Teaching Self-Advocacy to Children
Self-advocacy is the ability to express your wants and needs and to take action on your own behalf. On a small scale it may include asking for help opening a jar or carrying groceries in from the car. On a larger scale it may include requesting accommodations at school or work or therapy services from your school or insurance provider. Parents often find themselves advocating for the needs of their children but may find it challenging to teach this critical life skill to their children, particularly those who are neurodivergent or have special needs. Given that self-advocacy helps drive success in education, employment, and independence, it is important to nurture this skill (or set of skills, really, as described below).
Self-advocacy requires self-awareness, goal setting, planning, problem solving, self-regulation, and communication skills. Challenges in any of these areas can be a roadblock to successful self-advocacy. The good news is that you don’t need to wait for these skills to be highly developed before teaching self-advocacy. In fact, practicing self-advocacy with appropriate supports can help develop these skills. In this blog post I will describe how you can nurture each of these skills individually as well as support them while teaching self-advocacy.
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your own strengths and limitations, preferences, interests, values, and more. It begins to develop at a young age; as toddlers we recognize and explore our independence (and our ability to say “No” 🙂) and our sense of self. You can encourage self-awareness through open discussion with your child about their interests and preferences and encouraging them to pursue their interests in a variety of activities. Discuss how each person is unique and has different interests and abilities. Talk about the attributes that are easy to see (e.g., runs fast, solves math equations) but also ones that are often overlooked (e.g., gentle with babies and animals, shares with friends, honest, etc.). Encourage your child to share their abilities with others with confidence and humility (e.g., “I’ve been improving my dribbling skills. I can use both hands and dribble between my legs” vs “I’m the best dribbler, way better than that guy”). When discussing any limitations, emphasize that those limitations can make certain things more challenging but not impossible, and that we each have certain limitations that are part of what makes us who we are.
The One-Pager template and instructional videos from the website www.imdetermined.org are excellent tools for helping children think about their strengths, preferences, interests, and needs.
Parents, teachers, and therapists each have visions of goals they want a child to achieve. These goals are developed with the very best intentions, given what they believe is in the best interest of the child. Sometimes the child is motivated either internally (they want to accomplish the same goals) and sometimes they are motivated externally, either by a desire to please the adult or by other reinforcements (e.g., earning rewards). Other times, the child is resistant or simply apathetic. When possible (you won’t be doing this with a toddler), allowing the child to be a part of the process of creating goals can motivate them to give their best effort during school and therapy sessions, and to try to utilize their developing skills throughout the day. It will also help ensure that the goals are functional and personalized for the child’s daily needs. You can use visuals such as charts and graphs to help a child see their progress, and you can post these visuals in a location where they will be noticed (refrigerator, by their desk, in the front of their binder, etc.). Encourage your child to set realistic goals, perhaps beginning with short term objectives that can be achieved in a day or within a week along the path to their larger goals. Discuss how there may be more than one way to achieve certain goals and encourage them to request any support they need along the way. Discuss how certain goals that aren’t immediately motivating for the child fit into the larger picture of their long-term goals.
When your child has come up with a goal either independently or with an adult, help them create a list of tasks or steps that will help them achieve that goal. Try to write the tasks as specifically as possible. Then, take time to consider any obstacles that may interfere with the completion of each task and come up with a plan to address each one. In the WOOP protocol, a child states a Wish, visualizes an ideal Outcome and the way that would feel (drawing a picture may aid in visualizing the outcome), considers and visualizes any potential Obstacles (e.g., fear, old habits), and finally creates a Plan for how they will respond to those obstacles: “If [obstacle] then I will [response].” Encouraging cognitive flexibility during the planning stage with If/Then statements can help prepare children to navigate through problems independently and plan ahead for any support they may need to overcome obstacles and accomplish their goals.
We encounter myriad problems each day, both predictable (e.g., traffic, the accumulation of unread email) and unpredictable (please don’t crash on me, computer!). If we implement good planning strategies such as the WOOP strategy described above, we can prepare ourselves to tackle some of these problems effectively and efficiently. But what happens if, gulp, my computer does crash? Children can practice problem solving skills both in real life situations and in prepared lessons. I frequently use literature and short videos for this purpose. For example, after watching a short video together, we discuss the following questions:
- What is the context of the scene? Where are they and what are they doing?
