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Advising Perspective: Teaching Students to Self-Advocate

By Christine Grutta, M.A.
Landmark College Academic Advisor

Note: This blog post was part of a Final Project in our online course for educators, “Student Engagement, Self-Regulation, and Motivation,” which is part of our Certificate Program in Executive Function and LD.


As you can hear in the words of our students (see the table below), self-advocacy is a complex and challenging process. It is also one of the most critical elements of a student’s success, here at Landmark College and beyond. Self-advocacy cultivates greater student self-efficacy, autonomy and empowerment. It allows students to define and articulate their identities as learners and ask for and receive the help they need.

Self-advocacy also fuels the fire of motivation. When a student experiences success and a positive reward as the result of their self-advocacy, they are motivated to continue the behavior, resulting in a positive, healthy feedback cycle. As self-advocacy skills develop, feelings of self-empowerment grow.

Another thing students (and their advisors) will tell you is that self-advocacy is HARD! We are asking students to speak from their area of challenge, addressing their disability. Stress and anxiety can create barriers to students’ abilities to self-advocate. It can be a messy and frustrating process for students as they grapple with self-acceptance, shame, embarrassment and fear of failure. It is a process that takes time.

Student Voices

“Before I had advising I wasn’t even entirely aware of the word ‘self-advocacy’ or its meaning. Since I’ve had advising I learned and expanded on methods that allow me to better myself as a student, but in a wider sense become an active and contributing adult.”

-Sasha Malowitz, 3rd semester

“In advising we identify my strengths and weaknesses and how I can use them to my advantage. I learned to keep this in mind when developing my short-term and long-term goals, making sure I am incorporating not just my strengths but also my weaknesses. This gives me the motivation I need for developing my best work ethic, giving me the self-advocacy to make my own daily goals.”

-Erica Loveland, 4th semester

“Asking a teacher for something can be difficult. For example, I have had to ask my teachers if I could take exams in a different room. That’s been difficult because I don’t want to inconvenience my professors, however, I know it’s better for my learning style. I have become more confident in advocating for myself because in advising I am able to process what I want to advocate for before I do it.”

-Jiana Eisenberg, 5th semester

 

Self-advocacy is one of our 10 Student Learning Outcomes (SLO) in the Advising Department’s curriculum for first year students. It is also intricately interwoven with many of our other SLOs. For instance, in order for self-advocacy to occur a student must possess the self-awareness of their learning strengths and challenges. Through assessment, dialogue and point of performance practice, advisors work to help a student understand and speak to their own Individual Strengths and Challenges (SLO 1). A student must also set Personal and Educational Goals (SLO 7) to have a clear road map and identify situations in which they need to self-advocate.

In our approach to teaching self-advocacy, advisors have a multitude of tools in our “toolboxes.” Our goal is always to assess the student’s readiness and meet them “where they’re at.” These are many strategies we use to promote the development of students’ self-advocacy skills. Here are a few guiding principles:

  • Ask curious, open-ended questions. Avoid being directive. Give a student space to explore goals and challenges and generate their own solutions.
  • Encourage self-reflection. As advisors, we often serve as a student’s “historian.” We help them to identify patterns in performance, review feedback from others and make connections to the bigger picture—their identity as a learner.
  • Teach students strategies to reframe their perspective. Complex emotions and negative thinking can serve as huge motivation blockers for students. We help students to identify these thoughts and feelings and to shift to language and thinking that reflects a growth mindset not a fixed mindset.
  • Practice patience. Effective self-advocacy skills do not develop overnight. For every step forward, there will also be setbacks. These setbacks are actually one of the most effective teaching tools!

Family Roles: Becoming an “Umbrella Parent”

Research cites the increased level of involvement by parents in the lives of their millennial students. Many students welcome and rely on their parents’ involvement. While this dynamic can promote close family ties and communication, it often does little to encourage a student’s independence and self-advocacy.

Negative labels abound: “the helicopter parent” (hovers and intervenes), “the snowplow parent” (plows ahead and removes all barriers) and the “bubblewrap parent” (overprotects and removes safe risk-taking). Many parents, especially those of students who learn differently, have had to advocate for their students in complex systems to guarantee educational rights and equal opportunity to learn and succeed. The challenge that arises as your student transitions into college is how to begin to shift into a “supporting cast member” rather than the lead role.

A more useful and informative analogy is that of the “Umbrella Parent.” Here is a description of how parents can effectively support the development of their students’ self-advocacy by becoming an “Umbrella Parent” (offered by the Access Project of Colorado State University):

“As your student transitions to higher education, it is crucial to make sure s/he owns an umbrella and knows how to use it. This is an important life skill, similar to learning how to do one’s own laundry, make doctor/dentist appointments, and other self-advocacy responsibilities.
Now, if you or any family member notices your student needing assistance or support, rather than popping out your umbrella immediately, ask your student if s/he would like to share your umbrella. This allows your student to make a decision about your role in the situation. In other words, ask your student what s/he needs from you. Is it a listening ear, a supportive shoulder, a sounding board, or a person with whom to brainstorm options? These are all appropriate roles for parents/families of college students.
Your student may want you to rescue him/her. This is not appropriate and ultimately does not promote interdependence and the development of self-advocacy skills. When you hold an umbrella for someone else, you stand next to, or beside them. You don’t stand in front of them. This extends to “holding the umbrella” for your student. Allow them to stand in front of you, or next to you. They are benefitting from your support, but they are “in charge.”

Source: Donovan, J. and ACCESS to Postsecondary Education through Universal Design for Learning, “How Parents And Families Can Support Their College Student:
Advice From A Student Services Expert In Higher Education.” Retrieved May 7, 2018 from http://accessproject.colostate.edu/sa/modules/sec1/tut_sec1.php?display=pg_18.

Additional Resources

10 Tips to Help Your Student Build Self-Advocacy Skills for College

The Landmark College Family Guide. A useful look into the parents’ role, family expectations and how you can support your student’s development at Landmark

Landmark College infographic on tips for promoting Self-Advocacy

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