10 Ways to Help Shy Children Self-Advocate

By Amanda Morin
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Self-advocacy is important for kids with learning and thinking differences. It helps them ask for what they need. But shy kids may find it especially hard to request help or speak up for themselves. Here are some ways to help your shy child ease into being a self-advocate.

1. Understand your child’s shyness.

Not all shy kids are shy in the same way. Knowing what’s behind your child’s shyness makes it easier to know how to help. Some kids are anxious about speaking up when they don’t know what the response will be. Some don’t like to talk in front of other people. Others just need time to get comfortable with new people and new situations. And still others are just content being quiet observers.

2. Avoid labeling your child as “shy.”

The more your child hears you call her “shy,” the more likely she is to live up to that expectation. Instead, let her know you understand she doesn’t always feel comfortable speaking up. For example, if your child doesn’t answer a teacher’s question at a school event, try to avoid saying, “Oh, she’s just shy.” Instead, try saying, “She’s not feeling very talkative right now.”

3. Encourage your child to speak for herself.

Self-advocacy isn’t limited to school. It can take place anywhere your child can express her needs. Encourage your child to order her own meal at a restaurant or answer a store clerk’s questions. Or have her write down the questions she needs to ask her scout leader or soccer coach.

She may need your help, but if you don’t immediately speak for her, you give her a chance to think about what to say and how to say it. It also shows her you know she’s capable.

4. Share the benefits you’ve seen from speaking up.

Before she’s willing to step outside her comfort zone, your child may need to know that self-advocacy can really be valuable. Share personal stories of times you overcame your own shyness or anxiety to speak up for yourself.

For example, “I felt shy about telling my boss I needed some extra time to learn the new software. But he was fine with it. In fact, he liked the fact that I took it seriously, and now he checks in with me after we’re trained to use new programs to see if I want extra time to practice.”

5. Show her that her input matters.

Shy kids may feel like what they have to add to a conversation isn’t important. Invite your child to share her opinion and help in making decisions. For example, she could help decide where the family’s going for lunch or what color to paint the kitchen. Let her know you listen to and value her thoughts by saying so and following through on them. It shows her that speaking up makes a real difference.

6. Practice and role-play.

Some shy kids know what they should ask for, but they have trouble saying it when the time comes. Rehearse sample situations with your child. You can even help her create some scripted things to say when she needs to speak up. For example: “Can I talk to you after class, Mrs. Smith?” or “I need some extra time to get this assignment done.”

7. Work with your child’s teachers behind the scenes.

Talk to your child’s teachers about what you’ll be doing to encourage your child to self-advocate. That way you can all be on the same page and your child’s efforts, however small, can be recognized. Your child’s teacher or guidance counselor may even be able to do some lessons with the whole class around shyness and speaking up.

8. Start small at school.

Shy kids often need to feel comfortable with people before they can self-advocate. Knowing there’s someone she trusts and counts on can go a long way toward making your child feel safe speaking out.

Help your child identify the teacher or adult at school with whom she’s most comfortable. Speak with her teachers or IEP team about using that person as a liaison. Your child can begin self-advocacy by talking to her liaison when she needs help or has questions at school.

9. Add self-advocacy goals to the IEP.

Self-advocacy is an important skill that can help your child succeed in the classroom. Like any skill that’s hard for her, it takes practice. Putting specific self-advocacy goals in your child’s IEP can help her get the support she needs to become comfortable speaking up for herself.

For instance, you and the team could add the goal that your child will figure out and practice ways to ask for more explanation or an accommodation when she’s having trouble in class.

10. Celebrate small successes.

Even the littlest things—raising her hand in class or answering a question—can be tough for a shy child. Celebrating and recognizing these small things can help encourage your child to continue to take risks and speak out.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Donna Volpitta, EdD 

is coauthor ofThe Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.

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