus on having her participate in class by raising her hand and offering an answer or asking a question in class. This did not come easily as she was far more comfortable staying under the teacher’s radar and giving the illusion that she was busy working at her desk. Many weeks we would get to Friday before her hand went up.

In grade 6, at a new school, things were a bit better but my daughter was still hesitant to speak up. We even role-played at home as to what she should say when she needed support. We would practice specific asks for assistance, but still met with limited success. She was hesitant to speak up and the teacher was often more focused on other students with their own needs rather than supporting her initial self-advocacy attempts.  


How does self-advocacy change in Junior High?

Junior High, with different teachers for several subjects, and a resource teacher in the school, provided new challenges as well as some successes. Time spent working with the resource teacher helped my daughter understand the positive impact that accommodations could have, but getting them from all of her teachers was still a challenge. Her Math teacher, in particular, was very resistant to putting in place the accommodations outlined in her IPP. However, her Language Arts teacher took it upon herself to talk with him about learning disabilities and how they impact learning and that helped, a bit.

I will always be grateful to her for understanding the situation and taking the initiative to help a colleague learn more about the specific challenges that a student with LD faces.  It definitely clarified for us that we needed to think about who our “allies” were and learn to try and work with and through them. 


What Can You Expect in High School?

In high school, we started to slowly shift the lead on advocating to our daughter. We still role-played before she approached teachers with her needs. We would talk about specific questions to ask and often sent her off with prompt cards that she could refer to.  We were very fortunate to have a resource teacher in the school who worked with us to support the development of her advocacy skills.

By the end of high school, she was still a long way from being able to be her own advocate but she was definitely on her way. We really appreciated those teachers who supported her early advocacy attempts to speak up for what she needed. Their sensitivity to her emerging confidence was very helpful in reinforcing those early self-advocacy efforts.


How Do I Self-Advocate as an Adult in University?

Here, she was considered an adult and I was no longer able to take a role in her advocacy. Now she really needed to take the lead. 

As she began her university studies, she chose, with some encouragement, to self-identify at the Disability Centre. There she was matched with a tutor who was very helpful in providing her with guidance for managing in this new environment as well as working with her on strategies for learning. Some professors were open to providing the accommodations that she needed, and some were not.  We continued to role play at home before asks, continued to look for allies who could step in and help when needed. 

At one point there was an issue with the exam schedule. One of my daughter‘s accommodations was double time for exams.  When the exam schedule came out, two exams overlapped. She was unable to get one changed on her own, but her path had crossed several times with the Director of the Disability Centre and so she went to her for guidance. The Director took it upon herself to get the issue resolved. Situations like this provided the positive reinforcement that accommodations were there for a reason and that the university needed to see that they were put in place. It also reinforced the importance of finding allies.

As she progressed through her university studies, each successful advocacy situation led to increased confidence. By the time she completed her academic programs, she was able to advocate on her own behalf in most situations.  Now that she is in the working world, she is very comfortable self-disclosing and asking for what she needs to be successful.   


Reflecting on First Steps

In retrospect, I’m glad that we started the process of developing her self-advocacy skills when she was still in elementary school. It was very much a building process over many years with successes coming very slowly at first. Through patience and persistence on our part as her parents, and finding and working with allies, she slowly gained that initial confidence that she could ask for, and receive, what she needed for accommodations that would ultimately lead to success. I am the very proud parent of a young woman who is herself now a professor at university, still advocating for herself and leading others on this journey.

What is burnout? 

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Canada.) It sounds bad and it is. It can make you unable to function in all aspects of your life from personal relationships to work to everyday tasks like grocery shopping or laundry. For anyone with a Learning Disability or ADHD, the risk for burnout is even higher.

Well, no one wants that.

In this article, our Supports for Adults Team describes what burnout looks like for adults with literacy challenges, adults with ADHD and post-secondary students. Most importantly, they detail how to recover from burnout and prevent it from happening again.


What are general symptoms of burnout?

Burning out is an apt metaphor.  It brings to mind a sputtering flame, the dimming ashes of a fire, a candle with its glow extinguished sending up a tendril of smoke.

But what does that look like in people? Generally, it just feels like everything is harder to do and there is nothing left in you to reignite that once bright, energetic blaze.

