How to build the foundation for self-advocacy in young children

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 kids do certain things on their 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 young kids start building the foundation for self-advocacy, however. And the earlier you do, the sooner they’ll be able to speak up on behalf of themselves. Here are some things you can do.

Give kids the language for asking.

Kids may not know the words to say when they want or need something. But you can help them build that vocabulary by teaching them how to ask.

Let’s say your child is on a playdate and needs a particular building block to complete a building. But another child has been hanging on to that block.

Kids can learn to express why they’re asking. Instead of just saying, “Can I have that?” they can say, “Can I please use that block? I need it for my building.”

That extra layer communicates needs in a situation, not just desires.

Let kids do things on their own.

It’s tempting to jump in and help kids when they appear to be struggling with something. But it’s important to step back sometimes so they can build skills. The more competent they are at doing things, the more confident they’ll feel about their abilities.

For example, your child might ask for help with getting dressed, even if help isn’t necessary. It’s just easier when you help. You can show your child how to do things independently while still being able to ask for help if it’s really needed.

You might build a little extra time into your morning routine, so your child doesn’t have to rush to get dressed. You can say that you know your child can get dressed without help — but if something comes up that is too hard, you’ll help out.

Give kids 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 kids their own cubby space at home teaches them where to put their things when they walk in the door. You can also ask them to tidy up their room and put their toys away.

Role-play difficult encounters.

Kids need to know what to do if they’re being teased at recess. Kids with learning and thinking differences are often targets of bullying.

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

Role-playing difficult situations with kids can give them strategies that are empowering. It gives them language that they can use on the spot. It can also show them that speaking up when bad things are happening is another way to get help when they need it.

Introduce kids 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 kids 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. You can search by topic, setting, genre, reading level, and type of book.

Give kids 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 kids to ask for what they need outside of the house.

For instance, kids can order their own food at restaurants. You can suggest the words to use, like “May I please have a hamburger with fries?” Tell kids 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 kids with the language of asking for what they need for as long as it takes — until they start doing it on her own.

Discover tips for teaching self-advocacy to 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 kids can help prepare them for tough situations.


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