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Feb 07, 2019
Opportunities for learning are everywhere — both inside and outside of the classroom. As parents, coaches, and teachers, we want our students to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. Part of that objective is to support them to be effective advocates for their own learning. My three-year old son is pretty good at this. If he needs help, he will take my hand and lead me somewhere (to the cookie jar), ask for “assistance” (yes, he really uses this word, especially when trying to jump out of his car seat to the ground), or sometimes say, “Momma do it!” (turn on the television). Whatever his method, I understand that he wants help with something.
Interestingly, the easy clarity of asking for help becomes muddy as little ones grow up and enter structured school settings. This is especially true for those I see who struggle with Executive Function skills. Children, teens, and college students who are introverted or have difficulty organizing, planning, and using self-advocacy skills often have so much to gain from 1:1 time with instructors but could benefit from a little exploration of the why and how behind it all.
As an Executive Function coach with over ten years experience teaching and advising in college settings, I see that many students don’t take advantage of their instructors as resources for learning.
Why do students struggle with asking for and receiving help? Whether it is visiting a teacher during a free period in middle school or high school or attending office hours in college, the themes are the same. Some students don’t think they need help - that everything is fine - even when objective assessments (for example, grades on exams or papers) suggest otherwise. Even when students agree they need help, some feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for what they need. But more times than not, the reasons are connected to their difficulties organizing course materials, having limited insight into their own strengths and challenges, and feeling overwhelmed as to how to even start a conversation.
Sometimes it can be challenging to figure out what the hold-up is regarding accessing help. To gauge where students are in this, open-ended reflective questions that address common themes can be helpful. Asking these types of questions can build meta-cognitive and self-regulation skills that frequently underlie many Executive Function areas. Some ideas include:
These two questions may be especially difficult for students to answer:
If you're seeing that your student can't readily answer those questions, consider showing these possibilities below. Ask if there is anything here that may be useful - chances are there may be one or more - and these ideas can spark a student's own reasons.
Once the reasons for accessing help are clearer, then a trusted adult can help support effective use of office hours to support learning. Perhaps start by asking an open-ending question such as: What do you think you could do to prepare to attend office hours? Some ideas if you are met with “I don’t know” (or a blank stare) are:
Learning to ask for help and preparing to receive effective help can be a challenging process. Many adults even have trouble! Hopefully, the tips I've shared here will help. And of course, if you ever need a reminder of how natural asking for help can be, try putting a cookie out of reach of a three-year old!
Download our list of 9 specific self-advocacy skills that students need to master for success in school (and beyond).
Wendy Gordon-Hewick, M.A., is an Executive Function coach at Beyond Booksmart and an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College. Additionally, she currently works as the Care Team Case Manager at Brandeis University; for ten years prior worked in specialized advising programs assisting at-risk undergraduates to persist in their studies through graduation. After earning her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Arcadia University In Pennsylvania, she completed a master’s degree in Applied Child Development and Clinical/Developmental Psychology at Tufts University and a post-graduate seminar in Mood Disorders at Harvard University. She enjoys helping students develop strategic approaches that align with how they define success.