How Do I Teach My Child to Advocate for Themselves?


One of the hardest (and most rewarding) things for a parent is watching your child brave new situations alone.

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Without you by their side, it can be challenging for them to learn to advocate for themselves.  Some children come more naturally to these skills, but many have to learn them slowly and systematically through experience.  It can be the difference, however, of sitting and staring blankly at a test with no solution in sight, or raising a hand and asking a teacher to clarify a question. daydreaming at school

Self-advocacy can mean that your child writes an assignment down completely and then checks in with the teacher at the end of class to make sure all the assignments are copied correctly. It can help them take control of any struggles they may face, accept their learning challenges, and find ways to navigate their school experience.


Below is a quick list of ways to work on self-advocacy with your child. As I discuss self-advocacy with my students, I always follow up with the benefits of looking out for yourself.  That being better organized and on-top of our assignments and tests is a win-win situation.  By taking control of our needs and becoming more efficient with our time, we condense the time we have to spend on homework and other tasks, opening up more time for free time and play.

  • Work with your child’s teacher. Sure, all our teachers are busy, but they want what’s best for your child.  If your child needs a more structured system, work with them on ways to achieve it.
  • Role play. I can’t say enough about rehearsing possible situations that may arise in the comfort of your own home, while your child is relaxed.  Make it a priority to discuss with them different ways we can ask for help when confused or upset.
  • Practice.  Self-advocacy at school can be practiced early on, when you are present.  Have a question in pre-k or kindergarten about what snack to bring?  Encourage your child to ask their teacher for help, with you behind them. Let them be their own advocate.
  • Encourage your child to be specific. Requesting additional time on a test to work through problems is more specific and focused (and an easier thing for a teacher to allow) than just saying “I don’t know” or leaving answers blank. I’ve met many children who get test anxiety and draw a blank, leaving answers empty and throwing in the towel. Many children don’t do well with timed assignments, and most teachers are willing to work with them for a solution. After all, they’d often rather test knowledge than speed (exceptions might be fluency tests and state-mandated testing). But it’s helpful for a teacher to know specifically how to help, with extra time for assignments, more clarification for long division, or a book on tape so a child can listen and read. Your child can practice with their teacher on how to answer parts of questions, skip questions and come back, and maintain a rhythm through testing.time timerAfter all, a child who self-advocates becomes a college student or young adult who can independently navigate the complexities of adult life.  Just this morning I worked on my own self-advocacy (and self-control) skills calling Comcast for the 4th time in two weeks about incorrect billing charges! 😉

Self-advocacy means independence and confidence, and allows your child to feel in control of their academic success.  It’s that peace of mind that is essential, as self-confidence can make all the difference in school achievement.



Watching the Door Close Behind Them

A Reflection for a New Year

Schools are starting this week in Oregon.  Back to school can bring a mix of emotions for parents and for kids.

Whether your child is taking the bus or getting dropped off at school, the first day can break a parent’s heart.  May you find time to share a warm cup of coffee with a friend, a glass of wine tonight with your spouse, or a moment alone to marvel at a baby picture and appreciate the gift you’ve given the world.

Time goes quickly on this crazy journey of parenthood.  The bond you have forged with your child makes them stronger, more daring, and more courageous as they step through that door.  You’ve done a good job.  Savor that hug at the end of the day when they come back through the front door.

Front-Loading and Carousel Brainstorming

Helpful Homework Tips for Writing

During the writing process, there are many obstacles in a child’s way. Handwriting skills may affect how easy it is to jot down ideas. Spelling and syntax difficulties may make sentences confusing.

I have many students who are unable to read their own work because it’s too sloppy, words are misspelled, or sentences don’t make sense.

Add to that the kids who are just unable to get started and get the words out, and the writing process becomes formidable, if not impossible.

Students can often get stuck going in the wrong direction. What can we do at home to support them?


The first step to writing is for your child to figure out what they are supposed to do. It’s not as easy as it sounds. What is the teacher asking? What kind of answers are they looking for?

With homework, helping your child get started on the right track can make all the difference. I call this “front-loading” the help.

For many children, especially those with weaker executive functioning skills, this can mean the difference of spending 30 minutes doing the right assignment or 30 minutes working hard to create an incorrect finished assignment.

Many children who struggle with homework need to talk it out or draw it out first. Then, with a little help from parents, they can circle the ideas that apply to the problem, scratch out those that don’t, and create a framework to connect their thoughts.

