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Parenting Paradox: Self-Advocacy: What It Is, Why Your Kid Needs It, and How You Can Foster It

May is quickly approaching. Derby, blooming flowers, high school graduation, Mother’s Day, wonderful things. May also means final exams, AP tests, and end-of-year report cards . . .which can all be stressful (for us and our kids) no matter what their grade level. Surviving this final sprint to the finish line is best managed when our kids can self-advocate.

What is Self-Advocacy?

Essentially, self-advocacy is simply the ability to communicate our needs and make informed decisions about the support we need to meet those needs.

Children Who Self-Advocate:

DO: Go to the teacher when they do not understand a concept or earn a low grade asking what strategies to use next time

DON’T:Say they have no idea why they didn’t do well on the test or blame the teacher for their own shortcomings

DO:Find and utilize resources that help them achieve a challenging task

DON’T: Say they don’t know what to do, where to look, or who to go to

DO: Communicate effectively (to the proper people) the challenges they are experiencing

DON’T:Get mad, cry, give up, complain to everyone around them, say they have no idea why they can’t do it (notice a trend here). While an emotional response is to be expected, don’t let the door close there.

When You Hear:

I’m afraid to ask my teacher for help/I don’t know how to ask my teacher for help.

Don’t:Allow your child to succumb to emotions like fear and embarrassment. While those emotions might be what they are feeling, they can be based in “what-if” logic and not in reality.

Do: Stay calm.Assure your child that teachers are there to help their students. Most teachers appreciate and respect active learners, and are eager to help students, regardless of their learning style. Role play with your child ways to ask for help, paying particular attention to the words they use when they play the teacher role. These words provide insight into your child’s thoughts about their teacher.

I studied really hard. I don’t know why I didn’t do well on the test.

Don’t:Impulsively send out an email to the teacher letting them know that your child studied for hours and hours and is devastated by the grade and now hates school.

Do: Stay calm. Keep the focus on the “process” and not the “product.” Help your child build confidence to go meet with the teacher right away. If your child doesn’t know why they didn’t do well on the test, then they won’t know what to do to improve on the next assessment, leading to continued frustrated or defeat. Sometimes students study “hard” but not necessarily “smart.” Maybe the assessment requires application and analysis skills, but they studied in a manner that is only conducive to memorization. Encourage your child to meet with the teacher to discuss how they studied and how to adjust their study habits.

I can’t _____________ (fill in the blank).

Don’t: Rush in to solve the problem for your child or add fuel to the fire by responding to their frustration with frustration of your own.

Do: Stay Calm. Try to discern first whether their frustration is rooted in fatigue or hunger. If so, have them step back and approach the task later. Stepping back can help them gain perspective, and then you can help them brainstorm strategies, resources, techniques they could use to turn their “can’t” to a “can.”

From the Voices of Our Experts:

When your kid is in college, you won’t be there to encourage (read: make) them take advantage of the resources available to them. Teach them now how to self-advocate, so your child can come home from college with great success stories like this one from one of our students at University of Virginia:“Following my first chemistry midterm, my grade was shocking. While the class average was low, mine was even lower that that. I had done all of the readings, all of the homework, but it wasn’t enough. I scheduled a meeting with my professor, who suggested I just drop the class. I was discouraged, but not defeated. Instead, I pursued a different route and talked to previous students about how to prepare for his exams. They provided numerous online and written resources, which in turn, contributed to my success on the following exam and ultimately in the class.”

Laura Bonzo-Sims, Ed.D. has been an educator for 25 years, working with students in middle school, high school, and graduate school. Laura is the Director of College Placement and an Instructional Leader.

Katherine L. Stone, Ph.D. has practiced psychology in Lexington, Kentucky, in a private practice for almost 20 years. She focuses on needs of children and young adults as well as their families.