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How to Teach Children to Ask for Help

5 min read

A Clarke student asks for clarification during a classroom activity.

Knowing when and how to ask is more complicated than many realize

Caregivers hear a lot about the importance of self-advocacy, especially for children with hearing loss. But self-advocacy encompasses several related skills. One of the most important is knowing how, and when, to ask for help. If you can’t explain what you need, it’s hard for people to help you.

“It’s more complex than just asking for help,” said Amanda Aliotta, speech-language pathology assistant and mainstream itinerant teacher of the deaf at Clarke. “This requires considering several factors: Are the students being specific about what they need? Can they identify what seems confusing? Can they articulate that in a meaningful way?”

A Clarke student looks for advice as he practices giving clear instructions to a fellow student.

When to use other strategies

Amanda also stressed that “asking for help” doesn’t have to mean a literal question. “For any age group, pay attention and see if they are using strategies to follow along and keep up with their peers,” she said. “It can be as simple as the child looking around to see what everyone else is doing.”

These situations are nuanced and require some reflection before the child actually asks. For example, if a student misses what the teacher says, but it’s time for math class, and all the other students are grabbing their math books, the child shouldn’t need to ask for help. But if they can’t see what page everyone has turned to, it might be time to raise a hand.

As children mature, they should develop their abilities to identify appropriate times to ask for help. It’s a process we don’t think much about as adults, but making those decisions involves communication, language, reading body language, understanding conversational pauses, etc.

“Those are advanced skills that come with time,” Amanda said. “And it will be informed by a student’s experiences and personality. Self-advocacy changes based on an individual’s experiences, environments and expectations.”

A shy child may find it harder to talk in front of the class and develop other strategies faster than, say, raising a hand mid-class to ask to have something repeated. And that’s okay, as long as the skill sets continue to grow over time.  

When a child is reluctant to ask for help in certain situations—as hard as it can be for caregivers—the best way to get past it is often to let them do it their way—even if it means hitting bumps along the way.

“When I see an older student who isn’t asking for help or an accommodation when they need to, I let them choose: You can sit further back in the class, but this will be harder to hear and focus. If your grades start to slip, or your understanding of the content becomes less solid, then we need to reassess,” said Amanda who monitors these situations closely. “The more they practice these skills, the easier it gets. If you always do it for them, they’ll never learn. This encourages them to take ownership of their own learning which is ultimately the goal.”

The best way to help children through this decision-making process is to seize every teachable moment over time. “Take advantage of language opportunities where you can show what you do yourself and then slowly back away so they can find their own way,” she said.

For children who are deaf or hard of hearing, caregivers need to be more explicit in modeling when and how to ask for help. This can be demonstrated in small, thoughtful ways during seemingly simple routine activities by voicing your thought process and talking out loud when you need help. Amanda gave the example of not finding something in the grocery store.

“You could say something like: ‘I’m really frustrated. I can’t find the oatmeal; what can I do? Can I ask someone?’ Then talk through the other steps: ‘This person works here, maybe they know. I’ll ask them.’”

It seems simple but it shows children how to identify the need for help, the process of asking for help and the end result. It also allows them to observe that adults sometimes need help, too—normalizing and encouraging this through your actions.

A skill for all situations

Especially with younger children, caregivers can sometimes be overly focused on making sure the child knows how to ask for help with their hearing technology. It makes sense—a hearing aid with a dead battery or a microphone that isn’t synced to a student’s listening technology can be a big problem.

But asking for help is just as important in other situations. Most adults don’t enjoy raising their hand in a meeting to say they didn’t understand something. Children are no different. But it’s a critical skill as they progress through school, are involved in more complex social relationships and partake in activities that have less direct oversight from parents and educators. No matter what they’re doing, the ability to identify and voice when they need help is vital.

“There is a lot involved in self-advocacy. To be strong, successful self-advocates, we need to identify our own needs, think about our personal challenges, evaluate our strengths, reflect on that and then act,” said Amanda. “It extends to all categories of activities: interacting with  peers, raising a hand in class, etc.”

Different stages, different abilities

A child’s ability to identify when, how and why to ask for help will grow and mature as they do. But Amanda said there is no one-size-fits-all checklist of what they should be able to do by specific ages. Instead, caregivers should make sure the child is steadily building on their skills over time.

“Every child is different,” said Amanda. “It’s too broad to say for example they should know their classroom accommodations by a certain age. You need to start where that child is and grow from there.”

Caregivers can help by fostering confidence as much as possible. “Start with small tasks, like ordering their own meal at a restaurant,” said Amanda. “Making decisions for themselves in a controlled way is an essential skill.”

Another option is “intentional sabotage.” With this technique, educators or caregivers provide low-stakes obstacles to give the child opportunities to think about and communicate what they need. By keeping it light and silly, children enjoy it and won’t feel like they’re being tricked.

For a small child, you could give them a spoon at mealtime when they need a fork. “Do they try on their own? Do they tell you what they need?” said Amanda. “If they don’t ask and you see them struggling, you can ask them, ‘What can you do?’”

For older children, caregivers can talk about upcoming events or situations to identify challenges or obstacles that might come up and discuss options the child can use if they need help.

Children tend to be better at self-advocacy at home because they’re more comfortable. Amanda recommended observing children in multiple situations to ensure those skills are being carried over into other environments. For example, if you see your child is playing with friends but not following the conversation and not interjecting to say he didn’t understand something, it may be time to intervene. The best way to do that is to put the onus for action back on the child. “For example, you can ask: ‘What do you think your friend said? If you didn’t hear them, what can you say?’” Amanda said.  

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