Take Charge! Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

As a parent, you want what’s best for your child, and that includes a solid education. But recent sweeping budget cuts at the federal and state level may have rendered your child just one face in a crowd of 30—or even 40—other kids clamoring for the attention of one teacher. How can you make sure your kid isn’t just another name on the roster? Now more than ever, children need to learn how to become self-advocates in the classroom. This term has been more often applied to special needs students, but all students can benefit from the concept of self-advocacy. When children can communicate what they need, what their resources are and what they can do to achieve their goals, they become partners instead of pawns in the academic experience.

The first step in teaching children self-advocacy is teaching them to first understand themselves. Help children take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses. These can be social, academic, or even physical—anything that impacts their classroom performance. For example, perhaps your sixth grader is a math whiz, but he struggles to see the board at times because of vision issues. Your high schooler may feel competent at poetry, but challenged when it comes to term papers. Often, self-analysis is one of the hardest steps in self-advocacy: it is difficult for children to evaluate themselves both honestly and thoroughly, and sometimes young children don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about their strengths and weaknesses in this way.

If children are having a hard time assessing themselves, consider looking to a classroom teacher for input. This may not necessitate a separate conference; instead, it might be as easy as looking at the teacher’s most recent comments (both complimentary and critical) on a report card or series of essays. For young children who struggle with self-assessment because of language barriers, try asking simple feeling questions: “How do you feel in science class?” If the answer is “frustrated” or “scared,” there may be an issue worth looking into.

Finally, help your children set realistic and specific goals based on the things that challenge them most: “I want to get better at math” is too vague and difficult to measure, but “I want to memorize my multiplication tables through 12 and do well on the next test” is specific, reasonable and easy to assess. Support your child in writing these goals down in a notebook or on a calendar for future reference. This encourages your child to take ownership of his or her education, an important cognitive shift in becoming a better learner.

Step Two: Locating Resources

Once you have helped your child identify his or her strong points and challenges, it’s time to identify potential resources. It’s a good idea to jot these down by the goals, as the two go hand in hand. If your child is a special needs student, you as a parent will want to be aware of his legal rights as established by federal law—this will give you some idea as to what kind of entitlements are guaranteed to your child in the classroom. But all children are entitled to a good education, regardless of whether or not they are on IEP or 504 plans. Have your child do some research on what resources are available in the classroom—does your son’s 1st grade teacher do before-school tutoring? Does your daughter’s chemistry professor keep a web page with links to help children with difficult concepts? Is there a retesting policy? Many schools sponsor after-school tutoring or open library hours, too; check your school’s website or handbook for information on what is scheduled. It’s important to keep your children as involved as possible in locating resources, as personal involvement increases their accountability.

Identifying support beyond the classroom teacher and school can also be helpful. Perhaps your child knows that a friend is doing well in a class that she is struggling in; this person might be a valuable ally as a peer tutor. Local libraries, if they don’t have study groups formally scheduled, will often at least have separate study rooms that offer a quiet place to work. Outside agencies such as Kaplan or Sylvan may offer specialized academic services (SAT and ACT prep among them) in your community—but for a price. Talk to your child. Keep all options open, and see what seems to make him or her most comfortable.