The 3 Legged Stool of Success for ADHD Kids Part 2: Self-Advocacy

Self-Advocacy

We are honored and privileged to have Dr. Jerome Schultz as a Guest Expert, and are thrilled to provide his wisdom in a three part series: “The 3 Legged Stool of Success for ADHD Kids: Helping Kids Develop Self-Awareness, Self-Advocacy, and Self-Improvement.” Part 1: Self-Awareness is already available. This is part 2: Self-Advocacy. The remaining installment, part 3: Self-Improvement can be read here.

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the three-legged stool of success for kids with ADHD: Self-Awareness, Self-Advocacy, and Self-Improvement. I addressed the importance of Self-Awareness to long terms success, and offered some suggestions as to how parents can help their kids develop that ability.

In this article, I want to move on to the next step for success: Self Advocacy.

Self Advocacy, naturally follows self-awareness. To self advocate means to stand up for yourself, to ask for what you need. For kids, particularly in a school setting, self advocacy allows them to show what they know.

Kids who self advocate know their rights and their responsibilities. They may refer to their ADHD as the reason they are challenged by certain tasks, but they never use the condition as an excuse.

Self-advocacy depends on a student’s belief that he or she has the ability to succeed. It allows them to maintain a positive “I can” attitude. To begin with, a positive self-perception forms the foundation of how kids think about a task, how they act when presented with challenging situations, and importantly, how they feel about their ability.

The superb work of Dr. Carol Dweck helps us understand that kids hold views of their ability that she calls “mindsets.”

Fixed Mindset: A student with a fixed mindset thinks thoughts like, “I am what I am and I can’t be any better; I can’t improve even if I try.” You might expect a kid like this to say, “I am not very smart, so I don’t expect much of myself, and you shouldn’t either.”

When kids with a fixed mindset are challenged by tasks that they believe to be too difficult for them, they enter into a state of stress that puts the brain in “escape” mode. They exhibit the classic “fight or flight response,” doing things like ripping up a worksheet, leaving the classroom, being negative and rude, throwing a tantrum, or having what I call “aggressively passive” shutdowns. These are all protective mechanisms, and they are based on faulty self-perceptions.

Growth Mindset: On the other hand, students who have what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset believe that their ability to succeed is not pre-determined or limited. For these kids, hard work can pay off. Kids like this can say things to their teachers like, “I have difficulty focusing my attention in a noisy class. I know I can get most of these questions right if I’m able to use earplugs (or work in the library, or use a study carrel).”

These kids keep raising their own bar and expect teachers and parents to do the same. They rise up to meet challenges and they make reasoned, mindful appeals to teachers for modifications that allow them to show what they know. They are not thrown off balance by setbacks. They know how to learn from mistakes.

The positive belief in oneself that accompanies a growth mindset is the foundation of self advocacy.

How to Help Your kids Develop Self-Advocacy:

  1. Educate Kids on Their Condition. I believe it’s important to teach kids about their condition, or have someone else (a pediatrician or the psychologist who made the initial diagnosis) do it in a developmentally appropriate* (Age appropriate explanations are offered at the end of this article.)

To be in the dark about a condition that frustrates or embarrasses you is more likely to lead to shame and withdrawal than self-advocacy. Websites such as ImpactADHD for parents, or ADHDKidsRock.org for kids, offer information in a way that increases self-understanding, and leads to self-advocacy.

  1. Brainstorm What Helps. Ask your child or your student to think about what he or she needs to perform at his personal best. Ask the student to think about what you (the parent or teacher) might need to do or provide that would allow him to excel.

Does your 3rd grader need to know the writing-prompts a day in advance so she has some time to think about it? Does your highschooler want to be able to submit a rough-draft before a final paper is due? Self-advocacy needs to be taught and then practiced.

  1. Reinforce Accurate Self-Awareness. Remember that the foundation of self-advocacy is an accurate self-assessment (see Part 1: Self-Awareness), discussed in the first part of this series. In order to feel successful and speak up for yourself, you need to BE successful more than 60 or 70% of the time.

If your child is experiencing repeated failure in school, or feeling that he or she is not in control academically, you may need to advocate for modifications in the environment to allow for greater success. It’s critical that your child experience more success than failures to turn the tide toward long term success.

There are more ways for your child to self-advocate than I can address here, but the bottom line is simple: help your child see ways in which he or she is able to be successful, and then help him understand how minor shifts and changes, and asking for support, can improve his outcomes.

Age Appropriate Explanations about ADHD:

For for little kids, this means using the simplest explanation: acknowledging that “it’s harder for you to pay attention or sit still than some other kids.”

For elementary kids, using the label may be helpful because it’s likely that they’ve heard the term ADHD or used it themselves by 3rd or 4th grade.

For middle or high school kids, a more scientific approach may appeal. Knowing about brain function and brain chemicals related to attention, and knowing that there are ways to improve both, can be very empowering.

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