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Self-advocacy: Start early, practice often

By Brittany Wallace Au.D., CCC-A

So much of the focus from parents and professionals revolves around diagnosis, amplification and the development of speech and language, often leaving more abstract skills like self-advocacy until the children are older. However, teachers, parents and caretakers can begin to cultivate these skills at an early age. First you might ask, what does self-advocacy mean and how does it pertain to my students? Self-advocacy involves your students’ ability to speak up for what he or she needs. You can begin to imagine how often this skill is needed during any given school day, and how important it is that your students be comfortable with it. While self-advocacy pertains to the classroom and social situations (e.g., discussing preferential seating with a teacher, asking friends to look at you when they speak, etc.), device self-advocacy is often a great starting point with young children before they begin school.

Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” With the end goal being self-advocacy, it stands to reason that the sooner we can involve the child in the use and maintenance of her devices, the more apt she will be able to do so for herself as she gets older. Early efforts by parents and early intervention providers can be simple. Narrate the daily routines of device care, such as the listening check, the battery check and putting the devices in the dehumidifier.  As she gets older, and as safety permits, begin to let her help maintain her devices. Let her select a special box or container in which her devices are kept when not “on” or not in the dehumidifier. Allow her to choose stickers to decorate her devices or the outside of the dehumidifier.

Each of these strategies encourages personalization and ownership of the devices. Praise your student when she correctly removes her devices. Reward her when she notifies you of a dead battery or non-functioning device.  Let her choose which device is removed first for listening checks. This engages her and highlights the importance of these daily routines.

As the child gets older, shift the focus to help her understand what she needs to succeed and how to communicate those needs to others, such as teachers and peers. Some of these strategies are simple. She should discuss preferential seating in class and devise a plan for troubleshooting during the school day with her teacher. Strategies used by the teacher include facing the students when speaking or restating questions asked by peers that other students may have missed. If she wears an FM/DM system at school, encourage her to ask teachers and peers to use it. As the teacher, accommodate and support the continued use of the additional equipment and give her confidence to continue using it in social situations.

A child can begin self-advocacy skill development even at a young age. Create a strong foundation by talking about hearing loss and what it means, embracing strengths and weaknesses, and building commentary about device care. As the child gets older, supervise her as she begins to take on maintenance tasks. Encourage her to problem solve and be a solution-seeker.  Empower your child to be the master of her devices and listening in general.

Brittany Wallace, AuD., CCC-A, works as an audiologist in the Martha E. Jones Pediatric Audiology center at Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, Missouri.

2 replies
  1. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I also agree that self-advocacy is an incredibly important skill for teachers to foster in the classroom! I work with older students, but the suggestions detailed in this article can lay the foundation for students’ continuing to build self-advocacy skills as they grow; teachers across divisions can work together to support students through that development. One application of self-advocacy for secondary students that has come up for me is attending IEP meetings. In my year of student teaching so far, I have attended a few IEP meetings, some of which the students have attended and others which they have not. I have found the meetings that students attended to be incredibly productive and powerful. Students can share their experiences and offer their own perspectives on their strengths and challenges. We only see students for 1-2 periods a day, and it made an enormous difference to me to understand more about the students’ experiences in other contexts. Importantly, it is our responsibility as teachers to support students who choose to participate in this process – and not only the teachers who are at the meeting but also the teachers that the students have had in the past. If a student’s early teachers can support their development of their ability to communicate their needs to others, they will be able to enter the IEP process from a place of empowerment.

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  2. Marian Francisco
    Marian Francisco says:

    I agree that self-advocacy is one of the most important skills a deaf/hard of hearing child should learn early in life, yet it is the most often taken for granted and not taught. Sometimes teachers, parents and other adults working with children with special needs would often do the task for the child or help the child accomplish the task even though the child is fully capable of doing it himself. This often leads to dependence on adults and a sense of helplessness or self-pity when the child is left alone in a strange situation and his needs are not given. If self-advocacy was learned early in life and practiced frequently, a child would be able to speak up and tell people what he needs. This empowers the child to take control of his life and eventually become an independent adult. This reminds me of an anecdote shared by a blind person who was giving a talk on dealing with people who are blind. He said that one peeve he had was when he was with other people and a person would ask one of his companions what he (blind person) wanted instead of addressing him directly. He said he is perfectly able to tell him what he wanted if only addressed properly. This scene often happens to children with special needs and people who do not know how to handle them would often rely on the itinerant teacher or para professional to talk to the child. However, when the teacher or paras are not available, the child is often left out. This should not be the case, and situations like this would be lessened if self-advocacy was learned and practiced early on.

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