Developing Self-Advocacy Skills

Jaclyn Baharestani
Special Projects Coordinator, Winston Innovation Lab

Michele Heimbauer

Associate Director, Winston Innovation Lab

Building an Understanding 
For students who struggle with conceptualizing, prioritizing or problem solving, Self-Advocating can be a challenging skill to grasp, as these learning difficulties exacerbate the already arduous task of identifying and accessing needed supports. When we work to develop our students’ Self-Advocacy skills, it is often most important to begin with a clear explanation of what Self-Advocacy actually means in practice and how it supports growth and progress.
Winston Preparatory School, we understand Self-Advocacy as a student’s ability to consistently represent themselves by appropriately asking for support inside and outside of the classroom while striving to become an independent learner. Further, it entails the seeking of clarification from an appropriate party when expectations, directions or content are unclear. Encouraging students to reach for this support in moments of confusion or disorder can provide them with the tools to begin to own their individual learning processes and to be agents of their own success. The act of learning to Self-Advocate is, in actuality, one of self-discovery and Self-Reflection, leading our students to ultimately gain a more sound understanding of themselves as learners and individuals.

Our Approach to Self-Advocacy
At Winston Preparatory School, teachers and leaders are continuously helping our students understand who they are, so they can accurately represent themselves throughout their lives. We work to develop our students' Self-Advocacy skills by modeling, role playing, and mindful practice of  recognizing when help is needed and seeking out that support. For some, this involves facilitating intentional moments of pause during which students are prompted to consider what they are struggling with, either in a social or academic context, and how they might self-advocate to achieve a more positive outcome. By helping students to make connections and see the bigger picture, we encourage them to identify their next steps. This work can be as direct as explicitly supporting students in coming up with the language they need to express themselves to a teacher, a classmate, or a friend, while other effective strategies include checklists, visuals, and reflective thinking prompts. We believe that giving our students ongoing and varied opportunities to build their own support networks is key to helping them become confident self-advocates and independent learners, whether within the walls of Winston Preparatory School, on experiential learning trips, in the gym or on the stage.

Continuing the Work at Home
As parents (and teachers) we instinctively want to swoop in whenever we notice that our children need help. It is one of the hardest challenges we face as parents but it is well worth guiding them through the Self-Advocacy process, leading to later independence in their ability to express their needs. When nurturing Self-Advocacy skills at home, parents can provide children with ample opportunities to advocate for their needs. Here are a few key ideas to developing Self-Advocacy at home:

- We want to celebrate and reinforce the small victories in Self-Advocacy - when a child asks for help, acknowledge that as Self-Advocacy. 
- Parents can model by emphasizing a challenge they themselves are facing with think-alouds-- Hmmm, this is a problem that I can't solve on my own--- who can I ask for help? What should I say, specifically? - Modeling is powerful- not only does it demonstrate the 'how to', it also illuminates that we all need help from time to time - even parents!
- Giving children a chance to show and speak about what they are learning, what strategy they are using, and how they are using it builds awareness of tools that work for them. 
- Practice reflection - looking back at times when a child did self-advocate successfully - what was it about that time that made them able to do it - looking back at times when they haven’t been able to - what was it about those times?  Something seemingly small like correcting an order at a deli that the person behind the counter got wrong can be a big challenge but also a great opportunity to reflect, plan, and practice in the future to build Self- Advocacy skills.
- Anticipating times when they’ll need to self-advocate, think of it as a skill and tell themselves that they will use that skill at that time. 
- Practice role-playing scenarios. The more children familiarize themselves with how to express the need for help the more comfortable they will become in Self-Advocating when the time arises.

It is important to find the balance between intentionally guiding and still leaving space for independence and growth, and finding that balance may require continuous assessment of where your child is in their process of building Self-Advocacy skills. Whenever possible, encourage your children to explore, to make choices for themselves and to continuously reflect on their successes, challenges and goals. Talk openly about the ways in which you self-advocate in your own life, letting them in on your breadth of experiences and the moments that you, yourself, have found to be challenging. Their comfort and efficacy self-advocating will become increasingly important as your children encounter novel experiences, both in and out of school, and as they begin to navigate the world around them on their own.
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Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, handicap status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.