Self Advocacy: Why Your Child Won’t Seek the Teacher’s Help


It’s often hard for parents to trust that their children will learn from their mistakes, especially when they adamantly refuse to see their teachers for help. Parentsnational-cancer-institute-N_aihp118p8-unsplash also tend to react skeptically when their children agree but then “forget” to go to a planned meeting. Now that final exams, papers, and projects are piling up for students (along with all the questions and roadblocks that travel with the end of year workload) parents can feel like a scratched CD with their refrain “Go meet with your teacher!”

Why won’t your kids simply cooperate, and what can be done about it?

First, it’s important to understand the reason for their resistance and then provide a relatively simple solution. These are the keys to helping students make the shift from avoiding teacher support to seeking it out. Many parents believe that their children refuse the help specifically because it was mom or dad who suggested it. While that can be true - particularly if a child feels forced into seeing the teacher - our experience with students over the past ten years tells us that the power struggle factor is not the primary reason.

How to ask for a teacher’s help - and get what you need

For the many middle, high school, and college students we have known who avoid seeking a teacher’s help, the single biggest reason is that they don’t know what they actually will do when they see the teacher. It feels embarrassing, if not absurd, to meet one-on-one with a teacher with a vague complaint of “I don’t get it. Can you help me?” A blank stare from the teacher is a likely response to such a nebulous request. (Cue the awkward silence.) The real problem is that many students simply don’t know the best way to go about asking for the specific help they require. It turns out, a little preparation makes all the difference.

Here’s how we handle this dilemma. We teach students how to review their material – from class notes to handouts, from textbooks to old tests – by dividing it into three main chunks: 

  1. Material they have a solid understanding of. (They can describe all the parts of a plant cell and their functions, for instance.)
  2. Material they don’t know well, but understand how to master. (Memorizing formulae or state capitals, for example.)
  3. Material that is unclear, confusing, or just plain surprising (What? The Scientific Method is on the test? I must have been absent that day!)

Many of our students like to color code this information on their study guides using highlighters: green for #1, yellow for #2, and orange for #3. This provides a handy and quick visual reference. Other students prefer to create a table with three columns and fill in the topics accordingly to help them stay organized in their approach to studying.

When students prepare in this manner for their help sessions, they gain a number of benefits that tend to reinforce one another. First, they gain the confidence to seek support because they are entering with a specific purpose. They have shifted from a passive role where they feel embarrassed – like a beggar – to being more of a detective seeking answers. Second, they gain useful information. Third, their performance improves, which leads to greater confidence in general and specifically for continuing to work with that teacher because the relationship has been strengthened.

Finally, and most importantly, they learn how to be more effective self-advocates. Evaluating their own level of confidence about the material strengthens metacognitive skills and encourages them to prioritize what they will study with their limited time. Having a goal of continually assessing what content is mastered forces students to pay more attention than simply “looking things over.” Furthermore, when students learn that it’s possible to take ownership of their learning process, it sets the stage for an improved self-concept and better self-regulation.

Do you know a student who needs to develop self-advocacy skills? Download our helpful checklist of specific skills every student needs.

Download Student Self-Advocacy Checklist


Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash


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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