Parents, one of the most important skills you can give to your child is self advocacy. Self advocacy is the act of speaking up for oneself to ensure their needs are met.
They can begin learning this skill as soon as they start to talk. In fact, some appear to master this skill during their “terrible twos,” but by the middle school years they seem to regress.
When my daughter Natalie, now an eighth grader, was in first grade, she committed her first felony: vandalism. I picked her up from after school care. The counselors informed me that she had scratched “Nat” into one of the lunch tables in 18” letters. As a school principal this news is concerning on several levels, least of which is the fact that a principal’s daughter did this. I am also quite aware that school lunch tables are quite costly. To top it off, this school fed into my middle school, so I was especially embarrassed to have to face my colleague, the principal of this elementary school.
We saw Principal Banda’s car in the school parking lot and headed over to knock on the office doors. Natalie was petrified as I informed her of the plan, which was her telling Mrs. Banda what happened. Natalie was shaking with fear. I explained that I was not there when it happened, so she needed to share what happened. While I knew she did not purposely damage the table, we still needed to take responsibility for our actions and find out how to make it right.
Mrs. Banda answered the door and invited us in. We both nervously sat down. I sat on my hands and prompted Natalie with my eyes to begin. Her voice sounded so small, so shaky. I bit my cheek to keep from jumping in and doing what I see so many parents do; speak for their children and explain how “she didn’t mean it” to soften the pain being inflicted upon the child. In her weak, guilty little voice, she managed to describe what happened. Mrs. Banda handled it perfectly. We walked out to see the damage and she determined a simple coat of paint would fix it (phew!). Natalie was sentenced to a week of library time helping during recess.
That night while tucking my adorable little vandal into bed, I asked her if she was angry at me for not speaking for her when she was so scared. She said “no.” Surprised, I asked her why. Her response was golden. She said four magic words that are the very foundation of our children’s self esteem, “You knew I could.”
It is never too late to nurture the skill of self advocacy. Here are some tips to begin (or reinforce) this skill in the late elementary grades and middle school grades. These tips can also work for young children too.
Tip #1: Never order for your child at a restaurant. Let them advocate for their own need for extra ketchup or another napkin. To ensure their success, PRACTICE ordering before you get to the restaurant. Throwing in “please” and “thank you” deserves extra praise and affirmation. RESIST the urge to order or ask on their behalf if they refuse to do so for themselves. Not getting their needed condiment or desired dessert can be very motivating even for the most shy kids.
Restaurants are a great starting point. I can’t remember the last time I even told the hostess how many were in our party. My kids always handle that task. This allows them to see themselves as valuable. When the hostess used to look at me I would glance my eyes towards my representative (my daughter) and it would go from there.
Tip #2: Don’t solve your child’s problems for them. When your child comes home with a problem, any problem, resist the urge to start your response off with, “Well, you should…” or “You need to…” Instead ask them, “How will you handle that?” Or “What is your plan?”
If you have been solving their problems for them up to this point they will not know what to do the first time you pose these questions. RESIST the urge to jump in. Send them off for some think time.
Once they have a possible plan, role play it. Yes, that’s right, act it out in the safety of your own home. Let them hear the words come out of their mouth and try out responses to what to say in response to them. This is your chance to be actively involved and coach them through. Be careful not to think for them. It is tempting, but their struggle through this problem solving step is an important part of learning how to self advocate.
If they become resistant or frustrated, again RESIST the urge to solve their problem. Resistance is not futile. You can ask permission to offer a small suggestion to get their thinking going. You can ask a question that prompts their thinking. You can send them off for some think time. Just do not tell them what they SHOULD do.
Tip #3: Practice self advocacy through email. Questions for teachers is another great place to guide students towards self advocacy. Most middle schoolers have school email accounts. Have them ask the question through their email. This is an easy place to practice your coaching skills too.
RESIST the urge to write the email for them or dictate the email (teachers can tell when it’s not your child writing). They must make the first pass. Coach them to include a greeting, to avoid text-style writing, and to include a friendly sign off. Give your child bonus affirmation for including a sincere compliment for the teacher. Try this the next time they will be absent and need some work ahead of time. If it makes you more comfortable, have your child cc you on the email.
Tip #4: Celebrate any progress towards self advocacy. Tell them how mature they are. Tell grandma in earshot of your child how proud you are of their progress and independence. And fear not mama bears and papa bears, they do need you. They need your coaching, your encouragement, and your praise of the great thinking and speaking for themselves they accomplish. And the intrinsic rewards will be many as they experience more success and increased self confidence.
We will address more advanced self advocacy skills next time. They will include your child’s role in a parent-teacher conference and getting them to talk to a teacher or school administrator by themselves. And yes, many, many kids do this every day. They are capable. Your belief in their ability to handle their problems is absolutely vital to their success with self advocacy and the building of their self esteem.