How to Get Students to Self-Advocate

One of the things parents and teachers both ask about is the student who does not self-advocate. To the adults, it does not seem to make sense that a struggling or confused student would not reach out. The student may need your guidance to access help.


When was the last time you had to cold call a business to find out their hours or location? The library to discover if a book was available? The drug store to see if your prescription was ready? An airline to get flight information? When I was a child, before nearly everything could be looked up on the internet, these were necessary tasks that my parents handed off to my siblings and me. Quite simply, we needed to be taught to self-advocate: to communicate with people and ask them for the help we needed. 

Using a Script to Practice a Challenging Skill

There was no way out of a phone call task in my family. To make it more palatable (and possible), we had scripts. Hello my name is _________. I am calling because ___________. I wonder if you can help me __________. If the person who answered said no, we were taught to persist by asking if they knew who could help. We also learned to write the answer down for the dreaded follow-up phone call or risked having to call back the first person. From my parents’ point of view, this was an essential life skill. They were right.

Have you ever asked someone who was in a position to help you, such as a teacher or supervisor, and not received the assistance you were looking for? What did you do? You may have felt sad and frustrated, especially if knowing the answer to your question could have saved you time or confusion. It might also have increased your enjoyment of learning or shortened the time needed to complete your work.

Self-advocacy, or seeking the help you need, is championed by teachers at every learning level. Educators and parents expect students will ask. However, in practice, some students might not know what help is available or how to access it. They may not even be aware that they have missed important information or directions, or it may be too embarrassing to let teachers and peers know that they are confused. 

When Exemplars and Positive Comparisons Don’t Work

You might assume that the student who is tentative about proceeding needs some motivation. Would you suggest, “Everyone else figured it out. I know you can do it,” as encouragement, especially if a student seems capable? To the person who may have finally dialed up a lot of courage to ask for help, this can backfire. Instead of feeling motivated to help themselves because peers have figured it out and you believe they can do it, the sting of shame can be an unintended result. The student may disengage, because for them, shame is even more painful than not finding out an answer that could shine light on learning.

Aspiration, or the desire to be better, can build motivation to try new things. Social comparison, the desire to be more like someone else whom we admire, can be motivating in the short term, but it can also trigger jealously or feelings of crushing self-doubt.  To tap into student aspiration, you might provide exemplars. The logic is that tangible good results give students some sense of a possible outcome for their own work.

But imagine a student who is provided with an exemplar and instead sees an impossible task: measuring up to someone else.  Especially if the struggling student must analyze the content of the exemplar, sequence ways to create the desirable response, as well as produce one that is unique, anxiety may ensue. Trying harder without at least some idea of how to do this in a step-wise fashion can become exhausting and discouraging, especially when students anticipate feeling shame rather than success. 

Tailoring Student Support to Their Needs

The longer it takes anyone to experience success, the harder it is for them to stay motivated. This can trigger anxiety, too. Rather than expecting students to always engage in self-help, you can start by explicitly telling them how to use resources they already know how to use. Isn’t this hand-holding, you may wonder? Think of it as a warm-up instead. Students who are more hopeful of a good result will be more motivated to persist. You can also tailor future student support by asking how they would like to receive help from you and others such as peers. Personalized checklists, containing strategies that have already worked, can focus student help-seeking efforts.

It can be easy to think that the struggle to reach out for help lies within the student, and that by encouraging self-help that they will find their own answers. But this can feel punishing to an anxious student who wants support.  Researchers have found that students respect empathic, helpful teachers more than punitive ones.

In studies where students were asked to rate teachers on their helping behaviors, ones who demonstrated empathic rather than corrective approaches improved both students’ solution-oriented behavior and their skilled performance. It did not matter if there was a consequence such as a bad grade that the teacher could not solve. The fact that the teacher showed genuine concern and wanted to help had lasting positive effects.  These empathic, solution-focused interactions improved future solution-oriented behavior on the part of the student. 

Take a LAP: A Coaching Script with Just Three Steps

Remember the telephone script my parents provided so that my siblings and I could ask questions to get the information we needed? Teachers and parents can help shape student behavior by using simple scripts, too, in the form of coaching questions. The example below, which I call “Taking a LAP”,  can work for teachers and parents. Once you master it, like my own parents who already knew how to call for help, you can teach it to students to use with each other. Students who Take a LAP with you or a peer will be more likely to self-advocate, discover what they already know and can do, and apply strategies independently. 

 Here is the scripted way to use a minimum of coaching questions to get to action steps for students:

  • LISTEN before you solve or send students back for self-help:
    • Keep it simple, like this: “I’d like to help. Can you say more about that?”
  • ASK to get the student to show and tell:
    • “Can we review the directions together?” “What have you tried so far?”
  • PRAISE their present specific efforts: 
    • You can say, “When you did X, that was a solid first step. What do you think the next step could be? Good! Here’s a sticky note. Can you write that down to help you remember?”

You can help bust the effort myth. (Get the book here)

When a student of any age is reluctant to take a risk, knowing what strategies can work builds motivation to continue trying. Student confidence is built through resilience opportunities, some of which may be guided and some that will occur through lived experience, along with self-reflection that teachers and parents can facilitate with coaching questions. These accumulated tiny moments of self-awareness, rather than the big achievements in life, are what build a student’s sense of capability and fuel the successes we really wish for them. 


About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.

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