I’m Teaching My Teens to Self-Advocate by Asking Them These 5 Questions

“Having the courage to stand up for yourself is like bringing swords to a stick fight.”

Kyle Schmalenberg

My sons both have invisible special needs. While individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans are fantastic, support teachers rock, and this mama bear is always poised to help; I’m finding it’s more and more critical for my children to advocate for themselves, especially as they get older and prepare to fly the nest.

Invisible challenges aside, anyone can benefit from intelligent, practical strategies to stick up for themselves.

mom and son hugging
These are the 5 questions I ask my sons to help them learn to self-advocate.

How Teens Can Learn to Self-Advocate

  1. “What could make that better?”

From a young age, I’ve listened to my boys’ school-related concerns and asked, “What could make that better?” That single question helps move the conversation from griping to strategizing.

At first, they were hesitant to question their teachers about anything. But slowly, they’ve learned that they can enjoy concrete, meaningful improvements if they respectfully approach them with proposed solutions instead of complaints.

They’ve realized that it’s OK to ask their locker to be moved away from someone constantly bothering them. Or they can modify their IEP, so they don’t need to be moved out of the classroom for every test or quiz. Or make sure their recess in elementary school wasn’t taken away as a consequence of incomplete work.

Over time, they’ve recognized opportunities where speaking up is helpful and essential.

  1. “Is it worth it?”

Sometimes when we brainstorm ways to fix a problem, we decide that the fix isn’t worth it. Or it’s better to change their attitude. Or keep their distance from a particular person. Or opt out of a class or activity.

We pick the battles that either can be easily remedied or found most crucial. The more minor, petty stuff drops to the bottom.

No friends in your homeroom this year? Oh well. Didn’t get that elective you wanted? Maybe next year.

Advocating for yourself doesn’t mean whining over minor unpleasantness or inconvenience. It also doesn’t mean you expect advantages that aren’t warranted or treatment that isn’t earned.

  1. “How can you say that in the best possible way?”

Not all adults like being corrected or challenged. Especially by a teen And even more, especially not in front of a crowd.

So we spend a lot of time discussing the best way to bring up issues respectfully.

Usually, it’s preferable to address concerns as privately as possible. And we give teachers and school staff the benefit of the doubt that maybe they didn’t know the fine details of the IEP or weren’t aware of a medical condition. Or maybe they just forgot. Or were overwhelmed with the situation or other classroom distractions.

Sometimes a polite nudge or reminder is all that’s required. A note on the teacher’s desk, a quick email, or a brief chat after class is usually the most successful.

  1. “Do you need some backup?”

My son came up with solid reasoning for changing his schedule to help him succeed. First, he went to his support teacher, who backed him up on the change. However, week after week, nothing seemed to happen.

My son wanted to manage it himself, but we brainstormed what to do next as he continued getting nowhere. Eventually, he agreed to let me email his school counselor…who was on maternity leave, which is why the change wasn’t being made. Her out-of-office listed the assistant principal, so I forwarded him the message, and it quickly got resolved.

With every situation, we talk it through. We identify other trusted adults who can provide backup and support. These days, I rarely get involved in school issues. But they know I’m here if needed.

  1. “Can you see how brave you are?”

During one afternoon of after-school snacks, my son casually mentioned that his language arts teacher had assigned the class a multi-page essay. While everyone got their pencils and composition notebooks, my son went to the teacher’s desk and quietly asked if he could type it instead. The teacher said, “Sure.”

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was! And I made sure to praise him for it. This showed he was advocating for himself without help or prompting and in a way that benefited his life in the classroom. I know that he would have typed an entire page or talked for five solid minutes for every one or two handwritten sentences he was forced to write. That’s how he’s wired. And that’s how he can best show his teachers the knowledge in his head.

Technically, his IEP allows him to use a Chromebook for longer written assignments (and he knows this). But his quick, casual approach was better than pointing out the IEP. It didn’t draw any attention to him or his learning disability and solved the issue.

He could only do this because he’s learned to identify his needs, pick his battles and respectfully talk to school staff. Plus, he sees how much he benefits when he does. And knows where to find a backup if he needs it.

I’m sure my teens will run into challenges throughout high school and college, but I’m comforted knowing they have strategies to help them. Acting as their best advocates will continue to benefit them in the workplace and in life.

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About Jacqueline Miller

When not worrying about her teenagers, Jacqueline Miller is writing about them. Her recent work appears in Parenting Insider and on her websiteFacebook and Instagram pages.

Read more posts by Jacqueline

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