Self-Advocacy + Executive Function Skills = Academic Success


Teachers often have outsized egos (I know, I was one).Person on top of a mountain

When you’re consistently the “smartest person in the room”—and by definition, we’re all hoping that’s the teacher, at least in terms of knowledge base—you can become subject to thinking errors. You might assume that because you said something, other people (the kids) understood it. 

You might assume that if you think it’s important, they’ll see it as important. In addition, you might have an unrealistic expectation that others will share the enthusiasm you feel for the subject you teach.

As a consequence, teachers often want to weed out those who “haven’t been paying attention” or are “lazy.” Many will make tests challenging and offer no study guide, or present papers to write and prohibit support in the editing process, even though in real life most of us ask for clarification from our bosses, research freely, and work collaboratively on anything of value.


Because teachers are like the rest of us—typically human and occasionally prone to errors—it’s critical for students to learn to advocate for themselves.  After all, self-advocacy is a skill that will be critical not just throughout their middle school, high school and college days, but for the rest of their lives.

The earlier that our children acquire self-advocacy skills the better, and certainly they should have a firm grasp on these skills by the time they’re in middle school or junior high school. 

Finding Teachers’ Soft Spots

Even those teachers who take pride in gifting their students with particularly difficult tests want to see some students succeed. After all, for a test to be fair, some students must do well. So the question is: “Which students do they want to do well?” Answer: The ones who show the greatest interest in learning from the master. The students who come in for extra help in a timely way. The ones who ask questions. The ones who admit that the subject is hard but push anyway. Students with great focus and persistence. In other words, the ones with excellent Executive Function skills—skills like:

  •       Self-awareness
  •       Initiative
  •       Sustained attention
  •       Persistence toward a clear goal
  •       Emotional regulation
  •       Organization
  •       Time management.

By seeing their teachers throughout the year to uncover and recover from any misunderstandings they have, students prevent small problems from compounding. While there may be some teachers who truly have Grinch-sized hearts, most enter the profession because they care. When they see students who also care, these teachers will do far more for them than they will for typical students who only go to class because they must, take tests to get them done, and, if they seem to care about anything, it’s about their grade rather than about learning.

Why Teachers Need Help

Even though an increasing number of parents recognize that their children’s struggles are rooted in genuine confusion, many teachers aren’t able to disentangle the strands of skill deficits, lack of confidence and lack of effort—let alone to make causal connections. (For a diagram showing this connection, click here.) Teachers cannot know each of the 25-120 students they see as well as the child's parents can, and few have been trained to understand Executive Function challenges. Most teachers will not know if a student really understood an explanation or is just “yes’ing” the teacher to avoid embarrassment.

As early as possible but no later than the time a student reaches seventh grade, students need to be able to advocate for themselves. Though these skills tend to be more difficult for students with ADHD and Executive Function challenges, fortunately, all of them are teachable. The big payoff is that once they add these skills to their tool belt, students are equipped to manage themselves effectively in college and, beyond that, in their work lives one day.

Do you know a student who needs to develop self-advocacy skills?

Download Student Self-Advocacy Checklist

photo credit: <a href="">Paxson Woelber</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

About the Author

Michael Delman

Michael Delman is an award-winning educator, author, and entrepreneur. In 2006 he founded Beyond BookSmart, which he has grown into the world’s largest Executive Function coaching company, as its CEO. Prior to that, Michael co-founded and was principal of McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham, Massachusetts. In 2018, he published his critically acclaimed first book, Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention, and toured the country speaking with parents about how to help their children be productive and confident. A popular speaker at conferences, Michael has also been featured in The Times of London, CBS Boston affiliate WBZ TV, and dozens of media outlets across the country. Michael brings his unique combination of business acumen and an educator’s perspective to his visionary work. His passion is helping people discover their strengths, develop their confidence, and become more effective at whatever challenges they face.

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