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How to Help Kids Speak Up For Themselves in School

If you could simply wave a magic wand, what traits would you wish your child to possess? Confidence? Responsibility? Perseverance? Any of these would prove useful in life, but each of these is especially important because they enable a person to self-advocate, which is essential for independence. So when should a child be able to self-advocate?

Answers to questions like these always start with “It depends.” However, many expect children to be able to advocate for themselves in a school setting upon reaching high school. After all, it’s just a few years until age 18 and college, when self-advocacy is the expectation.

So, since magic wands don’t exist, what are some of the best ways both parents and teachers can help children learn to speak up for themselves?

Start Early

The ability to self-advocate needs to be developed. “Self-advocacy is a learned skill, and it takes time,” says Jenn Curtis MSW, an educational consultant and co-author of a forthcoming book on appropriately parenting kids through the competitive landscape of college admissions.

Curtis, a mother of two young girls, had her daughters self-advocate as soon as they could communicate effectively. “They order their food when we are at a restaurant and tell the doctor what hurts. It’s important not to speak over your child.”

Self-advocacy in a school setting should also start young. “By age 10, children should be able to self-advocate in a classroom,” says Charlene Andersson a veteran teacher and owner of the Gifted Center where she consults with parents about children’s socialization issues, advocacy, and academic/study skills. “Teaching how to self-advocate needs to start earlier as it’s a slow process.”

“When a child has a need, educators want that child to be able to express their need,” says Andersson. “Students should be able to talk about their confusion with their work, have clarity about the learning activity, understand their metacognitive process, and ask questions.”

A Parent’s/Guardian’s Role as Children Grow

When high school arrives, some parents/guardians feel their job is complete, and it’s time for their child to step up, while others want to be involved in every decision. Neither end of the spectrum is healthy.

Dr. Avital Cohen, who specializes in assessment and treatment planning and is the founder of Peachtree Pediatric Psychology, says that by the high school years, a parent/guardian’s role is to be their child’s backup and support them if they have advocated unsuccessfully. This involves, “developing a knowledge to see if they tried their best before stepping in,” he says. “The next step may be serving as a coach. You need to trust your parent gut.” A time parent should get involved, for example, is if a teacher is not respectful with a 504 plan and denies the student’s rights.

Curtis breaks it down succinctly, “When issues of danger and misconduct are involved, definitely jump in, but if your child is seeking extra help, it should be on the student. Letting them speak up is doing them a service.”

Veteran teacher Steve Sonntag, who has been teaching and tutoring high school students ever since 1970, says, “I deal with the student first because I have a relationship with them. If it can’t be resolved that way, I work with the parent as they are part of the team and deserve to be heard.”

When bullying of any sort is involves, parents should get involved.

A Teacher’s Role

Sonntag refers to his students as young adults, and strives to treat them as such. “By 9th grade, they’ve gone through the school system, know what’s right, can come up with conclusions, and make their own judgments.”

From day one — when students get a contract clearly spelling out their rights and responsibilities, as well as his — Sonntag strives to empower his students. One way this manifests itself is in the form of the option of extra quizzes. “By offering them this option, they own their grades and become more responsible in terms of learning. They feel like they are treated like adults.”

When students are comfortable with the teacher, they are more likely to self-advocate. “I treat them with respect, fairness, and kindness, and they come to realize I’m their advocate,” says Sonntag. Andersson starts the school year with a classroom agreement which develops a safe community for her class and says, “the students feel more comfortable as the year goes on and therefore take academic risks.”

Of course, not all teachers will exhibit this philosophy. If your child has a teacher who doesn’t see themselves as having a role in teaching self-advocacy, it’s even more important that parents step up to fill that void.

Recommended: How to Talk About Difficult Things With Your Child’s Teacher

The Stragglers

Not all students will be comfortable self-advocating in high school. It could be an issue of shyness, self-confidence, or something medical.

For those students who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), the meetings are an opportunity to help them learn self-advocacy. “Let the child be present at the meetings about them, so they can appreciate the process which will destigmatize things,” says Dr. Cohen. “It’s an opportunity to develop self-confidence. get support, and recognize their individual needs.”

Self-advocacy comes with confidence. That confidence might be found outside the classroom. “When students get involved with extracurriculars, it can build confidence. It’s another setting, where they get to navigate their needs, understand personal growth, and have a desire to get to the next level,” says Dr. Cohen.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to self-advocacy. Curtis suggests taking baby steps. She adds, “Goal setting can be powerful and is empowering. When a person writes down their goals and memorializes them, they are more likely to try them.”

Can’t Always Get What You Want

Even when students advocate for themselves, things might not go as they would like. According to Andersson, recognizing this is key. “The teacher may not change. Just like in life some things happen that are not fair.”

Self-advocating, even unsuccessfully, can be beneficial. “You can take what you learned from the experience and apply it to the next time,” says Andersson. “Students need to learn that not everything will work out even if you have advocacy skills.”

The high school years can be tough on the students and their parents/guardians. Being able to self-advocate can make those four years a bit easier and is a skill that will serve them the rest of their lives.

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Author: Larry Bernstein

Larry Bernstein lives in North Jersey with his wife and two sons. In addition to serving as an adjunct and tutor, Larry is a freelance writer who focuses on education, construction, and retail. He has been seeing green rainbows since his beloved Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.