Encouraging Student Self-Advocacy in the Mathematics Classroom
By Babette Moeller
Maria is a second-grader who has a lot going for her at school. She is a strong reader and well-liked by her peers. However, sometimes she struggles in math. Long directions and multi-step problems can be challenging; it’s difficult for her to hold on to multiple pieces of information in working memory. Maria is aware of these challenges, as her teacher and parents have had conversations with her about them. From these conversations, she also knows that she has several strengths in math. She has a strong number sense and a good grasp of spatial relationships, which help her to be successful when working on problems involving shapes. Even though she knows that she is a good math student, she is aware that there are also certain areas in math where she might need extra help and that she needs to work on them to make improvements. Maria also knows and uses a number of strategies that help her, such as asking a peer for help, organizing her anchor charts needed for a task, and highlighting and checking off items on direction checklists. Her teacher is encouraging her and her fellow students to use strategies that work for them and to ask questions if they need help. When she encounters a problem, such as getting stuck when working on a multi-step task, she knows how to ask a peer for help, or to ask the teacher for written directions to refresh her memory about the steps she needs to follow. Knowing about her challenges with active working memory has given Maria insight not only into adaptive strategies that help her, but also into how she can improve her math work. She is working on her visualization skills by playing games that use visual memory in order to help increase her working memory capacity.
Maria is a student who has learned how to self-advocate. Self-advocacy is the ability for students to communicate their learning needs. It is a complex ability that draws on multiple skills and understandings. In order for students to be able to become strong self-advocates, they need to understand their strengths, interests, and challenges as learners, know and utilize the supports that might help them, and they also need to be able to communicate their needs to others. Being able to self-advocate is a very valuable skill for students to have. Students who know how to self-advocate can engage in more self-directed work, ask for support when things get hard, and understand the areas that they need to work on to strengthen their weaknesses, all of which improve learning. Self-advocacy also helps to build confidence and positive attitudes about learning and allows students to be more independent in addressing their challenges. Being able to clearly delineate their area of challenge and to self-advocate for support makes learning manageable and prevents students from drawing global conclusions about their performance, such as “I am just not good at math.” Student self-advocacy also benefits their teachers. The questions that students ask, the help they need, the choices they make are all important sources of information that can help teachers to fine-tune their instruction.
Self-advocacy must be taught and encouraged. It benefits all students, but is particularly important for students who have been historically marginalized because of their cultural or language background, or because of a disability. And self-advocacy takes on particular importance as we try to address unfinished learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone can learn to self-advocate, but it takes time and practice and a supportive learning environment that encourages and empowers students to speak up for themselves. Here are some strategies that teachers can use to help students develop this important ability in the mathematics classroom—and beyond.
1. Create a classroom environment that helps students feel safe, encouraged, and empowered to advocate for themselves.
- Establish classroom norms that promote student agency and encourage students to ask questions and ask for help, and that establish mistakes as opportunities from which to learn.
- Use rich math problems and open-ended tasks that provide opportunities for student choice.
- Encourage and praise students for posing questions, asking for help, and for using adaptive strategies that help them be successful.
2. Help students to better understand their strengths and challenges as learners of mathematics.
- Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and to increase their metacognition (their thinking about their thinking). For instance, engage students in think-alouds by having them work in pairs and reflect on their process for solving a math problem, addressing questions such as: What steps did you take? What did you do when you ran into an obstacle? How did you check your answers? What cues did you use to estimate? What tools did you use, and why did you choose them? You also could use reflection sheets after activities, or have students keep a math journal to reflect on their learning.
- Engage students in self-assessment of their math learning.
- Communicate with students about their mathematics learning. Give them language so they can pinpoint their areas of strengths and challenges. At the end of the school year, let each student know where you have seen them grow, what their strengths are, and what they need to work on. Write them a note, or have a brief, private conversation with each of them.
3. Help students to identify what supports are helpful to them.
- Use math centers, choice time, and choice boards to give students opportunities to select and experience various activities and to explore what works well for them.
- Provide students with access to and help them learn about the use of a variety of tools (e.g., manipulatives, graphic organizers, graph paper, place mats, technology) that can support their learning.
- Offer students opportunities to express and explain their mathematics thinking in a variety of ways (e.g., through writing, speaking, drawing).
4. Help students to communicate about what they need.
- Teach and empower students to ask for help—for example, by giving them sentence starters.
- Help students be specific about what they need help with.
- Provide students with opportunities to ask questions privately.
- Have students participate in or lead parent-teacher conferences.
What strategies have you used to encourage student self-advocacy in the mathematics classroom? Perhaps you can use an upcoming grade-level or faculty meeting to discuss student self-advocacy, exchange ideas for nurturing this skill in your students, and explore how your school community can promote a culture that values, encourages, and empowers student self-advocacy.
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.