Some thoughts on self-advocacy for adolescents

Image description: colony of tiny white fungi growing together on a decomposing log

I’ve written about the idea of Independence versus Interdependence here before and I just wanted to expand on that a little bit. I was having a conversation the other day with a school administrator who lamented the fact that many parents intervene with school officials on behalf of their students. This administrator was dismayed that these students aren’t learning how to “solve their own problems” and worries that they will leave their homes for college or their own household without having learned some of the skills they need to navigate systems effectively.

I understand this worry, and I also inquired whether it’s possible that what this person is seeing is only those issues that are escalated to a certain point within the school system. Meaning that, maybe there are multiple instances of students solving their own conflicts and disagreements with teachers and coaches and other school staff that aren’t visible simply because they’ve been solved.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t typically set up our schools to feel like places that foster partnerships between educators and students. There is a basic power differential, and for some students who are marginalized and don’t fit the paradigm of the students our systems are designed for, that power differential is a chasm. That can mean that it takes a great deal more effort and courage for these students to navigate difficulties with educators than it does for their white, neurotypical, traditional-student peers. If students start out feeling as though they are not on equal footing with their teacher/coach/counselor, self-advocacy is more difficult. And if that adult is accustomed to using their power as a way to get their way, self-advocacy can feel like an exercise in futility. And yet, many students still manage to find ways to articulate their needs.

But what if they try and get nowhere? I have personally had experiences with my own children where I have seen them make multiple attempts to get their needs met or make their concerns heard and nothing happens. In that case, it is imperative that I, someone with power and leverage that is equal to that of the other adult they’re negotiating with, get involved to help my child. I like to think of it as something we adults do all the time when we need help. We don’t expect employees who are experiencing discrimination at work to work out issues with their employer without an advocate. It is pretty rare that couples get divorced without some sort of mediator or attorney involved to help them resolve the biggest issues. So why do we expect our kids to be able to successfully resolve issues with educators entirely on their own?

I am pleased to say that when I explained this to that school official, they were able to see things a little differently. It is my hope that, going forward, they will encourage students to find an adult who can help them advocate for themselves after an attempt to solve the problem on their own goes awry. Rather than teaching our kids that they’re on their own (especially in the face of a power differential), we can teach them that they deserve to be heard and that there are people out there who will make themselves available to advocate on their behalf so that they don’t have to settle for being powerless when they’re struggling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *