Teaching a Child Self-Advocacy
- Guest Blogger, Karen Lauffer
As an educator, I believe that one of the most important skills we can teach our children, and, specifically, children with autism, is the ability to advocate for their needs. It is a sad irony that our kids with the most needs, often have the greatest difficulty asking for help. I always tell my kids that if they ask for help in a nice way, almost all adults will be willing to help them get what they need.
Teaching self-advocacy is something that I am very passionate about. It is a broad topic that we could talk about for days. When thinking about school-age children, I would break this process down into three simple steps:
- Identify the function of the behavior.
- Determine a solution that works for everyone involved.
- Teach the student to ask for help in a nice way.
So, the first step, identify the problem. When a child is having difficulty, he is communicating a need. All behaviors serve a purpose. We must determine whether the child needs something, is avoiding a task or if the behavior is sensory-driven. After we determine the function of the behavior, we must find a way for the child to get what he needs in a socially appropriate, more efficient way. Finally, we must work with everyone involved to find a way for the child to ask for what he needs and, ultimately, be able to advocate for himself.
For example, let’s say that we have a student who loves music class but seems to always fall apart on the days that the teacher lets everyone play an instrument. He seems to want to participate but he ends up getting more and more agitated and out of control. He has even gotten so excited that he has hit a student with his instrument accidentally. On these days, he ends up being wildly inappropriate and can even escalate to full meltdown mode. The student’s IEP team has determined that this student is becoming over-stimulated and needs to be removed from the situation. He has an “office” area in his resource room that he has created. Typically, the next step is to develop a crisis plan so that he can be directed to his office or escorted to his office if/when he is in meltdown mode.
How much better would it be to talk with this student, help him to recognize why he is getting upset, decide on a solution and then help him to know how to ask for what he needs in a socially appropriate way? Teaching kids how to ask for a break is a life skill. As adults, we give ourselves breaks all day long. When we become fatigued or stressed, we can walk away from the situation. We might get a cup of coffee or step over to a colleague’s office and chat for a second. We learned this skill in incremental steps as we were growing up and functioning in society. Our student with autism might not learn this skill incidentally. We may have to directly teach him how to take ownership of recognizing and obtaining what he needs.
A “Take 5” card is a great strategy that I love to use with my students. In the heat of the moment, the child might not be able to articulate that he would like to be excused to go to his office for a break. Rather than just leave the classroom without permission, or, worse, go into meltdown mode, the child can have a card in his pocket with a large number 5 written on it. We will have worked it out in advance with all of his teachers so that they know when he hands them this card, he is asking for permission to leave to take a break. It’s a win-win, because the child can feel good about himself for being responsible and asking for what he needs in a nice way. The teacher is happy because the student has asked to leave her room before being getting upset. In addition, the learning environment has not been disrupted.
All children need to be able to ask for what they need. Teaching self-advocacy is often difficult since there are so many moving parts to be considered. However, as parents and educators, we must try. When we are successful, our children, indeed, all of society benefits greatly.