Self-advocacy is a multifaceted trait that can be built with practice. It includes students’ ability to speak up for themselves, make their own decisions, pursue solutions without handholding, and adjust their strategy based on feedback. Eduardo Polón, the Upper School Global Languages Department Head at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS), describes self-advocacy as “the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.
At its core,” Polón adds, “It’s about establishing one’s independence. As an educator, I prefer to promote a more collaborative take, one that sees self-advocacy as an individual’s responsibility, not only to engage, contribute, initiate, participate, and commit, but also to listen and consider in search of what better might look like.”
At the Maryland independent school serving students in preschool through grade twelve, faculty and staff strive to integrate the tenets of self-advocacy into the daily flow. “Because of the school’s Quaker morals, I am on an even playing field with peers, teachers, administrators, and even students much younger than me,” says student Joce Motley, a senior at the day and boarding school. “Because of this, my voice is not only respected but listened to. Being in such an environment allows me to be comfortable with speaking up for myself and made me realized that it is always beneficial to do so.”
But self-advocacy doesn’t stop or end in the classroom. As a student matures into an adult, self-advocacy is one of the most essential attributes of success. How can even the most reserved students cultivate their own sense of self-advocacy on a holistic, lifetime level?
Here are five fundamentals:
- Understand yourself. Every journey needs a destination. What does self-advocacy look like, and how can a student measurably improve? Is it self-confidence? Understanding? Direction? Simply recognizing that one’s metric of self-advocacy is lacking is a solid start. Some people do not understand this and have a difficult time improving as a human. Therefore, being mindful and having a trusted community to help students understand the value of self-advocacy is essential.
- Learn through modeling. A student can’t decide on a particular strategy or path if they don’t know their options. What are some similar ways in which others have self-advocated in the past that could be informative or inspirational in the present? “When actively encouraging students to use the modeling they’ve witnessed, effective scaffolding usually includes questions: What is the problem? What do you think might help? Who should you talk to?” says SSFS’s Upper School Learning Specialist Shannon Needham.
- Make incremental progress. While approaching a teacher for assistance may feel intimidating at first, following up with a peer can be less so. A student’s level of self-advocacy isn’t all or nothing. It’s ok to move in baby steps as long as you’re moving. Students at SSFS are often reminded that their voice is important and matters. “I truly believe that was pivotal in my advocacy progression,” remarked Motley.
- Team up. Once a student has zeroed in on how they would like to self-advocate, it’s worth remembering that there is strength in numbers. Throughout history, famous social and political advocates started movements – they didn’t just push forward as lone wolves. Appealing to an authority with a group that aligns with you strengthens your case and empowers you as a negotiator. If a student is seeking to self-advocate in relation to the teacher, it helps to already have a solidified relationship from which to build. “We spend a lot of time building rapport and trust, so they feel comfortable advocating for themselves,” says Carla Nally, a lower school faculty member. “I reassure them that I’m not judging them for telling me they need help.
- Reflection. Any burgeoning ability takes practice. What’s important is how you practice and reflect. Needham asks students reflective questions to gauge student development. Did the self-advocacy work? Were you able to get what you needed? How might you do it differently next time? These are important questions that emphasize the ongoing nature of skill development and normalize the cyclical process of strategy testing and modification.
How vital is self-advocacy?
What are the advantages of developing their skills?
What’s at stake when children do not learn them?
Becoming a good self-advocate is a worthy endeavor to improve yourself and become a changemaker in the world around you. Without building self-advocacy skills, there’s a risk that its alter egos—learned helplessness and selfishness—will emerge.
In a recent episode of Sandy Spring Friends School’s podcast, Gnu Stories, Head of School Dr. Rodney Glasgow unpacks these questions with members of the School’s faculty. What is often overlooked is self-advocacy’s alter egos:”learned-helplessness and selfishness.” Dr. Glasgow and his guests surmise that it was the alter egos at work that may have played a role in the U.S. Capitol insurgency
Do you feel self-advocacy is an important skill?
How do you teach self-advocacy in your school or home?
We would enjoy hearing from you!