It is back to school time and parents with school age kids know this comes with many mixed emotions. Perhaps you’re sad to see your young child go off to school after being used to having them at home. Or maybe you’re excited for your child and all the new opportunities that school will provide them. As parents you may feel a little anxious during this time. You want to make sure you’ve equipped your child with the necessary life skills to succeed when they are not in your care.
Self-advocacy is a critical tool your child needs in order to achieve goals, increase self-suﬃciency and become a successful young adult. It is never too early to start teaching your child how to advocate for themselves.
What exactly does self-advocacy mean? The Pacer Center defines self-advocacy as “taking the responsibility for communicating one’s needs and desires in a straightforward manner to others.” Generally speaking, it is a set of skills that includes:
- Speaking up for yourself
- Communicating your strengths, needs and wishes
- Being able to listen to the opinions of others, even when their opinions differ from yours
- Having a sense of self-respect
- Taking responsibility for yourself
- Knowing your rights
- Knowing where to get help or who to go to with a question.
Teaching your child to speak up for themselves is a good place to start. This skill may be harder to acquire when self-consciousness comes into play during the pre-teen and teenage years, so start them young. For example, pre-schoolers can learn to ask for help with small things like zipping up their backpack or finding a certain color crayon.
You can also give your child the opportunity to make choices very early on, including the clothes they want to wear, what they would like for a meal or what activity they would like to do during play time. At a young age, start giving your child chores or tasks to learn both responsibility and the satisfaction of accomplishing something on their own.
As early as age 4 or 5, show your child how to express their needs and preferences as you go about your daily routine. At a restaurant for example, instead of reading the menu to your child encourage them to ask the wait staff for the children’s options . At the grocery store, your child can ask an employee where to find his or her favorite snack. As you work on these skills, it’s important to give your child feedback. Did they speak up and look at the person they were talking to you? Did they process the information they were given? Also, let your child come up with their own solutions to problems. If you’re at the park and they want to use equipment not accessible for a wheelchair, help them brainstorm alternatives.
An important part of teaching young child self-advocacy is teaching them to understand themselves first. If your child has a disability they should be knowledgeable and aware of their disability. You can help your child take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses as well as their unique learning styles and abilities. These can be social, academic, or even physical—anything that impacts their classroom performance. This is important for parents and children to know the needs and accommodations they require to succeed at school. Children may be sensitive about asking for special accommodations or asking too many questions for fear of not being liked, or being too bothersome. Assure your child that teachers respect active learners and want them to succeed.
Role playing can also be helpful. You can anticipate what types of situations may arise where your child will need to advocate for themselves at school. This might include trouble seeing the chalkboard, asking a classmate to hold open a door, or asking a cafeteria worker what the lunch options are.
As children get older, parents can help them identify potential resources at school that may help with their needs or weaknesses. If your child is a special needs student, as a parent you will want to be aware of his legal rights. You can also check your school’s website or handbook for information on available resources. After-school tutoring and re-testing policies are two examples of potential resources available to children with learning disabilities.
Teaching self-advocacy skills is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. It will help them make good choices and become better problem-solvers not only during their school years, but well into adulthood.