Self-Advocacy for Both Students and Teachers
By Bill Reed
An invaluable lesson that helps students perform their best is teaching students appropriate self-advocacy. Students who have 504 plans and I.E.P.s need to learn how to appropriately advocate for the accommodation(s) afforded to them in their plan. Regular education students also need to be taught and shown how to appropriately ask for help and assistance as needed. When students learn how to appropriately ask for assistance, they are not only set up for success in the classroom but also for life after high school.
I know from experience, many math and science teachers are not comfortable teaching students self-advocacy. Do not worry and do not stress. There are many resources available for teachers to help them with this. Places like Boys and Girls Clubs of America have many valuable resources. Many universities like The University of Oklahoma have entire curriculum they are willing to share to help educators teach self-advocacy. Other organizations also have wonderful materials they are happy to share with teachers wishing to teach self-advocacy. Teachers can also talk to your own colleagues who can help. Resource teachers will almost always have some excellent self-advocacy resources for you. I have found they are almost always happy to help you teach these very important skills for ALL students not just resource students.
So you know what to ask and what to look for, the research shows self-advocacy skills include (Durlak et al., 1994; Merchant & Gajar, 1997; Walker & Test, 2011):
- Knowledge of academic strengths and weaknesses
- An awareness of required accommodations and services that are available
- Knowledge of individual rights
- The ability to request information, assistance, and accommodations when required
They should be taught explicitly and practiced in school settings, such as at individual education plan (IEP) meetings (Van Ruesen & Bos, 1994; Kotzer & Margalit, 2007) or when requesting accommodations (Durlak et al., 1994; Prater et al., 2014). Teachers in high school classrooms usually deliver instruction on self-advocacy skills. This can be done in class or in an online format (Kotzer & Margalit, 2007; Lancaster, Schumaker, & Deshler, 2002).
Being a good self-advocate has big benefits for kids and adults who learn and think differently. People who know how to self-advocate are more likely to do well in school, work, and life. They often feel confident in what they’re learning and doing. Self-advocacy also creates independence, and it empowers people to find solutions to problems that others might not be aware of or think about.
Teachers need to be aware of self-advocacy skills students should be using and encourage students to use those skills whenever possible. Setting up a safe classroom where students feel comfortable and confident using good self-advocacy skills is one of the most educationally friendly and highly effective classrooms possible.
Over the years when I was in the classroom, I found that when a student approached me with a concern or problem, we could almost always find a workable solution. When this happened, the student felt much better about the class and about me as a teacher. Students were much more productive because they felt listened to, heard, and valued so a reasonable solution that benefited them and their learning could be achieved. Let’s face it. It is basic human nature. If you are listened to, heard, and valued you have a much more positive outlook on your situation. You are willing to do more and go further than when you are ignored and not listened to.
Teachers can set examples
Another extremely beneficial side effect for teachers teaching self-advocacy is that they might start to use the skills themselves. Teachers can be some of the worst self-advocates. They do not want to “Rock the Boat” or be “The Squeaky Wheel”. They do what they do not for the recognition but for the results. There is a difference between self-advocacy and just complaining. Self-advocacy identifies a possible problem and proposes a possible solution or demonstrates that an attempt to solve the problem independently was made. The solutions may not always be feasible or available, but at least a possible solution is identified, and the conversation is started. Sometimes self-advocacy wards off potential problems before they arise.
Importance of Self-Advocacy
Self-advocacy is extremely important for teachers. Parents, administrators, evaluators, and community members only know what they hear much of the time. Sad to say too many times the loudest voices are from disgruntled students and/or parents who feel they have not been heard or appropriately accommodated. Instead of talking to the teacher or school, all they do is complain. Self-advocacy can ward off many of these issues. Teachers need to be a voice for good things happening in their classrooms and in the school. They should be asking parents to join in and share how what is being taught and asking parents to share how the topic affects them and their lives. Parents and guardians discussing topics you are covering in class not only give purpose to what the students are learning but also gives parents a voice to what is happening in the classroom. It also allows parents or guardians to know what you are teaching in class and students will realize that what is being taught is pertinent.
Pick and choose carefully how often and what is being asked to be discussed with students but do reach out to parents and share the great lessons you are teaching. Teachers need to be much better self-advocates for all the great things they are doing. There are so many topics that do apply directly to almost everyone. These are the perfect way for teachers to use self-advocacy to ask parents or guardians for help in what is being taught. As the saying goes; “It talks a village to raise a child”. It is very important for everyone to realize student’s education should not fall solely on the teachers’ shoulders. Teachers need to ask parents to share and join in on the education of their child.
Teachers do so many wonderful lessons and activities in their classroom. Many times, those lessons and activities are not seen. The evaluator does their walk-throughs and evaluations and may or may not see the teachers’ “best” lessons. Teachers need to send notes to their administrator and/or evaluator letting them know the great things happening in their classrooms. Pick and choose carefully what you share. You do not want to overload or highlight everything. Sharing the best lessons and activities occasionally is what teachers need to be doing. Invite the administrator and/or evaluator into your classroom to see what you are doing. Be sure to give a brief general description of what they will see and why it is so important for your students to see and experience this lesson or activity.
We need to make a concerted effort to change the narrative. Teachers must be better self-advocates, so more people know and are aware of all the great things happening in classroom in every school! Sad to say teachers teach in isolation. Most of the time people, other than the teacher and the students, do not know what goes on in the classroom. The only way for more people to know all the great things taking place in the classroom is if teachers tell them. Share one great thing happening in your classroom with either parents/guardian or administrator/evaluator between now and the end of the school year.
Self-advocacy is an essential skill for students and adults. It is the lifelong skill that makes everyone better. It is a skill that needs to be discussed, practiced, and continually worked on by everyone. Give it a try and see what a difference it can make for your students, for parents and for you.
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