How do I empower my students to advocate for their own needs?

7 min read
December 7, 2022

High school students face significant challenges as they deal with pressures to get good grades and keep up with peers socially and in extracurricular activities in an increasingly competitive world. Educators can teach students to advocate for themselves to be better communicators of their own needs since it relates to mental health and overall well-being. 

Self-advocacy is the ability to speak for yourself and make decisions about your own life. It also involves understanding your likes and dislikes, and knowing when and who to reach out to when you need support. When students feel like they have a say in their life, it can help boost motivation and help them reach their goals, building a strong sense of self. 

In high school and beyond, self-advocacy is a skill that all students should practice– this is especially important for students with learning disabilities and those who struggle with mental illness or mental health challenges. Struggling with anxiety and depression is not out of the ordinary for young people today and giving your students the tools to cope with life’s stressors can empower them and increase their self-confidence and self-efficacy. 

Teach self-awareness

Self-awareness is a vital skill to learn since  Young people are navigating their identity and their place in the world during this time period and developing one’s sense of self is considered a fundamental part of someone’s adolescence. Self-awareness is also one of the foundational skills of social-emotional learning and has also been recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the ten life skills that promote well-being across all cultures.

Self-awareness can help someone recognize their emotions and better understand how emotions impact their behavior. Help your students acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses by telling them to write them down. Seeing things visually can be a great way to not feel so overwhelmed. They can also build upon this exercise and list the things they like and dislike about school, and what feelings may surround these likes and dislikes. When a student dislikes reading, for example, they may be able to identify that reading makes them feel insecure because they have to reread things often to understand what they are reading. This insight allows this student to work on skills like reading comprehension and recall. 

Encourage your students to hold a non-judgemental attitude as they reflect on things that they need to work on because being open-minded and realistic is critical when it comes to developing self-awareness. Practicing a growth mindset can make all the difference when students are working to increase their self-awareness. Encourage students to think positively and focus on their strengths rather than dwelling on their failures. Remind students to remember all the things they have accomplished and that failing is a part of learning and improving. 

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

Encourage students to think about their future

Self-advocacy is not only about speaking up for yourself; it’s also about knowing what you want to do and learning how to go after it. Talk to your students about what their plans are for their next years in high school or what they want to do after high school. Do they want to try a new sport next year? Do they want to go to college after they graduate? Having these open conversations can help young people figure out how to navigate life better and ease anxieties they may have about the future. Setting goals, no matter how big or small can give students something to celebrate, further establishing confidence and belief in themselves. Ask students to write down realistic goals and help them break down these goals into more actionable steps. Reassure them that you will be there to support them as they work towards these goals. This can even be expanded into class goals, which can help students feel more connected to one another. 

Give alternatives

Students may struggle with shyness, which can make self-advocacy particularly difficult. You can help support these students by giving them alternative ways to voice their comments, concerns, and questions. This is made easier by the use of technology: you can poll your students in real-time and get their feedback on both academic and non-academic matters. You can also try out a suggestion box, where students can bring up concerns without having to reach out to you explicitly or talk in front of the whole class. 

Pair these techniques with activities that can help build a sense of community and familiarity like small group activities, partnered work, call-and-response practices, etc. Incorporating activities like this into your classroom norms can help remove some of the intimidation that your students may feel when speaking around other students. These techniques can help students feel more at ease with their peers and can help more reserved students flex their self-advocacy muscles.

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