Middle school is a time when students begin to develop their sense of self. Through elementary school, students are usually given direct instructions and generally follow those instructions. But when they begin to mature, they start to question those instructions and look for reasons behind requests. They are seeking the ‘why’. This questioning is developmentally appropriate, as they break away from childhood and enter their teenage years. They desire their independence but often times are not given the tools to navigate this new responsibility and end up appearing obstinate. Like most life skills, children need to be shown how and when to advocate for themselves.
Self-advocacy means that one is able to “effectively communicate, convey, negotiate or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs, and rights. It involves making informed decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions” ("What Is Self-advocacy?" Disability Resource Center. UC Santa Cruz, n.d. Web. 08 Jan. 2013.).
Middle school is an excellent entry point for this life-skill. It syncs with the stepped responsibilities that are also introduced during this time: managing a locker, switching classrooms, adapting to different classrooms and maintaining a planner. It could be argued to be the most important of these skills, as it teaches children to communicate considerately with others.
When difficulties arise in classroom settings, parents are often the ones to approach the teacher with questions or comments. In middle school, it is appropriate for this responsibility to shift to the student. Teachers always have the best interest of their students in mind, so they are wonderful candidates to help children develop the habit of self-advocacy. Most teachers would prefer students speak to them directly when they have concerns, but it can be very intimidating for a young person to assert themselves.
Modeling and role-playing this behavior can help students feel confident when speaking to their teachers. With your child, brainstorm a couple of scenarios that require approaching a teacher. A few examples may be: questions on a grade, clarification on an assignment, or assistance with a social issue. Next, walk through the process of contacting the teacher at a fitting time, stating the question, listening to the response, clarifying any questions and thanking the teacher for their time. Offer examples on how to respectfully phrase requests. Such as, “Excuse me, Mrs. Jones, I have a question about my grade and I am wondering when a good time to discuss this would be.” Then practice the scenario through role-play. The first time through, have the adult be the teacher and the child be the student. Reverse the roles the next time, so that the child is exposed to both sides of the situation. Afterwards, discuss what it felt like to be both the student and the teacher.
The ability to approach an adult in a polite and thoughtful manner, while addressing one’s own needs is a skill that everyone needs to learn and to practice. It is one of those fundamental steps toward independence that is often not articulated in an academic curriculum but is part of an underlying social curriculum. If we want our children to become assertive but respectful adults, we need to show them what that means.