Why do students struggle to ask teachers for extra help? Why do they sit in silence or confusion when raising their hand could bring help? Failure to ask for help can affect students’ academic performance, self-esteem, and potentially their access to learning in the future. There are several reasons why students struggle to ask for help, but the good news is that there are many strategies that can help them become stronger self-advocates for their learning.
Students must first recognize that they’re struggling. This requires honesty and self-awareness—some students don’t think they need help even when formal or informal assessments indicate otherwise.
Once students acknowledge that they’re struggling, they may feel shame or embarrassment. Many students have told me, “I want to be independent and try it on my own. I don’t need help.” They fear that asking for help signals weakness or failure in their character, though adults could tell them that asking for help is instead a sign of maturity and strength.
Teachers can help students understand how they learn best and empower them to be advocates for their own learning by teaching them how to ask for help.
5 Strategies for Improving Students’ Self-Advocacy Skills
1. Strengthen students’ metacognition: One strategy to help students acknowledge that they need help is to strengthen their self-reflection and metacognitive skills. Teachers and parents often act as external monitors of student progress, but they can begin to shift the responsibility of self-monitoring to children as early as elementary school.
Teachers can encourage and guide students with explicit metacognitive teaching to think about their learning. After a test, for example, have students answer questions about how they studied, how much time they spent studying, their test grade, and what they’ll do differently for the next test.
Asking open-ended questions about their learning helps students learn to gauge their progress and identify areas where they’re strong and ones where they need support. Teachers can incorporate metacognitive prompts such as:
- This project required a lot of hard work. How did you prepare for it?
- How do you think you’re doing in this class? How do you know? How does this compare with graded work you’ve received so far?
- Can you identify one strategy you’ve been using that has helped you to be successful? Can you identify one strategy you want to try using more often?
2. Help students understand that teachers want to help: Asking students of any age why an adult would choose teaching as a career can be an eye-opening—and often humorous—activity.
Have students pause and reflect in small groups about why they think Teacher X became a teacher. This is extra fun if Teacher X can visit your classroom to hear the brainstormed ideas. Guide students to the final answer: “Teachers become teachers because they like to help.”
I’ve used this exercise at the beginning of a year for relationship-building and to show students that I care about them and want to help them. This allows me to talk to my students in a lighthearted way about asking for help.
3. Brainstorm conversation starters: Students who are introverted or shy may feel overwhelmed or anxious about initiating a conversation with their teacher. Practicing or role-playing this kind of conversation can help shy students build confidence. Teachers can also suggest that students use just two words to signal that they need help: “I’m struggling.”
Evidence shows that having students brainstorm increases their mental flexibility and creative problem-solving. After they think of ways to initiate a conversation, have them role-play talking with a teacher. This can be done as a small group activity in the classroom or one-on-one with a trusted teacher, social worker, parent, etc.
Students can approach teachers with conversation starters like:
- I’m struggling with _____. Can we talk about it later?
- I’m working hard, but I’m still not understanding _____. Can you help me?
- I’m not sure what I need. Can you please talk with me?
- Can you give me advice about _____?
4. Create a secure environment: Students need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable and honest enough to ask for help. Would you speak up and admit you needed help if you thought your peers would laugh at you?
Teachers should encourage a climate of curiosity, risk taking, and openness. You can use team-building activities to increase the sense of community in the classroom, create posters that reiterate your classroom rules and values, or hang inspiring quotes on the walls.
Another great strategy is for teachers to model self-talk when doing something that requires risk taking. When I make mistakes as a teacher, I use them as opportunities to talk about imperfection and how to be resilient. Students enjoy catching their teacher making mistakes, and I love it when they catch me too because I get to remind them that everyone is imperfect.
5. Help students see themselves as capable of success: In order to ask for help, students need to believe in their own capacity to be successful. If students feel defeated or helpless, they’ll be less likely to seek assistance.
Create opportunities and activities in your classroom for students to identify and highlight their strengths. One activity for elementary classrooms is creating an “I Am” bulletin board: Ask each student to create five or 10 “I Am” statements: “I am strong,” “I am good at basketball.” Next, have students find images online or in magazines that illustrate their statements and create a collage of words and pictures.
For secondary classrooms, I recommend an “Expertise” bulletin board: Students (and teachers) can identify two or three expert-level skills they have—“I’m an expert at spelling,” “I’m an expert at geography—I can name all the state capitals.” Display these on a classroom bulletin board, and when students need help they can check the board to find a classmate—or teacher—who can help.