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Teaching Self-Advocacy to Students: Definition & Skills

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching students to advocate for themselves and their needs as learners is one of the most beneficial things you can do for them. This lesson helps you understand what self-advocacy is and how you can teach it to students.

What is Self-Advocacy?

Ms. Barber is a fifth grade teacher who feels proud of her ability to teach students across the subject areas. Her graduates excel at math and literacy and have strong understandings of concepts in science and social studies. Yet her colleagues at the nearby middle school often tell her stories that make her feel as though her former students are floundering. She realizes that she wants to devote more time to teaching students self-advocacy, or ways to identify their own needs and stand up for what they need and believe. Ms. Barber understands that as more independence is expected of students, self-advocacy becomes increasingly important. She dedicates some time to unpacking the skills needed for self-advocacy.

Identifying Needs, Identifying Feelings

Ms. Barber realizes that a crucial and difficult aspect of self-advocacy for students is identification, or naming and understanding, their own needs and beliefs. She sees that many of her students sometimes have a sense that they are struggling, but they do not know how to translate their struggles into words. Ms. Barber begins teaching explicit lessons on identifying needs and feelings. Some of the concepts she teaches explicitly include:

  • When you put your feelings into words, other people can understand you better.
  • It is possible, and okay, to feel two different or even contradicting things at once; you can communicate this to others as a way of untangling what you need.
  • Even if you do not know what you need, it is worth telling someone else that you need help.

Ms. Barber uses role plays, imaginary scenarios, and group discussions and reflection sessions to help her students practice articulating their needs and feelings to each other and to her.

Respectful Yet Forceful Advocacy

Ms. Barber also teaches her students that self-advocacy should simultaneously be respectful and forceful. She helps her students understand the meaning of these abstract concepts.

Respectful Self-Advocacy

Respectful self-advocacy takes into account the perspective of the person you are talking to. Respectful self-advocacy means talking from your own point of view only and assuming the best of others. Respectful self-advocacy uses polite language, and the respectful self-advocate thanks his audience for listening.

Forceful Self-Advocacy

Forceful self-advocacy is emphatic and insistent about getting your needs met. You sometimes need to be a forceful self-advocate by repeating your needs until you feel heard. Being a forceful self-advocate involves making strong and clear statements about your experience and what you see as your needs.

Ms. Barber understands that it can be genuinely challenging to combine force and respect, so she gives her students a variety of opportunities to practice and reflect on this combination with herself and with each other.

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