Friday, August 17, 2012

Advocacy should be learned in the classroom and at home

From today's Briefing:

Most of us rely on classroom teachers to guide our children on specific topics, like the difference between adverbs and adjectives or how to figure square roots.
Sure, we adults know these things on our own (or could at least relearn pretty quickly), but that’s what school is for.
There are some lessons, though, that should come from home, like how to place a napkin in your lap at the dinner table or when to say “please” and “thank you.”
As a new school year begins, I’ve been anticipating what Cooper and Katie will learn in the classroom and how I can supplement those lessons at home. More important, I’ve been considering which life skills to emphasize on our own.
This summer, the kids have improved their laundry skills: They now know how to fold towels and blankets. In the fall, we may tackle operation of the washing machine.
They’ve also advanced from clearing dirty dishes to actually rinsing dirty dishes. In the next few weeks, I’ll introduce the art of loading the dishwasher.
At the top of the list, though, is our continued study of advocacy.
Everyone needs to be his or her own best advocate. And everyone needs to know how to speak up for others.
When I was in elementary school, I was certain that I belonged in a special pullout program. I’d occasionally mention it to my mom, who listened but assumed that if I were qualified, surely a teacher would notice.
No one noticed. Finally, at the end of fourth grade, I mustered the courage to approach the program’s teacher and nominated myself.
She agreed to test me. I passed, and in fifth grade I was placed in the program. It may sound like a small victory, but it was huge to me, and it fueled my confidence, teaching me at a young age the power of speaking up.
I’ve learned that the key to effective advocacy is knowing when and how often to speak up. If you complain too often, without a sense of priority, folks stop listening. And when you do identify a problem, it helps to offer solutions.
When my husband was receiving treatment for cancer and various unpleasant side effects, my advocacy skills were put through their paces. I didn’t want to alienate the team of hard-working doctors, nurses and technicians, but I also wanted the best, most competent care for Steve.
If he was too tired to speak up for himself, I would quietly step in with suggestions on the best size of needle for blood draws, reminders about medication and questions about dosing.
When a sluggish social worker told us that Steve would have to spend Christmas in the hospital only because she couldn’t find a home-health worker to take on his case, I delivered an impassioned speech in the middle of the nurses’ station, pleading for our children to have Christmas morning with their Daddy.
He was home by 4 p.m. Christmas Eve. It was our final Christmas together.
The advocacy lessons seem more urgent now that there’s a sixth-grader in the house. Cooper has left our cozy elementary school, where everyone knows his name, for middle school, where not a single staff member yet has a clue who he is.
He needs to know to seek help if he’s confused by a concept or struggling with an assignment. He needs to feel comfortable, if necessary, in reminding each of his seven teachers of his accommodations for dyslexia.
He needs to know that I can’t — and shouldn’t — be there to solve every problem.
I got a glimpse of Cooper’s advocacy abilities this week. He was at the orthodontist and had just been fitted with a Herbst appliance (imagine permanent headgear placed inside the mouth). Something didn’t feel right.
He didn’t tell me about it — he told the technician, who at first waved him off.
Cooper politely persisted, and the tech investigated. He found a small piece that required adjustment and fixed it.
“Thank you,” Cooper said, all without any prompting from Mom.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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