Self-Advocacy Shows Up in Several Ways for Young Children

Dr. Kelly Bird
Having complicated conversations with children can feel challenging because we aren’t sure what they are ready for and because our own feelings often permeate the conversation.  As educators we respond to the questions that children bring us and we do our best to answer only what they have asked. As children are ready for more, they will ask more. We, too, have moments of uncertainty about how to answer their questions as we balance the needs of everyone in the room. It is perfectly ok to say, “That is a great question. I’d like to think about it more and come back to you.” Likewise, if you don’t feel you answered something well, you can always say, “You asked me something yesterday and I’d like to talk about it some more.” Silence is the least healthy alternative because it leaves children to answer their own questions without enough context. 
 
Advocating for yourself and others is one of the four goals Early Learning Center (ELC) faculty are focused on as they strive to build communities of belonging in their classrooms. Self-advocacy shows up in several ways for young children.
 
First, children need to learn to advocate for their own needs. Our youngest ones might need help opening their lunchbox or getting changed after an accident. Without the necessary self-advocacy skills, a student might sit and wait for someone to notice they need help. We want them to speak up and say, “I need help, please,” so that an adult can support them and teach them the skills they need to help themselves. 
 
Self-advocacy becomes more important when children experience unkind words or don’t feel included in a game or activity. Teachers expertly facilitate conflict resolution with students asking them to talk directly to one another about what happened and how they feel. While the adults are always there to help them, students also need to learn appropriate language so they can advocate for themselves. At the preschool level these moments are low risk, allowing students to build skills for adolescence and beyond. Teachers prepare them by exploring different emotions and start by giving them language to use, such as, “When you ____, I feel ______.”  
 
As students learn the power advocating for themselves, they begin to feel more confident in standing up for others. By kindergarten, teachers introduce students to the concept of bystander versus upstander. They role-play moments of witnessing an unkind act and demonstrating the bravery to speak up even though they feel afraid.  
 
This work requires a partnership between school and home. We encourage you to read and discuss the book One by Kathryn Otoshi with your child as you support them to self-advocate and to advocate for others! 
   
Other suggestions for reading at home: 
 
Click, Clack Moo Cows that Type By Doreen Cronin 
Strictly No Elephants By Lisa Mantchev 
I Walk with Vanessa: A Picture Book Story About a Simple Act of Kindness By Kerascoet
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