Working Around Being Uncomfortable: How to Self-Advocate
Difficult Topics, Great for All Ages, Self-Advocacy

Working Around Being Uncomfortable: How to Self-Advocate

Speaking out against injustices committed against others is easy. When I see someone else being treated badly, I quickly judge it as unacceptable and have very little trouble voicing outrage. For instance, when I tutored at a middle school and saw a boy knee another boy in the groin, I immediately spoke to the offender and then discussed the situation with my adviser at the school.

However, when we are the victims, often we do not feel that outrage, and we do not stand up for ourselves. Sticking up for yourself is much harder than sticking up for someone else.

I remember waiting for a doctor at a walk-in clinic with my aunt, Margaret. I had poison ivy. It was crowded, and we waited there forever. Eventually, Aunt Margaret went to the receptionist and complained, loudly. I was so embarrassed. I kept thinking; Doctors are very busy. They will get to me when they have time. It’s just poison ivy. I bet everyone else who has gone in has just had it much worse than I do. But thank goodness Aunt Margaret had complained because apparently, they had forgotten about me. We could have truly been waiting there forever.

When my husband came home with an unfairly graded test recently, I encouraged him to talk with the teaching assistant (TA) who graded it to discuss why he got points off (and to maybe get some points back!). (Self-advocating for a better grade on a test was never actually a problem for me, but it is for lots of students). He resisted. He would rather just accept his lower grade, since it was above average anyway, and just try to do better next time.

Why would he do that?! Because self-advocating takes time. Because self-advocating is uncomfortable. Because arguing for points back on tests is not “cool” (mostly because in general in America, it is not “cool” to be serious about school).

But the problem with not self-advocating and not getting those points back is that now his overall grade will suffer, his grade will not be reflective of his actual understanding of the material, and if he does not talk to the TA about the grading system, he will not know how to improve for the next test.

So how do you get comfortable with self-advocating?

For starters, your child has to practice.

Communicate with your child about what is fair.

Re-frame his understanding of the experience: Explain that your child is not asking for anything unreasonable, but rather what he deserves. Teach him how to communicate that effectively with his teacher. 

When I ask for a better grade on a test, I never start with that. Instead, I ask, “Would you mind going through this test with me? I still do not fully understand all of the answers…” or “I have a few lingering questions…” Then I go question-by-question explaining why I thought my answer was right and ask, “Am I missing something?” When I do this, it does not feel like standing up for myself; it feels more like I am asking for my teacher’s help understanding a concept. Teachers respond well to this as opposed to outright demands for better grades. It gives them the opportunity to choose to change your grade. While you are self-advocating, it feels more like explaining your thought process, which can really help a teacher understand you better and increase her desire to help you learn.

A problem frustrating parents since homework was invented is children missing homework and then not wanting to discuss it with their teachers. That is an understandable feeling. It is easier to do nothing. Also, he is probably embarrassed and does not think his teacher will make an exception for him because he really screwed up. It was his fault, and he does not want to hear his teacher tell him that. But there is a workaround.

Unfortunately, first, you have to admit to the wrongdoing. That is the hard part, but it is also the first step to getting your teacher on your side. Teachers much prefer students who come to them for help than students who ignore them. So…

Step One:

Stay behind after class until all the other students have left, approach your teacher, and say, “I am worried about my grade. I know I have not turned in several homework assignments and they are very late. Is there some way I can make some of the points up or can I get extra credit some other way?”

Depending on your child’s age and the reputation they have already created, their teacher will be more (or less) lenient. Sometimes, that first step is all your child will need, and their teacher will go through which assignments need to be re-done. Sometimes that will not be the case.

Step Two:

If step one is not enough, say, “Okay, but would you mind telling me all the homework that I missed so that I can re-do them anyway and show you that I do know the material?” (The same can be said of re-doing a test on which they did poorly.) Even if the teacher does not improve their grades, it will certainly generate good will (and an improved reputation) that they can cash in on later.

Moral of the story: find ways to help your child workaround the uncomfortable feelings of standing up for themselves by re-framing the situation and the way they communicate with their teacher so that they start practicing standing up for himself.


Davis, P. (2015). Personal communication.