Self-advocacy for children: what it is and why it’s important
Self-advocacy is speaking up for yourself and your rights by communicating your thoughts, needs and preferences.
Children can self-advocate by saying no to things they don’t want, making decisions about what they do want, and asking for help when they need it.
For example, a preschooler might choose between playing with building blocks or dressing up. An older or more experienced child might ask for help if they don’t understand something in class.
Self-advocacy is important because it can help children:
- make good, values-based decisions
- manage tricky situations with peers
- do well at school
- feel more independent and self-reliant.
Self-advocacy skills for children
For self-advocacy, children need to develop:
- a strong sense of their identity and values
- confidence to express themselves
- problem-solving skills
- decision-making skills
- personal boundaries
- the ability to manage their emotions
- an understanding of rights and responsibilities.
To develop self-advocacy skills, children need supportive homes, schools and communities where they can set and achieve goals and feel a sense of belonging. Positive relationships at home, strong parent-school relationships and strong community connections can help.
Developing children’s skills for self-advocacy
If you help your child develop the skills they need for self-advocacy when they’re young, your child will be better prepared to self-advocate as they get older.
A strong sense of identity and values
To self-advocate, children need to know who they are and what’s important to them. You can help by actively listening and talking with your child about their interests, strengths, skills, abilities and needs.
For example, you could get your young child talking about what they’re interested in by asking questions like, ‘What’s your favourite toy?’, ‘What do you like to do at the park?’ or ‘You seem to enjoy books about dragons. What do you find interesting about dragons?’
Simple questions can also encourage your child to think about what they need. For example, ‘You finished that puzzle quickly. Do you need a harder one?’ or ‘You look frustrated. Do you need to take a break or ask for help?’
Children need confidence for self-advocacy.
Role-play can help with this. For example, if your child is worried about asking to do a particular topic for a school project, you and your child could role-play talking to the teacher. If your child plays the teacher’s role to start with, you can show your child how to ask the question. Then you can switch roles so your child can practise asking. Your child’s confidence will grow if you give specific, positive feedback. For example, ‘You spoke slowly and clearly – well done’.
Also, if your child starts with small steps towards self-advocacy, they’re more likely to succeed and build confidence. For example, when your child is ready to speak to the teacher, you could go along for support. Your child can work up to speaking to the teacher by themselves.
Your child will need to self-advocate to solve problems. One of the best ways for your child to develop and practise problem-solving skills is to work through real-life scenarios.
For example, your child thinks it’s unfair that their sibling chose the movie for family movie night. You could ask your child how this could be fairer. Your child might suggest that they choose the movie next time.
Role-play can also be a good option. For example, if your child has had an argument with a sibling, you could role-play other ways to handle the situation. If you record the role-play, your child can watch it and work out the best option.
Your child’s decisions reflect what’s important to them and what’s worth speaking up for. This means decision-making skills are important to self-advocacy. You can help your child practise these skills with very simple decisions. For example, ‘Do you want a cheese sandwich or a tuna sandwich?’ or ‘Do you want to play outside first or do music practice first?’
You can build up to more complex decision as your child’s experience and confidence grows. For example, ‘Where do you want to go this weekend?’ or ‘What sport would you like to do next year?’
You can help your child make informed choices by talking about the pros and cons of different options. While your child is learning to self-advocate, your child might sometimes make a decision you don’t agree with. If it’s still a safe decision, it’s OK.
Like decisions, goals reflect what’s important to your child and what’s worth speaking up for. The first step for your child in setting goals is thinking about what they want to achieve. Then you can help them think about what they need to do to achieve their goals. For example, if your child wants to raise money for a local charity, you can help them think of ways they could do this. For example, they do a sponsored walk or skip. You could also help them think about what they could say to people when they ask for sponsorship.
Your child’s personal boundaries are the limits and rules that keep your child safe and comfortable. When your child has a clear understanding of their personal boundaries, they can stand up for them. A circle of friends activity can help your child understand this idea. And your child can practise setting personal boundaries in simple ways like saying no if they don’t want a hug from a relative.
Ability to manage emotions
To self-advocate successfully, children need to be able to self-regulate and understand and manage their reactions to feelings and things happening around them. This can help your child stay calm and polite when they speak up about something that matters to them.
Rights and responsibilities
To be strong self-advocates, children need to know their rights. You can use UNICEF’s child-friendly version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to talk with your child about rights. You can use examples from your child’s experiences and everyday life to help your child understand the concept.
It’s important for children also to understand that rights come with responsibilities like treating others with the kindness and respect they expect for themselves.
To be effective self-advocates, children need opportunities to develop and practise their self-advocacy skills.
Here are examples of everyday practice opportunities for your child.
Example 1: ordering at a restaurant
When you’re out for a meal with your child, encourage them to order for themselves. You can suggest words for them to use like, ‘Can I have chicken pie, please?’ Also let your child know that it’s OK to make requests like, ‘Can I have chips instead of mashed potato, please?’
Example 2: asking the teacher for help
If your child doesn’t understand what they need to do for their homework, suggest your child speaks to their teacher after class. You could help your child plan what they’re going to say. For example, ‘I don’t understand what I need to do for my maths homework. Could you explain it to me, please?’
Example 3: telling the GP about needs or feelings
When you’re at the GP, encourage your child share their worries or let the doctor know if something doesn’t feel OK. For example, ‘I’m a bit scared about the needle’ or ‘The bandage feels really tight. Can you check it, please?’
You can help your child improve their self-advocacy skills by helping them work out how they can approach a specific situation and recognising their self-advocacy efforts by giving them descriptive praise.
Self-advocacy in action: examples for children
When your child sees other people self-advocate, it can help your child understand why these skills are important.
This can start with you. For example, if you’re having a hard day, tell your child how you’re feeling and let them know what you need. You might say, ‘I had a hard day at work, and I’m feeling a bit sad. Could you give me 5 minutes alone, please? That’ll help me feel better’.
You can also use the times that you advocate for your child as an opportunity to remind your child that it’s OK to ask for help.
And you can tell your child about times when you or a family member have used self-advocacy. For example, you could share a story about when you had to discuss your workload with your manager at work.
You can also point out examples of self-advocacy in movies, television or books.