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Parent blog: Teaching kids to advocate for themselves

What do you do when your kids come home whining about something happening in the classroom? Suzita Cochran, a Boulder Valley mom of three, has some ideas.

Recently, my husband Todd and Daniel, our fifth-grader, walked in the door on a particularly gray and blustery afternoon, their grim faces matching the outdoor weather.

“What’s wrong?” I wanted to know.

“Daniel’s teacher put him next to Jonah for another month – maybe we should talk to her this time,” Todd said with that exhausted, one-more-thing-on-my-to-do-list look.

Todd is usually pretty good at not getting drawn into our kids’ problems so either it had been a particularly tiring week at work or Daniel was quite upset about this one (or both).

Jonah is a bright, interesting kid in Daniel’s class but he can also be impulsive, loud and off-topic – especially toward the end of the day. Jonah’s apparently got a few mental health diagnoses, which he gladly offered Daniel a while back as the reasons for his troublesome behavior. Their teacher changes the class table arrangements every month and Daniel was frustrated because after just one month off, he was sitting next to Jonah yet again.

“It’s so unfair and annoying, Mama! Jonah talks all the time. We’ll be working on writing or math and he’ll just blurt something out or ask me a question about the Broncos game this weekend. And he always ends up getting me in trouble!”

Daniel didn’t come right out and ask me to call his teacher but I could tell this was what he was thinking.

However, what my frustrated child didn’t realize was that I’d been reading Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World by Stuart Diamond. I’ve decided to read this rather thick tome at least once a year because there is so much to be gained within its pages.

We all know, or at least have read somewhere, that we’re supposed to have our kids solve their own problems. But so much of the parenting literature just stops there or perhaps gives the vague advice that we can “help” them to solve their own problems. But how do we do that exactly? Turns out Diamond’s book on negotiation has some very practical advice because, after all, isn’t advocating simply negotiating for oneself?

I think the message our kids often get is that advocating for themselves involves going to the person they are having a problem with and telling them what they want as clearly as possible. We kind of feel like we’ve done our parenting job if our kids manage to pull this off. But my guess is that usually our kids forget to consider what Diamond emphasizes is the most important consideration in a negotiation – the person you are talking to. Diamond’s second negotiation strategy, right after clarifying your own goals, is: It’s about them.

“You can’t persuade people of anything unless you know the pictures in their heads: their perceptions, sensibilities, needs, how they make commitments, whether they are trustworthy … Think of yourself as the least important person in the negotiation. You must do role reversal, putting yourself in their shoes and trying to put them in yours.”

Diamond also suggests thinking about whether a third person (perhaps a boss or teacher) could be playing a role in the situation without our realizing it.

It occurred to me that we parents could help our kids get into the head of the person with whom they’re negotiating. We have more life experience and can often better generate ideas of what else might be happening in the situation.

Teaching kids to negotiate and get what they want

So my relieved husband walked off to grade some papers and left me to try my hand at teaching negotiation skills to Daniel.

“OK, even though your problem is with Jonah, you are talking to your teacher about this situation so it’s her we want to think about first,” I said.

I pointed out that Daniel is one of the older kids in the class while Jonah is one of the younger ones and asked, “Is it possible your teacher purposely puts you next to Jonah because she knows you’re older and you may be able to help Jonah stay focused on his work?”

Daniel thought carefully about my question.

“Yes. I think this is why she keeps putting Jonah next to me because she also asks me to stand next to Jonah when we line up to go somewhere. But I don’t think she realizes how much it bugs me when he talks to me when I’m writing.”

I then asked Daniel whether he knew of parents who’d complained about Jonah to his teacher. Daniel said at least one had and that Jonah regularly met with the principal too. As Daniel and I discussed the situation as fully as we could, we wondered whether his teacher and the principal were feeling pretty frustrated with Jonah. If this was the case, I told Daniel that it wasn’t likely his teacher would simply move him away from Jonah because she may need Daniel to be her helper on this one.

Daniel decided to email his teacher. He figured emailing would be easier than talking with her in person where he might get nervous and not follow through. He didn’t ask his teacher to move him to a new table. Instead he told her how distracted he got when Jonah talked at him while he tried to concentrate on writing and math.

The next day Daniel’s teacher had a proposition for him after reading his email. She suggested Daniel use certain words with Jonah each time he was distracting. If these words didn’t help after three times, Daniel could ask her for help. She also told him he would not get in trouble for speaking out in class without being called on in this particular situation. Daniel felt immediate relief and agreed to try the new plan.

Not all situations warrant a fix

I was glad Daniel was successful with advocating for himself because the next time he faced a similar problem, I could remind him how this one had worked out. And honestly this had been enough work for me and I was ready to take a little break from thinking about negotiation.

Of course I was forgetting one crucial thing. When you have three kids, you don’t always get to decide when to stop thinking about negotiation. That evening as I drove Annie home from gymnastics class, I could tell she was in a bad mood. She angrily informed me that her teacher had not let her try a flip into the foam pit at gymnastics.

“It’s so unfair! I’m as good as the other girls. She let this one girl who’s only 7 try one, but not me and I’m 8!”

I don’t think Annie was factoring in that I’d stayed to watch her gymnastics class this time. Though I’d spent some of the time reading my Getting More negotiation book, I did catch the part of the class where the girls were doing front flips, with the teacher’s help, into a pit of soft foam blocks. I’d seen that Annie needed quite a bit of help from her teacher. I’d also watched the other girl Annie spoke of demonstrate she was clearly ready to try a flip on her own. This same girl, whom Annie claimed was 7, was also at least a foot taller than Annie and wearing a bra. (I’m thinking she was more likely 12 than 7!)

I listened to Annie vent all the way home about the injustice of it all, but in my head I thought highly of her gymnastics teacher for setting limits with a child who wasn’t ready to try a new skill on her own yet. I quickly decided this was a negotiation I wasn’t going to enter into. My 8-year-old was more likely hungry, tired and thus cranky after her gymnastics class. No doubt there would be more appropriate situations in the future within which Annie could practice advocating for herself but I was secretly relieved this wasn’t one of them.

Here are some tips that can help us all.

Five ways to build self-advocacy skills with young children

  • Have kids order for themselves at restaurants.
  • Have kids make eye contact when talking to adults they know outside the family.
  • If a problem arises that can be solved via email, have a young child dictate an email to you. Type it in their words.
  • Help the child think through a problem by asking open-ended questions such as: What do you want to happen? What do you think you’ll do first? What do you think he’ll say?
  • Role play the negotiation with your child before they make their official attempt.

I’d love to hear other examples of children advocating for themselves. Please leave a comment below.

About our First Person series:

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