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Why is it important for students to advocate for themselves and how can adults help them learn those skills?

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Speaking up for oneself, expressing needs, and taking action are essential self-advocacy tools for youth of all ages. When children know that there are options for regaining control or influencing a difficult situation, they gain the resilience to move through the obstacles that life brings. Children who actively participate in learning self-advocacy skills are better prepared to resolve problems themselves and understand when a problem requires adult help. Whether it’s a disagreement with a friend or a serious situation like bullying, teaching self-advocacy can reinforce a child’s understanding of how they create change in their world.

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Ben’s baseball cards were everything to him. They were carefully placed inside plastic so they couldn’t be damaged, and were handled only when someone special really wanted to see them. When Ben’s mom Molly saw that his most valuable card was gone from his desk, she asked him right away what happened to it. Ben’s answer was vague: he was showing it to a friend at school, it was in the special plastic, and he’d get it back soon. Molly knew something was wrong and that Ben really wanted that card back. As she gently asked him about the card, he told her that an older boy at school had said he’d be Ben’s friend if Ben showed him the card, but Ben didn’t get it back after he did that. Molly knew she’d have to help Ben get his card back, but, more importantly, she needed him to understand that this wasn’t what a friend should do. She told Ben that together they would develop a plan focused on getting his card returned.

When children first go out into the world, parents assist them in most ways to navigate any difficulties they might face. Parents, and other adults, help them to walk safely, understand danger, share their toys, and much more. As they grow and become more independent, parents step away, little by little, and let them take charge of decisions when appropriate.

Yet adults also know that they most likely won’t always be around forever to help their children work through life’s problems and advocate for them when larger issues arise. Self-advocacy is an essential life skill that children should gain as they mature. They can learn to find solutions to their problems and understand that they are able to create positive change in their world through what they say and do.

Why is this skill important? Self-advocacy helps children:

  • Obtain what is helpful for them
  • Be involved in the decision-making process
  • Learn to say no and be okay with it
  • Respectfully express disagreement or a different opinion
  • Help prevent any bullying they experience

All children should know that they have a right to be safe at school. They should know that the adults at school and elsewhere will keep them safe and protect them from hurt, harm, or humiliation. While self-advocacy does not mean that a student must handle a problem on their own, students should learn to assert their right to safety when they feel that they are not being treated respectfully or when they see another child in that situation.

They should know that they have the right to tell an adult, and to know which adult they should speak to when they need help. The message to all children should be: You are not alone. You and I are going to make a plan so that this situation gets better and we’re going to work together with the school to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Here is an example of working through a difficult situation using Ben’s story and following the steps of our Student Action Plan a good tool for teaching self-advocacy.

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STEP 1: Describe the bullying that’s happening. Include dates, location, who is involved, and details of the behavior.

Molly should have Ben describe what the boy at school has been doing, how he knows him, where he interacts with him, and share how these things have made him feel.

STEP 2: Describe what you would like done about it. Think about how the situation could be stopped or prevented.

Ben talks about what he’d like to have happen and how the situation would look if things were better. This is a powerful step in Ben’s sense of his influence over the situation. His input draws on his unique strengths while moving the plan forward, and these ideas can only come from him.

STEP 3: What steps can you take to make that happen? Include who could help, what they can do, and what you can do.

Molly and Ben are going to talk about what’s needed to implement Ben’s input. They will brainstorm who needs to be involved in helping with the plan, what those people would need to do, and the steps everyone needs to take. They will then decide who will help or take action for each of the steps.

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Strategies that encourage self-advocacy in children, such as expressing one’s needs, asking for help from a trusted adult, and giving input to what action steps should be taken, help affirm a child’s self-worth and strengths. When adults promote a child’s ability to influence problems of all kinds, including bullying, children receive the message that they have power and do not need to be “stuck” in a harmful situation.

When adults and children work together to solve problems in this way, a child’s sense of safety and security is heightened because they know they have allies in the community who will listen and help when they speak up. Children who actively participate in providing input into their problems are better prepared to resolve those problems themselves and understand when a problem requires adult help.

Examples of Self Advocacy | PACERTalks About Bullying, Episode 25

In this video, Jody, director of PACER’s Parent Training and Information Center, shares a creative, real-life example to help visualize what self-advocacy using the “Student Action Plan” can look like in action.

Posted March, 2018

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