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How to Build the Foundation for Self-Advocacy in Young Children

By Alexis Clark, MA, MS

At a Glance

  • Younger kids can be taught how to speak up for themselves.

  • Giving responsibility to young children helps build the foundation for self-advocacy.

  • Letting your child do certain things on her own is a good place to start.

When kids have confidence, it makes it easier for them to speak up when they need help. It also helps them explain their challenges to others. But younger kids who are just starting school don’t always have that level of self-awareness—or the words to express what they’re struggling with.

You can help your young child start building the foundation for self-advocacy, however. And the earlier you do, the sooner she’ll be able to speak up on behalf of herself. Here are some things you can do.

Give her the language for asking.

Your child may literally not know what to say when she wants or needs something. But you can help her build that vocabulary by teaching her how to ask.

Let’s say she’s on a playdate and there’s a particular building block she needs to complete her building. But her friend’s been keeping it for herself.

Instead of just saying, “Can I have that?” your child can learn to express why she’s asking. “Can I please use that block? I need it for my building.”

By adding that extra layer, you’re teaching her to communicate her needs in a situation, not just her desires.

Let her do things on her own.

You may be tempted to jump in and help your child any time she appears to be struggling with something. But it’s important to step back sometimes so she can build her skills. The more competent she is at doing things, the more confident she’ll feel about her abilities.

For example, your child might say she needs help getting dressed, when in fact she doesn’t. It’s just easier when you help. But you can show her how to ask for help when she really does need it.

In this case, build a little extra time into your morning routine, so your child doesn’t have to rush to get dressed. Tell her you know she can do it herself, but if she runs into trouble with something, she can let you know what she’s struggling with and ask if you’ll help.

Give her responsibilities.

Having structures in place can help build self-advocacy. When kids are given tasks that they’re able to complete, it builds their self-esteem.

For example, giving a cubby space at home to your child teaches her where to put her things when she walks in the door. You can also ask her to tidy up her room and put her toys away.

Role-play difficult encounters.

What would your child do if she were being teased at recess? Kids with learning and thinking differences are often targets of bullying.

Without having strategies to stick up for herself, she may respond by bursting into tears. Or she may hold it in and not tell anybody that she’s being picked on.

Role-playing difficult situations with your child can give her strategies that are empowering. It gives her language that she can use on the spot. It can also show her that speaking up when bad things are happening is another way to get help when she needs it.

Introduce her to young role models in books.

Having the courage to stick up for yourself and for others is a common theme in kids’ books. Show your child what that means by reading these types of stories together. Two examples are Hunter’s Best Friend at School and Ms. McCaw Learns to Draw.

Both of these books are recommended by Understood founding partner  Reading Rockets. You can find other themes through Reading Rocket’s Book Finder feature. This feature lets you search by topic, setting, genre, reading level and type of book.

Give her real-world opportunities to practice.

It’s one thing to practice at home with family members. It’s another thing to find your voice out in public. Encourage your child to ask for what she needs outside of the house.

For instance, have her order her own food at restaurants, giving her the words to use: “May I please have a hamburger with fries?” Tell her it’s OK to make requests, too: “Can I get my hamburger without any lettuce or tomato, please?”

Learning to self-advocate takes time, especially at a very young age. Be prepared to help your child with the language of asking for what she needs for as long as it takes—until she starts doing it on her own. From there, her self-advocacy skills can only grow.

Discover tips for teaching self-advocacy to grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. And explore self-advocacy sentence starters for kids with learning and thinking differences.

Key Takeaways

  • Scripting language for kids helps them build self-advocacy.

  • Giving tasks to younger children boosts their confidence.

  • Role-playing with your child can help prepare her for tough situations.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom