6 Strategies to Help Your Child Build Self-Advocacy Skills

everloop-brings-new-social-network-for-tweens-to-56-000-schools-82dc28b296As tweens enter middle school they are expected to manage increased responsibility and independence. Included in this set of expectations is their ability to self-advocate.

Self-advocacy refers to an individual’s ability to effectively communicate, convey, negotiate or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs and rights. It involves making informed decisions and taking responsibility for those decision.

Routinely, I listen to middle school teachers make statements such as, “If a student misses a test, the student, and not the parent, has to advocate for making it up.” They insist that the student use self-advocacy skills by approaching the teacher and asking for a make-up test.

It sounds so simple, and yet when I think back to my middle school days and even to college, I know I struggled with self-advocacy. It was not until I entered my very small and highly protected graduate program that I learned to speak up for myself. I had incredible support and encouragement from my clinical psychology professors who viewed themselves as mentors to all 10 students in my doctoral class. It’s no wonder we all learned to speak our minds and we grew tremendously as a result. It was highly rewarding.

When I ask my children to speak up today in school or at other activities, I understand why they are hesitant. Despite the fact that the educational party line is that self-advocacy is necessary and therefore good, some teachers embrace a highly vocal child and others do not. I tell myself that as long as I am available to support them when they take risks and ask for what they need, eventually they will find that sweet spot where they are comfortable regardless of the reactions of the adults they are calling on.

Just like my graduate teachers supported me, parents can teach their children to be effective self-advocators. Here are six strategies to help your child build self-advocacy skills this summer:

1. Stay positive. Sometimes all a child needs to believe in himself is to have his parents believe in him. Stay positive even when a child struggles to communicate their needs and gets frustrated that you are asking them to do so. Role model your expectations and they will learn from watching you

2. Don’t do things for them that they can do for themselves. Highlight their specific strengths when they do act independently to build their confidence and self-esteem. “I really liked the way you asked that cashier for the correct change,” or, “That’s a pretty impressive lunch you made, hitting all the food groups.”

3. Teach problem-solving skills. Problem-solving skills are the foundation for self-advocacy. Here are action steps for your children:

Ask what decisions and actions need to be made.

Consider options using pros and cons for each choice

Make a decision

Evaluate the choice by asking “Did the choice work and if so how?”

4. Teach children to read social cues through role plays where they learn to identify non-verbal social cues such as tone, listening ability, eye contact and level of overall engagement. Teach your child that self-advocacy does not mean being a nag. Speaking up once or twice is all that is required to communicate their needs. If an adult is non-responsive, a child should be taught to walk away and ask for guidance from another adult. This protects a child from feeling rejected and having a negative experience as they are learning to speak up.

5. Go out into the real world. At a large event earlier this summer, my son, 11, asked for a hot dog. I knew the fast food stand was right behind our seats and I had already been there with him twice, so I handed him money. He looked at me like I was crazy. “I can’t go there alone!” he said. “Why not, you just saw me do it twice” I replied. “There are too many people, I can’t,” he protested. I praised him for communicating his discomfort and then I told him, “I’ll shadow you.” He was able to rise to the task knowing I was behind him although I did nothing. Practicing independence increases self-reliance and self-advocacy

6. Help children to communicate their needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses. Every person’s learning style is different. If your child knows what he needs to excel in the classroom, practice having him verbalize his needs so he can comfortably express them to teachers without you thereThe ability to teach self-advocacy skills is not something most parents have practice doing. Parents have to get more comfortable in this role because it’s a skill set our children are expected to have as they enter the increasingly competitive world of middle and high school. And in the end, if your child is able to communicate directly with teachers, your life will be a lot easier too!



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