At the orientation for my daughter’s middle school, there were many variations of the following topic: self-advocacy. Teachers and administrators stressed that now that these kids were in middle school, they were expected to advocate for themselves when an issue arises with homework, teachers, lunchroom orders, or social issues – they expected to hear more from students and less from parents. I had some mixed feelings while I was listening: a touch of sadness as this was another indicator that she was growing up too quickly, and also some optimism that she would feel a sense of pride and ownership in her middle school experience. But I had a nagging feeling that I finally identified: That’s great, I’m all for transitioning the kids to advocating for themselves. But has the school taught them how to do this? Have I? Many kids this age don’t yet have the skill set required to advocate for themselves, and they aren’t skills that just pop up.
That’s exactly what we found out as the year got underway. Many teachers routinely told the kids that they expected them to handle their own problems and not have mom and dad ‘rescue’ them, and many parents acquiesced and encouraged their kids to do just that. But when problems arose, there was a big disconnect. Here’s what I began to hear:
- grades indicate that a student did not turn in an assignment, but the student remembers turning it in, she goes to the teacher’s desk and the teacher is cranky. So the student becomes timid and doesn’t pursue the matter.
- a student doesn’t understand a concept being taught. She approaches the teacher for extra help, and the teacher directs the student to the ‘helpful’ area of the textbook. The student still doesn’t understand but does not want to upset the teacher by asking them again and is unsure how to proceed, so she either doesn’t turn in the assignment or turns it in without answering correctly. (of course, there are many instances when teachers will explain something differently or find adequate help for the student, I’m only talking about what happens when this isn’t the case.)
- a student’s lunch order is incorrect. The child goes up to the lunchroom attendant, who is frazzled by the chaos of middle school lunchtime, and is essentially shut down by the attendant. Because this is still an authority figure who possibly told the student to go sit down, the child has little recourse.
- a girl sees another girl cutting her arm in the restroom. This isn’t a friend of hers, but she knows she should be concerned. She also doesn’t want to be a ‘snitch,’ so she doesn’t want to tell anyone in case it comes back to her.
I’m sure that you can either relate to some of these or could add your own scenario to the list. Our tweens are old enough to be aware of the issues, and schools (and most parents) want them to begin to advocate for themselves. But for many kids, no one has really taught them the skills they need to begin to do so.
I certainly appreciated the school’s expectation that the kids need to speak up for themselves, and I agree that this will become more necessary each year – especially into high school. But what lacks is the acknowledgment that kids don’t just grow into these skills, someone needs to teach them. I’m sure there are some schools where the kids are given some nuts and bolts of what this might look like. I’ve heard from many parents in all parts of the country where this isn’t the case. I would love to have schools that aren’t already doing so let kids know from the start how they can best approach staff: “If you have a problem with anything in a class, we would like you to e-mail/call/speak in person to the teacher before school/during office hours/after school,” or “if you see other students engaging in a dangerous or concerning behavior, please come talk to the guidance counselor and know that she will explain how a problem will be handled and if she can keep your name confidential; in other words, she will help you troubleshoot this issue.” If some simple guidelines are established, then the teacher or staff will be reminded when a child approaches them that this is what they have asked them to do.
Additionally, schools need to be honest about the fact that sometimes teachers and other staff don’t like to feel as if they are employed by children, some of whom can already be exhausting in their daily dealings with them. I remember volunteering to serve the lunches at Kendall’s middle school one day a week. Once in a while I did experience a student coming up to tell me that his lunch was wrong. While I was certainly glad he approached us because I would have felt awful had he wasted a lunch and gone hungry, it was a weird feeling to be told what we had done wrong by an 11-year old. I got to go home after an hour, so I can understand why staff might not want to deal with a student after doing this full-time or working elsewhere in the school long-term, and may not exemplify the whole we’re-glad-you’re-advocating-for-yourself persona and come off as unsympathetic or dismissive.
So what’s a parent to do? Here are my suggestions for beginning the process of self-advocacy in your tween:
- acknowledge that this will be an evolution, and not an instant quality. The process may be slightly clumsy for all involved. Think of riding a bike. You likely started with training wheels, then held the back of the seat, and finally just ran behind shouting encouragement. This is very similar.
- be clear about your expectations. Don’t just plan to tell your child something like “if you run into a problem this year, you have to handle it yourself, ok?” Identify how you have handled issues up to this point, and let her know that you believe she is up to the challenge of taking some of that over, but that you are there for backup and guidance.
- start with likely examples. Some of the situations described above would be a great place to start. Walk through the steps of what she could do if she notices that a grade indicates a missing assignment for something she knows she turned in. Ask her what she would do, and then fine tune it if necessary. When an issue does actually arise, make sure she knows that you would like to hear about it. Again, ask what she would like to do, reinforce that you love the ideas she came up with, and fine tune. Ask HER to put her plan into action – e-mail the teacher, talk to her in class, etc. Make sure to include how to respectfully speak with a teacher, to use good judgment regarding timing (does the teacher have office hours? Is passing period really the best time to talk to a hassled teacher?), and the importance of follow-up.
- after an issue is resolved, do a quick debrief of how it went. What did she do well? What went right? What went wrong? What does she think she could have done differently or could do next time? Because this is a budding life-skill, it may not have gone perfectly the first time. But there were no doubt successes and things that she did right, make sure to focus on those and let her know that she did great and she will continue to build on those skills. Perhaps you had to step in at some point, make sure to point out that it was not due to any failing on her part, “you did everything right, I only sent an additional e-mail because Mrs. Smith wasn’t answering you and the semester grades were going to be turned in.”
Self-advocacy is a skill that will serve our children their entire lives. But it’s so important to recognize that it doesn’t develop overnight. As we approach summer, maybe use that time to start some conversations about what self-advocacy looks like. It is a process that builds over time, and it requires our support and nurturing. We need to slowly take the training wheels off and run behind them for a little while before letting go of that bicycle seat.