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 important 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 smart, effective 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 if they respectfully approach them with proposed solutions instead of complaints, they can enjoy concrete, meaningful improvements.

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

Over time, they’ve come to recognize opportunities where speaking up is helpful and important.

  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 own attitude. Or keep their distance from a certain person. Or opt out of a class or activity.

We pick the battles that either can be easily remedied or we find most crucial. The smaller, 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 talking about the best way to respectfully bring up issues.

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 they 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 dropped on the teacher’s desk, a quick email or a brief chat after class is usually the most successful.

  1. “Do you need some back-up?”

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 really wanted to manage it himself, but as he continued getting nowhere, we brainstormed what to do next. Eventually, he agreed to let me email his school counselor… who it turns out 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 back-up 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 after-school snacks one afternoon, my son casually mentioned his language arts teacher assigned the class a multi-page essay. While everyone got out 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 happen to know that for every one or two handwritten sentences he was forced to write, he would have typed an entire page or talked for five solid minutes. That’s how he’s wired. And that’s how he can best show his teachers the knowledge in his head.

Technically, his IEP does allow him the option 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 on the spot.

He was only able to 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 back-up, if he needs it.

I’m sure my teens will run into challenges throughout high school and into college, but I’m comforted to know they have strategies to help them. In fact, acting as their own 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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