Common symptoms:

    • Feeling emotionally drained, disillusioned and tired.
    • Sleeping poorly.
    • Lacking appetite or getting sick more often.
    • Feeling self-doubt or like a failure.
    • Feeling helpless or alone.
    • Feeling empty, unmotivated and hopeless.


How do reading challenges play into burnout?

We live in a more heavily text-based world than at any other time in history. Words are continuously delivered to us in a huge variety of forms: books, magazines, policy and instruction manuals, forms, store fronts, road signs, billboards, bus advertising, menus, Google, social media, emails, text messages, etc., etc., etc. 

We read all day long.

Unfortunately, this barrage of text is not comprehensible to everyone. If you are an adult with reading challenges, you may struggle to sound out words and spell them; others find it excruciatingly difficult to understand what they read. Or, if they manage to read and understand what they read, they feel mentally exhausted after just a few paragraphs.

When struggling to read, adults often become so overwhelmed that they will also struggle to remember, think about, or use the information they have just read. When reading stories, they struggle to empathize with people and emotions they read about or decide the effort is too much and miss out on stories altogether. They avoid filling out forms, deciphering instructions, going to restaurants. It can feel like living at the periphery of our text-based society.

What’s more, adults with reading challenges often blame themselves for struggling to read: lazy, stupid, not persistent enough – perceptions that spill over into other areas of their life. Reading difficulties are truly overlooked and under-discussed causes of emotional burnout.

The good news? 

Reading struggles are treatable, and there is help! The first step is to recognize the link between the inability to read well and burnout. Enrolling in an adult literacy program is the next step in helping you approach your difficulties with self-compassion, advance your reading skills, and improve your relationship with text. These are the gusts that can fan the flames of literacy.


Why do many adults with ADHD end up burned out? 

Well, the short answer is it’s complicated. It can be tricky to differentiate between ADHD symptoms and burnout.  Many adults with ADHD experience burnout when the demands of daily life continually exceed their capacity to meet those demands. This exhaustion is fueled by an imbalance in the effort-to-progress ratio. Challenges at home, work and in relationships exist despite working longer and harder than others. Then throw in parenting, cooking, laundry, carpooling, and homework; this experience is not unlike burning the candle at both ends!

These high expectations coupled with perceived slow progress towards a goal are often the result of executive function difficulties. Problems with planning, time management, working memory and emotional regulation can lead to unhelpful coping strategies like having unrealistically high expectations and masking your struggles.

The bottom line is that if you are an adult with ADHD who is experiencing burnout, you are not alone. All hope is not lost.  Making a few small changes can have a big impact. 

1.  Become aware of your burnout signs. Tune into your body. How do you act, think, and feel when you’re burned out? Be on the lookout for these things so you can address burnout quickly when it happens.
While burnout can look different depending on the situation, these are a few common signs:

        • Feeling exhausted even after rest
        • Increasingly irritable 
        • Increased difficulty focusing
        • Feeling overwhelmed, like things are “too much”
        • Working into the evenings and on days off to catch up
        • Missing deadlines
        • Sacrificing sleep to get work done
        • Working through breaks and lunch
        • Having no time for the fun stuff

2.  Take breaks throughout the day. Many people think they are too busy to take a break or avoid breaks because they’re afraid they won’t be able to refocus after stepping away.

3.  Find things that are restorative and energizing. Do these things in bite-size chunks throughout the day. Listen to something you enjoy, go outside for 5 minutes to feel the sunshine on your face, take a 10-minute nap, pet your dog, or connect with people you care about.

4.  Take things off your plate. Your time is limited. Look at your To-Do list and remove items. You can reduce demands by utilizing professional organizer Julie Morgenstern’s four D’s of time management. 

            The four D’s are:

    • Delete: Can I remove things that are no longer important?
    • Delegate: What can I let go of? Who can I ask to take or trade a task?
    • Delay: Is there a consequence if I don’t do this right now? This is about intentionally putting something off. Can I permit myself to put off changing the sheets until next week?
    • Diminish: This is about reducing the size of the task. Can I scale down this task? Am I overdoing this or aiming for perfection?


5.  Seek support: Consider speaking with a doctor or mental health professional to rule out depression or other health issues. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Tell someone you care about how you’re feeling. Attend a support group for adults with ADHD.


Are you burning out in post-secondary?

