Self-advocacy is not an innate skill for everyone. Children, especially, are often unfamiliar with the concept. This is because, for the most part, many of their needs have been met before they even ask.
In order to introduce self-advocacy skills, parents have to ignore the natural instinct to step in and assist and instead allow their children to recognize, specify, and vocalize their needs. These three aspects are crucial for enacting self-advocacy: children must have opportunities to recognize when they need something; they then need practice identifying exactly what they need that is going to help them through the task or challenge; finally, they need communicative skills to relay that information to others who can provide assistance.
Tips for Parents
Provide children with space to initiate a task or challenge on their own before stepping in to “solve it” for them. This small, hands-off practice allows for three things: (1) Children are given the opportunity to approach the task and problem-solve on their own. (2) They are required to ask for help when they need it, instead of simply waiting for and relying on an adult to intervene. (3) They subconsciously establish self-confidence by independently recognizing their capabilities.
Encourage children to feel comfortable discussing specific obstacles and struggles. Again, a major piece of self-advocacy involves self-awareness because children must know what they need before they can ask for it. It puts children in a vulnerable position when they need to open up about their needs and weaknesses; however, modeling the process shows them that everyone needs help sometimes. Talk about your own struggles in school, sports, social circles, etc. Discuss how you managed those prickly situations and provide examples of how you problem-solved. It is important for children to feel comfortable speaking up when they need help, so a little encouragement goes a long way.
Similarly, parents can help put their child’s self-doubt at ease by clarifying what it means to learn something new. Children often expect instant gratification—they want to “do it right” on the first try. Explain to them that success is sweeter after struggle, that, as they progress through their education, learning should be more and more challenging. Reassure them that they are not expected to know and do everything perfectly every time. They will be much more inclined to speak up and advocate for their needs when they know that immediate perfection is not the expectation, but rather, growth and grit indicate success.
Help your child to feel more comfortable speaking up by encouraging her voice and thanking her when she contributes to conversation and/or problem-solving. Positive reinforcement is great for encouraging the shy or timid child because it sends the message that her opinion has worth. When a reluctant child does speak up, it is important to praise that effort to show that her opinion is valued. Even asking something as simple as, “What movie do you think we should watch tonight?” opens the door for your child to share an opinion.
When applicable, remind children of their special education services and accommodations and when to advocate for those supports. Placing a laminated “at a glance” sheet in your child’s binder that lists his accommodations and supports is a great start when familiarizing him with his IEP or 504 plan. The reference sheet acts, not only as a reminder of the accommodations, but also as a prompt for a reluctant child to speak up for himself when his needs are not being met. Sometimes, especially for children with executive functioning or processing difficulties, students may struggle to specify exactly what they need to move forward in a complex task. They know that they’re stuck, but they don’t know what is tripping them up or how to move through the hurdle. Obviously, this can be frustrating for a child. The accommodations grid acts as a visual self-advocacy reminder that lists the child’s personal “tools” to support them in the classroom.