How to raise confident kids

Before Shelli Stanley's son started middle school, she wanted to make sure he knew one thing: how to advocate for himself.

Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, he would need to explain himself to peers and ask teachers for a few minutes break when he needed it.

The ability to advocate for yourself, however, is a skill that all kids need — not just those with special needs. Experts agree that teaching children to be more self-sufficient is more important than ever in the era of helicopter parenting. Colleges often report students flounder and have a harder time adjusting when they can't rely on parents to solve problems.

"It's teaching them to be problem-solvers," says Andrea Beckman, a counselor at Annapolis Elementary School. "If adults are always jumping in, they don't have the opportunity to learn that."

confident kidWParents teach their kids everything from how to hold a spoon to how to drive a car, but encouraging them to stand up for themselves is one of the most important skills of all, experts say.

Stanely's son not only learned to advocate for himself, he also gained confidence in the process, says Stanley, a mother of two from Gambrills.

"I heard that he's become a frequent contributor in class... I think it helped," she says.

Empowering kids

Learning to self-advocate is a process, to be sure, beginning in preschool when kids must raise their hand for permission to use the bathroom. And it continues through elementary school when they might need to report bullying, or in middle and high school when they may need to ask a teacher for extra help after class.

"It's important to teach advocacy skills early because you need to have them in life," says Alison Bomba, a licensed psychologist who practices in Frederick and the Family Center in Ellicott City. "It's also empowering for them."

But it can be hard for parents, because it sometimes goes against a parent's protective instincts. If there's a problem, the natural tendency is to intervene.

"While it can be tough on parents, allowing a certain amount of failure gives students a chance to overcome and learn from their mistakes," says Todd Stanzione, a counselor at Nantucket Elemetary in Crofton.

It's also a safety issue, Stanzione says. "If they can describe what's going on to a trusted adult, the solution will come quicker," he says.

Of course, certain situations call for a parent's help, whether it's a call to the principal or even the police.

There are times when Renee Gaboury, a mother of one from Piney Orchard, has taken her daughter and another child by the hand to have a talk with another parent about an incident. But she's tried hard to teach her 9-year-old to stand up for herself and her friends.

"I'm not always going to be there," Gaboury says.

Stanley says her daughter recently was involved in a social situation where one of her friends was being unkind to another, so she made the decision to leave a playdate early.

"I'm trying to teach [my kids] that in any situation, you should never be afraid to question, in a respectful way," Stanley says. "We want our kids to be critical thinkers.... We want them to be kind, but also firm."

Click next below for tips for getting kids to advocate for themselves


Age appropriate tips

Parents can encourage children at different ages to learn — and practice — advoacting for themselves in social situations and in school. The following tips were provided by Beckman, Bomba, Stanzione and Arthera M. Shell, president of AMS Educational Consultation Services in Bowie.

Preschool/kindergartenConfident kid 2W

  • Make sure your child can ask to use the bathroom. Many wet pants are caused by anxiety about seeking permission.
  • Encourage your child to tell a teacher about a problem with a classmate. Fight the urge to call a teacher or another parent when you hear about a playground conflict.
  • Don't request a drink or snack for your child. Preschoolers should be able to ask a family friend or teacher politely for what they need.
  • Encourage your child to suggest a different activity during a playdate with a friend. Kids should be able to compromise, but also propose their favorite activities.
  • Make sure your child is able to tell friends and other adults when he or she doesn't like something.
  • Reassure your child if he or she is anxious about approaching an adult. "Sometimes it's helpful to ask, 'What's the worst thing that can happen?'" Bomba says.
  • Role play various scenarios for school and social situations. Discuss with your young children things like being lost, not having a friend to play with at recess, not being able to find a lunch box or what to do if their tummy hurts in school.

Confident Kids GirlElementary School

  • Have your child order his meal in a restaurant. This teaches manners and builds confidence.
  • Urge your child to ask for directions/help from a librarian, store clerk or museum guide. It's an opportunity to politely seek information from a stranger in a safe environment.
  • Give your child a chance to tell a coach or Scout leader about a preference. For example, does your daughter want to play a particular position or take part in a particular activity? Have her approach the adult herself.
  • Allow your child to arrange a playdate by calling a friend's house, which also teaches phone etiquette.
  • Teach the difference between reporting and tattling. Discuss ways to handle situations that may be brewing on the playground. But some circumstances — being hit, for example — require a child to immediately go to a teacher or school official.
  • Check to see if your child is raising his hand to ask questions or make suggestions in class.
  • Encourage your child to tell a teacher about a problem with a classmate. It takes bravery to report bad behavior or something that could get a friend in trouble or be perceived as unpopular.

Middle and high schoolConfident kid teen

  • Don't rush to rescue tweens and teens. If they forget their lunch or notebook, let them experience the consequences and problem-solve a solution.
  • Encourage them to ask a teacher for extra help or make-up work when they are absent. If they are worried about being perceived as "different," or calling attention to a perceived weakness, suggest writing the teacher a note instead of raising a hand in class, or finding a few minutes during a transition time. "You might help them come up with a game plan," Bomba says, suggesting an approach such as saying, "Let's identify the problem and look at your options."
  • Support them if they need to confront a friend. Having difficult conversations with friends, colleagues and relatives is a life skill. Now is a great time to begin that process.
  • Urge teens to apply and interview for a job, try out for a team or audition for the school play. It's important they learn how to accept rejection gracefully.

Advocating for special needs

It's especially important for children with learning and emotional difficulties to learn to advocate for themselves.

Many IEP and 504 plans call for students to request certain accommodations, says Arthera M. Shell, president of AMS Educational Consultation Services in Bowie. For example, a student may have extra time on tests, but may need to tell a teacher he or she needs the time.

"I recommend having the student carry of list of accommodations available to them," Shell says. "The child must know their role. ... They need to be able say, 'I read a little slower,' or 'I need some extra help in math.'"

Shelli Stanley of Grambrills knew it would be important for her son, who has Asperger's syndrome, to learn to advocate for himself.

"We wanted [our son] to understand his diagnosis and not be ashamed of who he is," Stanley says. "We also talked about his IEP and what that meant."

In his case, Stanley's son could leave class before the bell rang to avoid some of the hallway crowds and could go the guidance office if he felt overwhelmed.

"I'd periodically check with teachers to see if he was advocating for himself," she says.

By Laura Barnhardt Cech