The relentless pressure to excel academically, coupled with the challenges of managing multiple responsibilities, can create a perfect storm for burnout in post-secondary students. While some of the symptoms are the same for any young or mature adult experiencing burnout, for post-secondary learners, there are specific symptoms you should watch for. 

  • Emotionally, you might exhibit heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and a sense of cynicism or detachment from your studies. Feelings of inefficacy and a diminished sense of accomplishment can also contribute to the emotional burden. Where once there was enthusiasm and satisfaction in learning, there is a dulling of these feelings. 


  • Behaviourally, burnout can manifest as a decline in academic performance: 
    • skipping classes,
    • studying less,
    • completing fewer assignments,
    • achieving poor test results, all leading to lower grades.


  • Socially, increased irritability and listlessness affect your social relationships and can lead to a withdrawal from social activities, study groups, and recreational interests. A general sense of apathy pervades previously enjoyable pursuits.


  • Developmentally, since many post-secondary students are young adults still in the process of developing positive coping mechanisms, they might use less desirable ones. You may find yourself turning to alcohol and drugs more often in an effort, at least temporarily, to relieve feelings of failure, helplessness and general doom.


Where can I find help in post-secondary?

Every college, university or technical institute has different supports and services available for students. Here are common departments that can help prevent or reduce burnout:

  • Accessibility Services has resources and services available for students with disabilities, including LD and ADHD, which might include:
    • Academic Accommodations: Individualized adaptations that reduce disability-related barriers for you in the classroom and during exams.
    • Assistive Technology: software to read textbooks aloud, dictation software, or to record classes. Access to government grants for students with disabilities.
    • Reduced course loads.
    • Access to an Academic Strategist. 
  • Wellness Services provide support for mental and physical health:
    • Counselling
    • Doctors and nurses
    • Peer support groups
    • Workshops and training sessions 
  • Academic Advising can assist you in designing a personalized course load.
    • Help in ensuring a manageable course load.
    • Advice on withdrawing from a course, taking a reduced course load, or taking a semester off. 
  • Learning/Learner Success Services provide resources for academic tasks.
    • Tutoring & writing support.
    • Workshops on topics such as time management, study and test strategies. 
  • Students’ Union:
    • Health & dental insurance, which usually include counselling. 

Strategies to consider

1.  Plan your semester to see the busy and quiet times using a full semester (4 month) calendar: (Link to printable template)

        • At the start of each semester, fill in all deadlines and their grade percentages.
        • Highlight the busiest weeks so you can prepare for them proactively.
        • Put a smiley face next to the quietest weeks, so you know when things will be slower. 


2. Put the big rocks in first: Time management is all about deciding what’s important. The “big rocks” are things like class time, study time and work, but also time for family & friends, hobbies, self-care, and rest. You’re a multi-faceted human being, so schedule yourself like one!

3. Collaborate with others to reduce your load: share flashcards with a classmate, take advantage of a study group or do meal prep with a roommate. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

4. Outsource tasks: Order your groceries online, use Google Assistant or Alexa on your phone to create reminders or make lists, ask friends or family for help.

5. Calm your mind by practicing self-compassion and to help restore perspective.


If you feel like your life is barely smoldering along and burnout is to blame, prioritize taking care of yourself. Use the above strategies to reach out for support and reconnect socially; nourish your body with nutritious food, plenty of sleep and energetic movement; find fun and creativity again. It takes just a few small sparks to rekindle and stoke your life back into a steady, glowing, comforting blaze.

About The Learning Disability
& ADHD Network

The Learning Disabilities and ADHD Network is a collaborative of a broad group of organizations and individuals in Calgary, which is operated through Foothills Academy Society.

Members of this long-standing Network regularly present at conferences, provide workshops and courses, undertake research projects in the field, collaborate with each other on various initiatives, and jointly create content for the website. Most importantly, 

we are people whose lives have been touched by Learning Disabilities & ADHD, and whose life’s work it has been to support individuals with learning and attention challenges.

Disclaimer: The Learning Disabilities & ADHD Network does not support, endorse or recommend any specific method, treatment, product, remedial centre, program, or service provider for people with Learning Disabilities or ADHD. It does, however, endeavour to provide impartial and, to the best of our knowledge, factual information for persons with Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD.