Self-Advocacy is the act of taking ownership and responsibility for your own choices and learning how to ask for guidance from those who can help shape your goals in a positive and practical way. It’s a term whose origins stem from the civil rights movement, specifically for those with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. But really, all it means is that you’re learning how to stand up for yourself and your rights. I encourage even my youngest students to begin self-advocating so that they can get a jump-start on navigating their own educational and life goals.
Now, even as a tiny child I had a natural knack for arguing, but learning to effectively advocate for my position came much later in life. I credit my law school training for teaching me how to remove emotion from very emotional situations, as most litigation turns out to be. As with any family dynamics, emotions run high too. I find that those who are part of the family are unable to truly have a clear, unbiased take on the troubles that their child or their family as a whole are undergoing. That’s why I’m such a proponent of having a third-party advocate (therapist, religious counselor, education advocate) who can come into a sticky situation and help each individual member feel heard, respected, and vital to the family as a whole. They can also teach you the skills necessary to learn how to advocate for yourself because, really, who is a better advocate for your own needs than you?
The fact of the matter is no one can advocate for your position better than you can because you are living it! You’re on the front lines: deciding which path to take, making small decision after decision that can either lead you towards success or failure. Note that, there’s nothing wrong with failure. In fact, failure has the unique ability to wake us up from a lackluster existence and put some spring back into our step. Because I’m working with families whose kids are on the verge of expulsion in school or have sadly already been kicked out or suspended indefinitely, what is perceived as failure becomes an opportunity for a reality check and readjustment of behavior, academic, and family goals. I use every perceived failure as an opportunity to teach grace under pressure and instill honesty in the face of defeat.
Self-Advocacy is often overlooked in children because most adults are so used to coordinating care on their behalf, so much so that we often forget to even ask the child for his or her input and hear their side of the story. A sure-fire way to teach your child the beginnings of self-advocacy, however, is to take a step back and let them try it on their own. Yes, they may not get it the first time but at least they’ll learn how to do it better the next time. After all, isn’t that really the bigger life lesson here: If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. It may sound trite but trite, in this case, is true.