As you create a brainstorm map, be your child’s recorder (or “computer”, as I like to call it). Write for them, and later your child can use this map to refer to when creating an essay. At school, many teachers use “carousel brainstorming”, where the students are moving around the room talking to other students. This is great for our kids who can use movement to activate learning! To replicate at home, have your child stand up and move one step around the kitchen table or counter for every idea generated.

A word of advice to those parents worried about too much “helicopter” parenting or helping with homework: Pose open-ended questions to your child.

“Why do you think this idea works well with you topic?” while still guiding them in the right direction. Let the learning process occur, but front-load the experience so they head down the right path.

Once you see they are working in the right direction, step back and let them own the process. Walk away from the table, and check back in after 5 or 10 minutes. If they are continuing to answer the question, step back. If not, give them guidance back to the assignment and the question posed by the teacher.

Remember, the goal is the learning process that occurs in creating a finished product, not necessarily the product itself. When the homework is finished, briefly talk about the steps that had to occur to get to the end result, then give a hug and a break.






The Education Dilemma

It’s that time of year (already!) to figure out your child’s school plan for next year. On the home front, I’ve already signed up my preschooler for next year’s preschool class! Enrollment has started for public school kindergarten, private school classes are already filling up, and we haven’t even made it through half the school year this year. Whew! Deciding where and how your child will be educated is a tough decision, and if you have a child with special needs it requires even more research and review on a parent’s part. Parents should view their role as case manager of their child’s education. Here’s more from a Simple Mom post about making the decision

The decision you make this year doesn’t have to be the decision for the rest of their schooling. Look ahead at the coming years until the next transition. If they are in preschool, consider early elementary school options. Learning expectations shift drastically in 4th grade, so that may be the time to make a new decision. Middle school is a whole ‘nother circus, and high school it’s own adventure.

Be sure to look at the academic and learning picture for your child. But also focus on their social-emotional development. More than anything, a healthy dose of self-confidence can go a long way in the learning process. Determination and perseverance are built from a child’s sense of self-worth.

Preparing for College and the Workplace

Part of my role as a Speech-Language Pathologist is to prepare my students for life AFTER school.  For those children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, this includes preparing for college and for the workplace.  The employment rate for these students is 55%, which is lower than those with intellectual disabilities.  As our kids start high school, the question of “What’s next?” is always at the back of our minds.

Students with HFA/AS don’t need vocational training in the traditional sense.  Rather, they should be supported in their strengths (e.g. art and video game creation) and supported in their areas of weakness (e.g. conflict management, executive functioning skills, social discourse).  That being said, it’s important that they learn work-management skills in order to be successful in future jobs.  There are some basic skills for success that we can support, both as parents and professionals.

To begin with, explore work and volunteer experiences during high school.  If your child has a fondness for animals, look into shelter work.  If your child loves books, the library provides endless volunteer opportunities stocking shelves and assisting with reading programs. If your child has a knack for computers, reach out to the high school computer lab teacher and ask if your child can help load new programs, troubleshoot problems, and assist those students who need extra help.  Besides the hands-on training that these volunteer experiences provide, your child will be learning many executive functioning skills: how to prioritize, time management (showing up for work on time), asking questions and communicating with bosses, responding to criticism or strict guidelines, following rules, and in general operating within the constraints that come with many employment situations.

It is also important that we support our students in extracurricular activities.  Like the work situations previously described, extracurricular activities allow our children to capitalize on their strengths and address some areas of weakness.  Joining chess club for your chess whiz, for example, allows your child to feel successful in an area of strength, while also pursuing friendships and relationships with peers.

As we progress through therapy, I have frequent conversations with my students about college, the work world, their dreams and goals for the future, and the different skills they will need to get there.  The same goal-setting and reality-checking can be applied at home.  Students with HFA/AS are often unrealistic about the future and the steps needed to achieve certain goals or dreams.  Focus on helping and supporting your child.  We aren’t trying to “change” them, but rather give them an understanding of their diagnosis and the best way to live successfully with their neurological differences. 

In high school, we begin to pull away some of the special accommodations, or at least encourage the student to begin addressing what they need to be successful.  After school, the world won’t compensate for them, so it’s important that they learn how to ask for what they need.  Self-advocacy becomes a crucial skill to be learned.  Your student can participate in their IEP or teacher meetings, and role playing at home strengthens their awareness of what their needs might be. For example, before their college entrance exam (like the SAT), role play what the setting is going to feel like, what their emotions might be, and how they might know the answers to the questions but the environment could be distracting.  Set up a plan to address some of these distractions or feelings, and problem-solve how they are going to handle the rest.

