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We MUST Help Students Learn to Self-Advocate

"Ms. Sackstein, I can't do this! I need help."

"Ms. Sackstein, can you look at this paper and tell me if it's good?"

"Ms. Sackstein, Ms. Sackstein, Ms. Sackstein, etc"

As different children call for my attention over the course of the day, I notice the ones who don't ask at all (usually the ones who need the most help legitimately) and how paralyzed others become when help isn't imminent.

Many teachers, like parents, struggle with allowing children to work through the learning process, unimpeded by adult "help".

In fact, many students have been enabled for so long, they don't know how to initiate learning without explicit steps given to them.

This one thing can actually cripple students in terrible ways.

The learning process has systematically been dismantled by traditional schooling, forcing students to avoid thought and mindlessly complete tasks which become more and more meaningless as time goes on. Then when students encounter a real challenge that requires problem-solving and multiple steps to complete, they are rendered immobile and need to be retaught how to discover learning.

Here are some tips for breaking students out of this helpless loop and into a more self-motivated and self-aware learning state:

  • Remind students that what they think matters and they need to trust themselves when it comes time to learn. This lesson will take time and some confidence building.

  • Allow them to practice taking risks and encourage their growth when they do. They don't have to be "right" to be growing. They need to take chances and learn from the outcomes, discerning between solutions that work and others that don't. Perhaps even exploring why they don't so that they can try again in a meaningful way.

  • When students make suggestions, take them seriously, and implement them into the learning process. If we are going to ask students to trust themselves, we need to trust them too. Not just with our words, but more importantly with our actions.

  • Teach students to meaningfully reflect on their process in the beginning, middle, and end of their learning. Give them cues to help them navigate and track their own progress against standards and then give them time in and out of class to practice the process.

  • Use these reflections to set ACTION goals, a few at a time where focus can be made more personal in the process. Use these goals to help students grow as learners.

  • Always remind students to try several different approaches to something before asking for help. They need some productive struggle and problem-solving time before they figure out that they can't figure it out.

  • Be a safety net, but not the first line of defense. I always remind students that this is their learning experience now, I graduated from high school a long time ago. My job is to grow as a practitioner and develop better relationships to ensure they are getting what they need without me robbing them of that possible "aha moment."

  • Be patient. It may take longer than you would like for students to claim this incredible freedom you are giving them. Doesn't mean they don't want it, just means they don't know what to do with it yet. Being in control of our learning is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility and some may not know how to deal with that at first. They will learn if given enough time though.

  • Give them the opportunity to ask for help when it is necessary. Don't ask them repeatedly but rather create an environment that invites a confident student to know when it is time to ask.

Once students accept the power of their own learning, they understand how to get their needs met, how to distinguish between wanting help and needing help, and when it is appropriate to ask for support. As teachers, we need to help students hone this self-awareness so that they can become better self-advocates in their process, not waiting until it is too late, but also not asking prematurely.

What strategies do you have in place to help students learn to assess their own needs and specifically advocate for relevant help? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in October 2015


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