Self-Advocacy in the Age of COVID

How to teach your children to advocate for themselves in a virtual world
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Self-advocacy is an essential life skill that parents can teach their children from a young age.

But the pandemic has made this difficult for children who communicate with their teachers and classmates largely through a screen. According to Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of the soon-to-be released, Thrivers; The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle While Others Shine, remote learning makes it harder, especially for introverted kids, to speak up to teachers, coaches, and authority figures. Here are some ways to help your child advocate for themselves in the age of COVID.


What is Self-Advocating?

Self-advocating is speaking up for yourself in a polite and clear manner. Dr. Tara Egan, a clinical psychologist, explains, “It’s important to stay calm. It is easier for people to hear you when you’re NOT yelling, as they can focus on your words, not your tone. And be sure to pick a good time to advocate that is convenient for the recipient of the request.”

As parents, we need to teach our children the difference between advocating and complaining. Make it clear that they may not get what they request, even when they advocate correctly. “I tell kids that sometimes you have to ‘accept the no’ and focus on coping with disappointment and frustration over not getting what you want,” Egan says.


Why Children Need to Self-Advocate

Many parents may speak on their child’s behalf because they assume an adult would rather converse with an adult, or their child is too young to self-advocate. Sometimes parents even step in without even notifying their child. “This happens all the time, especially when it comes to the parent-teacher relationship,” Egan says. “The result is that parents miss out on a good opportunity to role model.”

While it may take practice, it’s worth the effort to teach self-advocacy skills at home. Most educators prefer students to approach them directly with an issue because it demonstrates maturity and ownership. With practice, children will get better at solving their own problems, which will make them more confident adults.


The Challenge of Remote Learning

With in-person learning, children can stay after class or practice to speak to the adult in charge if they need assistance. Educators can also read a child’s social cues and sense if they are having difficulties. But remote learning has reduced students to small boxes on a screen. Teachers may miss subtle clues that the student is struggling. Remote learning may also make a student reluctant to seek help. They may not want to speak in front of their peers or feel uncomfortable reaching out to a teacher after hours.


How Parents Can Help

Parents can model a proper written request with an appropriate greeting, a clearly stated concern, and a thank you. Brainstorm what to write together. “Kids can be taught to write basic emails to teachers as young as 2nd or 3rd grade,” Egan says, “but it needs to be coached, starting with, ‘Let’s think about what questions we need to ask Mr. Smith.’”

Keep in mind these may be new skills for your child. “Constructing a polite email with the right tone can be stressful for kids, especially since they are not used to communicating through quick texts, not formal emails,” Borba says. “They may get overwhelmed by simple things like what to write in the subject line.”

Before any in-person or online meeting, role play with your child so they get comfortable expressing themselves. If you feel you need to stay in the room for a younger child, be supportive but let the child take the lead.


Kids with Special Needs

Family counselor Robin Halpern explains that navigating the constant changes in learning (remote, hybrid, later start times) can create anxiety for all students, but especially those with learning issues. Students who may normally get accommodations (like in-class support) may not receive these services. In these cases, parents may need to speak with their child’s counselor about adjustments to their curriculum.

But students with special needs can still advocate for themselves. Halpern suggests creating boundaries and schedules to mimic the routine of a normal school environment. “If it’s school time and Mom would normally be at work, ask the teacher (online) for help instead of going to Mom just because she is in the next room,” she says.

Understand that students may be more stressed and anxious than usual. “Validate their feelings,” Halpern says. “Give them extra support without taking over. As much as possible, you want the student to feel in control of the situation.”


Praise the Effort

In an ideal scenario, the adult will be responsive when your child speaks up for themselves. But if not, let your child know that they can ask a parent to get involved. “Some adults that deal with children aren’t appropriately trained in how to say ‘no’ to a request without squashing a child’s advocacy skills,” Egan says. “Kids can definitely get mixed messages about ‘You should always tell the teacher’ but then get dismissed for being whiny or tattling.”

Reinforce their self-advocacy accomplishments. “Parents can say, ‘See, buddy? You sent a really kind email to your teacher and waited patiently for her to respond, and she wrote back and said yes, you can partner with Caleb on your project!’,” Egan says. And even if they don’t get the outcome they want, remind them they haven’t failed. Speaking up is hard. Let your child know you are proud of them for advocating for themselves.


RANDI MAZZELLA is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, teen issues, mental health, and wellness. She is a wife and mother of three children. To read more of her work, visit ​