If you’d like to read more, there are many online resources (, as well as books (try “The Parent’s Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum” or “Preparing for College: An Online Tutorial”) to help you help your child navigate this next phase of their life. 

Once your child is in college, the journey isn’t over.  The dropout rate for our kids is 40%, so these conversations and check-ins need to continue to happen.  It sounds like a lot of parenting, I know it sometimes seems exhausting, and at some point you’d like to just step back and let them fly.  But I know from experience that you are some of the most steadfast parents around.  Your kids grow up quickly in some areas, but slowly in other areas, so make sure you don’t send them off too soon.  The world will continue to be a better place for the contributions your children make to their school, workplace, and community.  And your role in making that happen is more important than ever.

Talented and Gifted

Can my child be in a Talented and Gifted program if he’s on an IEP?

Interestingly, I have fielded this question from several of my families the past year. Many children who need specialized instruction or assistance in one area also need accelerated or advanced curriculum in another area. An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) does not exclude a child from a Talented and Gifted program (called TAG here in Oregon, or GATE in California.)

As a speech-language pathologist, I spend most of my time focused on a child’s areas of need. His weakest skills in language and processing, his delayed articulation, or his poor executive functioning. I measure progress with data and reports from parents and teachers. I pore over discrepancies in test scores and reports from other professionals to try to determine precisely where the child is struggling. Parents often hop on board this process, providing me with wonderful detail about the interactions where their child’s social skills failed that day, which essay problems on the science test were giving their child the most difficulty, and what neighbors witnessed the behavioral meltdown outside as the child refused to get in the car. With many of the students, their ability to perseverate on a topic, or, as one teacher put it: “drone on and on and on about the same thing…” is often an area we focus on to increase conversational flexibility and theory of mind skills.

And yet…

Sometimes I will just listen to my students and marvel at their areas of STRENGTH. Oh-my-goodness, these are some of the brightest children I’ve come across. Whether it’s listing all the U.S. presidents (and their wives and children!) in order, detailing the process of spontaneous combustion and where it occurs in the universe, or creating an imaginary world full of characters, these students have gifts that need to be celebrated. And, in the case of some students, their gifts make them exceptional when compared to their peers, even in the academic setting. When I look to the future and try to predict what my students will be doing when they graduate and enter the “real world”, I see them in jobs capitalizing on these skills that they have. Which is why, yes, it is entirely appropriate for a student who needs accommodations and specialized instruction to also have opportunities for deeper study and research. It also reminds us as parents and educators that a child’s strengths should be celebrated… everyday, every chance that we get.

Banned books?

(I wanted to post this sooner, but time has a way of getting away from you when you are 8+ months pregnant!  My apologies…) 

Last week was Banned Books Week, celebrating the freedom to read and the First Amendment.  The American Library Association had this description on their website: “The books featured during Banned Books Week have been targets of attempted bannings.  Fortunately, while some books were banned or restricted, in a majority of cases the books were not banned, all thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, booksellers, and members of the community to retain the books in the library collections.  Imagine how many more books might be challenged—and possibly banned or restricted—if librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country did not use Banned Books Week each year to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”

The ALA recommends reading banned books to show your support for the First Amendment.  As my husband and I perused the list, we realized that the majority of the classic banned books were required reading in our high school classes.  In order to take the AP English test, for example, a student needed a strong knowledge of several of these classics.  Contrary to what you may think, it usually isn’t the government recommending that a book be banned, but a group of parents or a school board making the recommendation.  Here’s a partial list containing many “classic” books:


The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker 

Ulysses, by James Joyce

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

1984, by George Orwell

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Native Son, by Richard Wright

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

Women in Love, by DH Lawrence

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike



When our children are little, it is very easy to have conversations with them about what they are reading because we are doing the reading for them.  We talk about bullies and strangers as we read the Berenstain Bears.  We talk about good versus evil as we explore another princess story.  We help them learn problem-solving as character after character conquers a problem sent their way.  But as our children grow older and begin to read independently, many parents lose the chance for discussions about reading material.  The books above provide ample material for discussions with mom and dad, (often the reasons they were “banned” in the first place.)  Explicit language, race conflict, sexual scenes… many things that you as a parent want to have a role in discussing with your child.

With technology today, it isn’t as difficult as sitting down and reading the entire novel word-for-word with your child.  I recommend to many of my students that they use books-on-tape (or audio files on their iPod) to review what they are reading.  This is especially helpful for children who struggle with reading comprehension, and need the information presented auditorily as well as orally.  There are reading apps for the iPhone, quick google checks for book reviews, and online library resources that are just a click away.

