Last week I had conversations with two different families about helping children build the skill of self-advocacy. If you have been reading my posts for a while, you know that when a topic comes up a few times in my practice I often decide to write about it. The American Psychological Association defines self-advocacy as ‘the process by which people make their own choices and exercise their rights in a self-determined manner’. A more child-friendly explanation is that self-advocacy means learning to pay attention to your own needs and figuring out how to politely communicate those needs to other people. As with other social-emotional abilities, self-advocacy is a skill that many people are developing over the course of a lifetime.
Ideally, we want to help children develop and strengthen the ability to assert their needs and opinions across multiple settings: with friends and family members, at school, and in any other domain where they are functioning independently, such as extracurricular activities. I think it’s particularly helpful for parents to talk with children about the fact that self-advocacy is a skill that they are developing and, as with other learned skills such as reading or riding a bicycle, it helps to practice in order to strengthen our abilities. Here are some age-by-age guidelines for supporting the development of self-advocacy:
At this age, self-advocating at school is often as straightforward as asking a teacher for help: “I need some help please.”
Preschool aged children can practice simple scripts to help them assert themselves when tricky situations arise with friends or family members, such as
“Stop, I don’t like that” (perhaps accompanying this statement with the gesture of holding up a hand).
“May I have a turn please?” and if the answer is ‘no’, teach preschoolers to ask, “How many minutes until I can have a turn?”
For school-aged children:
In addition to the phrases listed above, children in elementary school can be encouraged to build independence by talking directly with their teacher when they have a problem. You can practice simple phrases at home such as,
“I didn’t finish the homework because I didn’t understand some of the questions.”
“It’s hard for me to pay attention in this seat. May I please do my work in a quieter place?”
With friends or family members, encourage children to pay attention to the messages their bodies and brains are sending to them and then tell people what they need:
“I like playing with you at recess, but I feel like running today instead of playing family. I’m going to play tag on the climber.”
“You got to choose the last 3 games we played. I want to choose next time.”=
For tweens and teens:
At school, encourage tweens and teens to ask teachers for extra help if they don’t understand material or if they missed something when they were out sick:
“I’m not sure I understand everything about the report due next week. Can I meet with you to go over the assignment?”
“I think I need more practice with this. Can you help me with that, or do you have an idea about how I can get more practice?”
Self-advocating with peers can be complicated for tweens and teens for a whole variety of reasons. For the purposes of this communication, I simply want to remind you about my all-time favorite self-advocacy script for all ages which can be especially helpful for tweens and teens: “I’d rather not.” This simple script can be so effective. Your child isn’t judging another person’s choice when they use this phrase, they are just stating their own needs in the simplest way possible.
Often in families conversations about self-advocacy come up when a child is faced with a circumstance in which they need to assert themselves. Rather than waiting for this type of situation to occur, I encourage you to talk directly with your child(ren) about building the skill of self-advocacy. You might want to explain that building this skill is a work-in-progress for many people, children and adults alike. If the idea of self-advocating feels hard or uncomfortable for your child, you can remind them that a great way to master skills that feel difficult is to break them into smaller pieces and practice them.
“Some of this feels hard, and you’re a kid who can do hard things.”
“I hear you saying that talking directly to your PE teacher feels difficult. How about talking with your homeroom teacher about the problem? Maybe the two of you can come up with a plan.”
“I totally get that it’s tricky that lots of people are trying vaping. Remember ‘I’d rather not’? I think that might work in this situation.”
When children and teens practice these scripts at home, either role playing with a caring adult or, for younger children, role playing with toys, it helps the phrases to feel more automatic in the moment. Rehearsing at home can also help children strike a balance between being direct about what they need and being polite in how they express their needs. Identifying self-advocacy as a skill your child is building and practicing can promote a sense of self-efficacy. Practicing these skills can help children learn to speak up for themselves effectively and to tolerate any discomfort that may come with asserting their needs.