Developing Self-Advocacy Skills: 4 Ways You’re Already Doing It and 4 New Things You Can Try
It’s never too early to begin teaching self-advocacy skills and summer is the perfect time to start. As a parent advocate, you spend a lot of time supporting your child and speaking up for what she needs. You think through how her disability affects her in school, in the community and with family and friends.
What Is Self-Advocacy?
Having you as an advocate serves your child well. But encouraging your child to find ways to understand and speak up for her needs will serve her well, too.
If you break down self-advocacy, it’s about three things—the ability to understand your strengths and weaknesses, knowing what you want or need to be more successful, and being able to let other people know about your needs and decisions.
4 Ways You’re Already Supporting Self-Advocacy
That sounds like a lot to expect from your child, but it doesn’t have to be as big and overwhelming as it sounds. In fact, you’re probably already showing your child ways to self-advocate and don’t even know it. Here’s what you’re already doing to help your child learn to be a self-advocate.
1. You encourage your child to ask questions.
Listening to and answering endless questions can be exhausting. But it’s your child’s way
of learning more about how the world works and how she fits into the world. Keep encouraging her to ask questions, especially the hard ones You may not always have answers, but your child will learn that’s it’s okay to ask people to help find answers.
2. You let your child make decisions.
Letting your child choose her clothes for the day or what you have for dinner seems like a simple thing—and it is. But it’s also a way for her to learn that she can make choices for herself and that she has some “say” in her own life.
3. You help your child find solutions.
Helping your child find solutions to every day issues is not the same thing as fixing her problems. Solutions are the ways you teach your child to work with her strengths and around her weaknesses. They can even be small things, like cutting the itchy tags out of a shirt.
4.You celebrate triumphs, no matter how small.
Teaching your child to celebrate the small things helps her learn to break goals into smaller steps. It shows her that triumphs don’t have to be big to be worthy.
4 Deliberate Ways to Teach Self-Advocacy
You can also be intentional about teaching your child self-advocacy skills. That means finding ways to help her understand and talk about her disability and needs. Here are some ways to get started.
1. Help her define and describe her disability.
Talk with your child about her disability and get a sense of how she thinks of it. The conversation will vary depending on your child’s age and ability to understand.
For some kids, it’s important to be able to name the disability, but it’s also important to be able to talk about how it affects daily life. Help your child find ways to describe her needs in her own words, so she can feel able to explain them to other people.
2. Identify strengths and strategies.
Talk with your child about when she feels the most successful and the best about herself. What is it she does really well? What is it that makes her feel confident in that setting?
Help your child think about what works well for her and make a list of things that are helpful and things she wants her family, friends and teachers to know about. This can be anything from where she needs to sit in the classroom to how she prefers people to manage situations in which they ask questions about her instead of of her.
3. Create and practice scripts.
It’s not always easy to know how to communicate what she knows or needs. Help your child develop some scripts for commons situations. You may not be able to predict where the conversation goes, but you can help her have some opening lines. For example: “Grandma, I don’t like it when people ask questions about me like I’m not there. Can we talk about how to deal with that when we go new places?”
4.Talk about who to speak with, who should be there and when.
As your child starts identifying issues that need solutions, encourage her to talk them over with you. Together, you can figure out who the person is that she should talk to for some help as well as if she needs your support for that conversation. For example, if she’s having trouble on the school bus, there may be times when it’s better to talk to the school instead of the bus driver.
Your child may also need to learn when the best time to ask for help is. Let your child know there are times when it’s completely appropriate to ask for help immediately, especially if she feels somehow threatened or unsafe. But you can also help her figure out when it’s better to do it a little later, such at an IEP meeting or afterschool.
Self-advocacy isn’t always easy or comfortable for kids. It’s a skill that takes practice and evolves over time. It’s good to keep in mind that teaching your child self-advocacy skills doesn’t mean you have to stop being her champion. It just means you’re teaching her ways to be her own champion, too.
Amanda Morin, is an early intervention specialist, education writer, special education advocate and mother of two children with special needs. Her latest book, The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, aims to demystify the special education process and empower parents.