The same tools can be used by mom and dad.  A quick review of the latest reading selection, whether on your Kindle, book-on-tape, or even CliffsNotes, can help you “prep” your child for what’s coming up in the reading, review their comprehension of the material, and provide opportunities for more in-depth discussions about difficult topics.  Students struggling with language and reading comprehension need this.  But all students benefit from this sit-down time with mom or dad.  Even the brightest student can use this time to refine their analysis of the text so they can write an AP-worthy essay.  And that reflection time may be just what is needed to connect with your child on many levels, not the least of which is helping them identify and shape their own world views so they understand the power of their First Amendment rights.

Back to school… back to school…

It’s that time of the year when everyone is trying to savor the final moments of summer before the school year begins again.  Many of my teacher friends are gearing up for another year, getting their rooms and curriculum ready for another year of learning. 

Many of the kids I work with are getting anxious, albeit excited, and are experiencing some meltdowns at home because one of the biggest transitions of the year is about to happen.  As we begin to prep for the transition back to school, it is important to reflect on all that has happened this summer.  Letting your child brainstorm their “favorite summer adventures” from this past summer is often a good way to alleviate some of the stress from the upcoming change, and practice answering the question they are sure to encounter on their first day back, “What did you do this summer?”  With my students, we often create a visual map or web of all their adventures.  A particularly crazy adventure can be drawn (or written) out in a storyline, complete with pictures and words to support their retell.

It is also a good time to talk about the upcoming year.  Helping your child map out their “GOALS” for the school year can assist them in putting their stress in a manageable place.  For instance, one sixth-grade student delineated his goals as:

1) Get a 4.0 GPA for the year,

2) Make at least 1 new, good friend, and

3) Improve my cross-country times from last year.

Besides mapping out goals for the year, we mapped out a “PLAN OF ACTION” for the year.  In other words: “How are we going to achieve these goals?”  Goals are great, but are often very vague and elusive for students.  The student described above came up with the following PLAN OF ACTION for his goals:

1) Study for each test.  Complete homework assignments on time.  Follow-up with each of my teachers every week via email or a conversation after class (Mom will help me remember this).

2) Say hello and start a conversation with 5 new students during the first week.  Invite one friend over in the first month of school.  Join one new after-school club to meet new people.

3) Attend cross-country practices 3x per week.  Work out 1x a week at family gym, lifting weights and doing conditioning.  Talk to the coach 1x per week about what I can do to improve.


Even young children can have goals and action plans for the start of school.  A kindergartener might have the goal of: “Have fun taking the bus every day”, and an action plan of: “Say hello to the bus driver when I get on.  Smile and wave at mom and the other parents through the window.  Smile and say hello to my teacher when I get off the bus.”  This can help prep even the most timid child for their school year.  Giving them action plans gives them control over their anxiety, and helps them visualize ahead of time what the “unknown” will be like.

What can we learn from Finland?

I read an interesting article recently in TIME magazine about the education system in Finland.  Finland consistently ranks at the top in student achievement in math, science, and reading.  Singapore and South Korea are also high achievers, but unlike these two Asian countries, Finland’s school hours are shorter than the U.S. and homework is limited to an hour or less.

What makes the Finland schools unique is their focus on equality.  Students are not placed in classes based on achievement, or tracked into higher level math or science classes based on how smart they are.  Rather, the focus is on educating the entire group of students as a whole.  Such attention to all students has resulted in their “below average” students performing better than “below average” students throughout the world.  Signficantly better, actually.  80% better when compared with other countries.  Their “above average” students perform 20% better than “above average” students in other countries.

It was also interesting to read how Finland schools spend most of their time outside.  For example, when learning geometry, the students use sticks and rocks from the woods to form shapes.  They grow plants for science class.  They use walks outside to inspire their writing assignments.  And the schools with this sort of curriculum are poor, urban schools, as well as upper middle class schools in the suburbs.

One other main difference:  teachers.  It takes a 5-year masters program to become a teacher.  Teaching is a highly respected profession, with only 6% of applicants being accepted to teaching programs.  Considerable amounts of resources are spent educating teachers and preparing them for their classroom.  Once in the classroom, teachers stay with their group of students for several years, learning the nuances of their students and how best to prepare their daily lessons.  They are given the freedom to teach how they think is best, and “testing” is limited.

But it’s working.  Finland students are well-prepared across subjects, ranking 1st this year in many areas.  It’s interesting to think how our society and culture might adopt more of these practices to better prepare our students for the world.  And as parents, how can we support these practices at home?