- What is the problem or conflict in the scene? Why is that a problem?
- What were the characters thinking/feeling about what was happening?
- What should they have done differently?
- Why is that a good way? What do you think will happen if they do that?
Many children have difficulty evaluating the size of the problem as well as the size and nature of the emotional response. You can use a 5-point scale to identify the degree of the problem (e.g., 1- very small problem, 5- catastrophe). To help children identify the specific emotions a character is feeling (or how the child is feeling/would feel in a real-life situation), I have created a list of emotions organized by type (happy, sad, scared, surprised, angry, disgusted, ashamed) and by degree (light, medium, or strong). The same types of questions and labeling of emotions can be utilized as problems occur in real life. Let’s use an example of a common problem at school.
- What is the context of the scene? Where were you and what were you doing? I was taking a test in my biology class.
- What was the problem or conflict ? Why is that a problem? It takes me a while to read the questions and think about my answers, so I ran out of time and couldn’t finish the test. I knew I would fail anyway so when I saw I only had a few minutes left I just stopped and waited for the bell to ring.
- What were you thinking/feeling about what was happening? I felt frustrated and defeated because I wasn’t able answer all the questions in time.
- What should you have done differently? Since I know it takes me a while to read the questions and think about my answers, I can ask the teacher if I can have extra time (self-advocacy!).
- Why is that a good way? What do you think will happen if you do that next time? If the teacher agrees, I will be able to show how well I understand the subject, and not just fail because I ran out of time.
Self-regulation allows us to take control over what we say and how we behave. It involves how we monitor our own feelings, words, and actions so we can make adjustments as needed. We use strategies (mostly without even realizing) to self-regulate, and what works for me may not work for you. In fact, some strategies that work for one person may dysregulate another. For example, some people prefer having books and papers scattered across their desk and listen to rock music while they are working. I prefer having only a minimal number of items on my desk, arranged neatly, and listen to calming instrumental music. Some students are better able to focus when using fidget objects, but for others, this is just distracting. When a child is becoming dysregulated, help them describe the feeling (If they are already highly dysregulated, you may need to skip that part and discuss it once they have regrouped). Then the child can suggest a strategy, or you can offer an idea if needed. For example, the child can request a break, go to a quiet place, and/or use a breathing strategy. Planning ahead for these moments (again, the WOOP strategy may be useful here) can help prevent or minimize moments of dysregulation.
Communication can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but even more so during self-advocacy which may entail confronting people of authority, and when strong emotions may be involved. Review options with your child such as writing an email, talking in person with notes, talking without notes, etc. Children with generalized or social anxiety may prefer communicating through email or text messaging, but please consult with a mental health professional for guidance. Your child can use a template or model email to assist in their writing, such as the P.I.N.G. model, which consists of the following elements:
Inform and inquire
Negotiate your needs
Gratitude for their assistance
If the child decides to communicate in person, work together to plan what they want to say, and role play the conversation together. Depending upon the subject matter, templates such as the One-Pager or the Goal-Plan from the website www.imdetermined.org may be helpful, or you can create a modified version to suit your child’s needs.
There is an old saying: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Teach your child to advocate for themselves, and you will teach them a valuable, multi-faceted skill that will benefit them for a lifetime.
I’m determined. I’m Determined. (2022, November 29). https://www.imdetermined.org/
McCormick, S. (2023, May 5). How to communicate with your teacher: You need to P.I.N.G. THEM!. EF Specialists. https://www.efspecialists.com/post/how-to-p-i-n-g-your-teachers
Westby, C. (2023). Promoting Self-Determination. Word of Mouth, 34(5), 13–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/10483950231161474d
Weir K., Cooney M., Walter M., Moss C., Carter E. (n.d.). Fostering self-determination among children and youth with disabilities—Ideas from parents for parents. Waisman Center’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
Woop My Life. WOOP my life. (n.d.-b). https://woopmylife.org/