Teaching Self-Advocacy

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Jonathan Mooney, award winning author, entrepreneur, and activist, speak at the Mississippi Dyslexia Conference. Jonathan didn’t learn to read until he was twelve years old, yet he graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in English Literature. He mentioned one of his reasons for success was learning how to advocate for himself. When relating this to the students we teach, I questioned my own practices and wondered, “Why haven’t I taught my first graders to be their own advocates?” Immediately I was excited to brainstorm ways to implement this practice into every day teaching.

In my prep for the lesson I learned self-advocacy can be broken down into three elements: 

  • Understanding specific needs 
  • Knowing what help or support will address those needs
  • Communicating those needs to teachers and others

Another thing I kept in mind was something Jonathan Mooney said in his presentation regarding diagnoses such as ADD:

“More often than not we call the kid with a difference, a problem, and more often than not we turn that difference into a deficiency. The problem is the way the difference is treated within an institution’s design in the myth that we should all be the same.”

This really made me think. YES, we all know the importance of learning styles and try to incorporate brain breaks and various activities to increase engagement, but it’s not very often I provide an individualized channel to a child to help them better understand or explore a concept or task. With self-advocacy in mind, teaching a child to identify a specific need and providing materials and opportunities to ask for help, I can set a foundation for all future learning.

Isn’t that POWERFUL!?

My thoughts were to start small. Take a consistent portion of my every day, such as literacy centers, and brainstorm what my students may need during that time. Things such as noise-cancelling headphones and music came to mind first, followed by updated/sturdier cushions and chair bands for students’ wiggles. Additionally, sand timers in each station area to aid with time management, a tough one for our younger population. Each timer is half of the amount of time needed to complete a center, so when the sand makes one pass through, students should be half-way finished with work.

The day came to implement these changes and Morning Meeting was where they were introduced. We began by discussing our strengths and how we learn best. Jonathan made a point to say,

“Don’t try to fix what’s wrong or different with a kid. Instead, identify their strengths, ASK them, ‘What are you good at?’ and teach in a way that works for them.”

Because of this, our class made a long list of strengths. Each student couldn’t claim all of them as strength, but each student could identify with many, creating a unifying experience that even our differences can unite us. Students took turns using each tool. Much like flexible seating, we discussed how some tools may be a great fit for one person, and the opposite for another. Tying it back to the list we made allowed us to justify not having a “class set” of each item. We continued the discussion the following day, making a visual for being “An Advocate for Ourselves and Others.” We were able to navigate through how these things look like, sound like, and feel like. I was moved by the empathy this discussion brought out of my students and couldn’t wait to see how these talks would be applied during centers. Talking about it also allowed us to create procedures around how to best take care of each item.

Over the course of the week, students experimented with what worked well for them as individuals. Naturally, the first couple of days, there was a good bit of hype, especially around the noise cancelling headphones. We discussed how sometimes we need them to help us get started on work and then, once we’ve found our focus, we can return them so someone else can have an opportunity. They understood this and respected the unwritten rule. Additionally, as a compromise, we reserved a few iPads that are designated to playing calming music. Students “check out” these with me and promise to uphold the Honor Code while using this tool, as many distractions are tempting with an iPad. The sand timers were an (almost) instant fix for those students who, in the past, had a difficult time completing work in a timely manner. 

By the end of the week, everyone had a good grasp of tools needed to help them succeed. An unexpected surprise was how this self-advocating filtered into other parts of our scheduled routine. Students felt comfortable asking for focus tools and even suggested these techniques for friends who appeared to need redirection in other subject areas and routines.

For future implementation, I plan to add “advocating” to our list of rotating topics to discuss in Morning Meetings, to reinforce the importance of caring for yourself and others. In one week’s time, my first graders identified strengths in themselves, and classmates, and learned in order to be as strong as they can as a student, they must find tools that work for them and enhance learning. By moderating certain materials with a “check out” system, students practiced using their voices. Communicating with peers and teachers, my students developed language that will hopefully translate into lifelong habits. I encourage everyone to try it! 

-Mary McCall McArthur

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