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5 Ways to Help K–12 Students Advocate for Themselves

Dr. Amy Dietzman

Self-advocacy is critical to student success. Students of all ages need to be able to identify what they need to be successful and then communicate their needs. Even more importantly, students need to know what resources they have available and how to use them in the right situations. Here are five things educators can do to promote self-advocacy in their students.

#1: Encourage students to ask questions (and acknowledge challenging content)

Asking questions is hard for students because they often don’t want to call attention to themselves—or to the fact that they don’t understand something. When I was teaching, I found that students were more likely to come to me at the end of class to ask questions, so I made sure to leave time for students to have that one-on-one opportunity.

Another way to help students speak up is to ask pointed questions such as, “What’s still confusing?” or, “What part should I explain again?” I’ve taken the stigma out of needing clarification because I’ve already made the assumption that the content is challenging. This allows students to speak up without feeling like they are the only one still puzzled.

#2: Teach students about metacognition

A meaningful way to model self-advocacy is to teach students how to think about their thinking. I used to tell a lot of stories and explain my own thought processes to encourage my students to do the same. Part of knowing what we need is being able to self-assess and determine where we have challenges. Teachers can lead students to this reflection, and so can parents. Asking students to reflect on a lesson in an explicit way leads them to identify how they learn best. Plus, once they know when and why they reach a point of frustration, they will then be equipped to determine when it’s time to ask for help.

#3: Help students reflect on their strengths and weaknesses

As adults, we are often self-aware enough to say, “I don’t do well in those types of situations. I prefer this other kind of situation.” Young students are not as self-aware, but through guided metacognition, they can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and know when a challenge or roadblock is ahead. Students with learning disabilities are taught to think this way, but it doesn’t always mean they will advocate for themselves when they see a roadblock ahead. As they cope with difficult learning situations, they may shut down. In those moments, it is helpful for students to practice identifying roadblocks and problem-solving—with the help of a trusted adult—how to overcome them.

#4: Offer resources and options

I conducted a number of conferences with parents and their students, in which my colleagues and I encouraged struggling high schoolers to ask for help or stay after school when they needed additional support. And so many times, students didn’t do it. That’s why students of every age need choices. Asking for help from a teacher is often the best option, but not always the most attractive. Logging in to an anonymous tutoring service outside of the school walls might be easier. Starting a study group with good friends might be more enticing. Talking to students about their options, and when they can use each of these resources, is another way to strengthen the connection between needing help and advocating for oneself.

#5: Model a growth mindset

The most important thing students can learn is that they can learn. A growth mindset sets the stage for the fact that learning is not impossible. There is always a solution or a support that can help students get through and beyond a difficult situation. Students need to know how to advocate for themselves and learn self-determination at the same time. As they do, they are likely to find that the most frustrating setbacks often provide the greatest—and most memorable—opportunities for growth.