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How to teach your child to self-advocate

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Teenage girl raises her hand while sitting at a table in class, surrounded by other students.
In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:  

1. What does self-advocate mean?
2. How do I teach my young child?
3. How do I guide an older youth?  

Your child complains that the teacher ignores him. Your daughter never gets a starting position on her softball team. Your teenager disagrees with her friends, but only shares her feelings with you. 

Teaching your child how to self-advocate – or speak up for themselves effectively – can be tricky. But two local professionals share their insights here on how it can be done.

1. WHAT DOES THE TERM MEAN?  

Self-advocacy means knowing your rights and responsibilities, and possessing the ability to make choices that affect your life.  

With a young person, self-advocating can take the form of confidently interacting with teachers, coaches, authority figures and even friends and family members. It’s a useful skill when a child is being evaluated by others, needs to lodge a complaint and/or wants to be heard.  

2. HOW TO TEACH A YOUNG CHILD?

Tammy Walton, a second-grade teacher for the Palm Beach County School District, works with “little ones who don’t normally speak up when I ask them questions about whether they understand a lesson or have an issue.”  

However, a few of her students have learned how to advocate for themselves at a young age. For example, a 6-year-old will approach Walton during a break to let her know she is struggling.  

Walton recommends encouraging your children to ask questions, even if they may be afraid or embarrassed. If your student can’t overcome the fear, she suggests you send her an email in your child’s words.  

“Have your child draft the email with you,” she says. “Then they will see their words on the screen, not yours, and they will know that I will answer their questions or address their issues without an audience. But I encourage asking questions in class because other students, who may not be as courageous, might have the same questions.”  

This approach is less intimidating and communicates feelings without direct confrontation. Talking with a caregiver first also can help children figure out their emotions and find the right words to convey their needs.  

3. HOW TO GUIDE AN OLDER YOUTH?  

When offering guidance to young adult clients, Theresa Peak, director of transitional living for Villages of Hope in Lake Park, asks, “What are you trying to accomplish?”  

“Helping them understand their goal helps them focus on what questions to ask and who to ask,” Peak says.  

She suggests alternatives if situations don’t work out as planned. For example, she recommends asking for a supervisor if a customer service representative doesn’t provide a satisfactory response. If the supervisor doesn’t resolve it, she advises to gather names and phone numbers so her staff can lend assistance.  

“Don’t be rude, but you can be persistent,” Peak tells her clients. “And if your best efforts don’t work, come back to me and I’ll help you.”  

Adult backup is important in building trust, not only in the relationship, but also in the process of self-advocating. Sometimes, it takes more than one attempt to be heard.   “It’s imperative they know how to speak up for themselves,” she says.

“If you don’t self-advocate, you run the risk of being misunderstood or miscast by others,” Peak says.

SOURCES:

• Tammy Walton, second-grade teacher, Palm Beach County School District
• Theresa Peak, director of transitional living, Villages of Hope  

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