Essential Solutions 2-MIN. READ

Teaching Students to Advocate for Themselves in the Classroom

By: Brianna Lugibihl 10/24/2023

Minimize classroom interruptions with these student self-advocacy techniques.

A student uses hand signals as part of her self-advocacy.

It’s fall 2020. My students have just finished dance class. As they enter the room, I’m bombarded by the needs of 25 students.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

“I twisted my ankle, and it really hurts!”

“Last class period, Susie said something that hurt my feelings.”

These statements might remind you of specific students or instances in your own career when learning was disrupted. Classroom interruptions are one of the largest losses of learning time. When I began teaching, I found myself overwhelmed with decision and compassion fatigue. I kept wondering, how can we keep the focus on instruction while teaching students to advocate for themselves?

Teaching in fall 2020 created an opportunity for me to optimize my classrooms’ effectiveness and safety. Amid that challenge arose a joyful consequence—autonomous student self-advocacy and regulation. I incorporated emotion identification discussions, and we developed a hand-signaling system as a class to obtain the teacher’s attention without interrupting the learning process. Once the students received permission non-verbally, they addressed their needs independently.

Here are a few ideas that have worked for my students that originated with our hand-signaling and self-advocacy system.

Time-In Breaks

According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, author of Whole Brain Living, a healthy brain only needs 90 seconds to process an emotion. Whether something is weighing on students outside of the classroom or they’re dealing with other internal distractions, taking 90 seconds to recalibrate at their desk maximizes their engaged learning time. I call these time-in breaks.

  1. 90-Second Break: Students take 90 seconds to themselves. They can lay their head on their desk, zone out, doodle in a notebook, etc. to help them refocus.
  2. Yoga: I teach students one simple yoga pose a day for the first month of school. That way, if they need to move their body, they can stretch from their seats.
  3. Five-Finger Sensory Exercise: This mindfulness practice asks students to silently identify five things they see, four things they hear, three things they can touch, two things they smell, and one thing they taste. It’s great for reducing anxiety but can be helpful for any student who needs a mental break.
  4. Emotion Check-In: My students use the acronym “FONTS” to check in with their emotions. Using these steps, students can address their feelings at their desk, and I can touch base with them at an appropriate time outside of instruction.
    Feeling: “I am feeling _______.”

    Okay: “Is it okay to feel _______? Yes!”

    Need: “I need _______ to be able to learn right now.”

    Trigger: “What triggered the emotion?”

    Share: “Write down what happened for yourself, your teacher, or another staff member, and share what you need for the future.”

  5. Five-Finger Breathing: Breathe in for five, hold for five, breathe out for five. This simple technique centers students and regulates their nervous system.

Time-Out Breaks

Sometimes students need more than 90 seconds to return their minds to learning. When that happens, my students can ask for a time-out break. These activities are meant to provide a short pause for students who need to get out of their seat or the classroom—physically or mentally—before they can continue learning.

  1. Brain Break Box: I stock my brain break box with tools that support play and mindfulness. You could use fidget toys, drawing paper, building blocks, or other objects your students love.
  2. Take a Lap: This is a classic time-out option for students. A short lap around the hallway can be the perfect reset.
  3. Declutter: If you’re anything like me, working in a messy space is distracting. It can be the same for students. When students ask to clean out their desk, backpack, or binder, I set a five-minute timer so they can quietly reorganize their space.
  4. Referral: Whether students need to go to the nurse, see a guidance counselor, or meet with another school professional, they can signal to me that they need a referral pass.
  5. Share My Success: Students can share a “win” of the day, seek encouragement from a staff member or friend, or send an email to a family member to let them know how school is going.

My students know that taking time-out breaks may not always happen immediately. Once I establish boundaries with breaks, they understand that their requests may be accommodated later.

These self-care solutions wouldn’t be as effective if I was still fielding questions from raised hands all day. The purpose of teaching students to advocate for themselves is to empower them to identify and advocate for their needs, become engaged learners, and limit classroom interruptions. Each school year, I’m reminded of the importance of embedding self-advocacy and emotional work in our values, routines, and procedures from day one. Students depend on it, and it creates a more positive learning environment for all.

To hear more from Brianna, listen to this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.