Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

Rule Number One: Ask for Help

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It was a memorable moment during graduation ceremonies at Thomas Edison High School in Portland, Oregon. “Rule Number One,” school director Pat Maguire told the graduates, “as you go out into the world: Ask for help.”

At Thomas Edison, a high school devoted solely to different learners, teaching students to ask for help is a priority. “We work very hard to convince our kids to do this,” says Maguire. Why is asking for help so difficult? “Two things: many students don’t want to, and many don’t know how. If we can teach them to ask for help in high school, they’ll be able to ask for help in college, in the workplace, in their interpersonal relationships throughout life. But often we hear, ‘I don’t want to look dumb.’”

It took a little more than a year for the teachers of Thomas Edison to convince my son that asking for help was, in fact, a positive move. They echoed what I had told him throughout childhood: that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but just the opposite. It’s a sign of strength that you have enough confidence in yourself to seek out people who can help you be better and do better.

Helping your children develop the confidence needed to ask for help requires instilling the understanding that everyone needs help. Your own modeling of this behavior is essential. Being willing to ask for help is one thing, but knowing how to ask for help is a skill that needs to be taught.

“Many of our students have never done it before,” says Maguire. “In my classroom, I might be lecturing along and I’ll use a new word or term. After a few seconds, I’ll stop and ask if anyone has a question. Initially, no one responds. So I give them a quick quiz: What’s this word mean? No one knows. I insist, over and over, ‘I want you to ask when you don’t know something.’ After about three, four, ten times, I’ll do the same thing and finally, several kids will pop up and say, ‘What does altruistic mean?’ Then I am lavish with the thanks and the handshakes. It’s so exciting to watch them become confident with stepping out of their comfort zone.”

Long before a child reaches high school, there are many ways you can instill the concept and practice of asking for help.

  • Ask the child for help, and point out the many instances during his day where adults and kids ask each other for help.
  • Ask other adults to ask the child or student for help. Enlist siblings and peers as well.
  • Help the child identify people he can turn to for help when he needs it—parents, teachers, caregivers, siblings, friends. Then let him do it. “Many of our parents have been advocating for their kids for so long, they are just used to running interference,” says Maguire. “So we always counsel our parents: have your son or daughter ask us whatever it is they are asking you about their schoolwork. Same question, probably the same response. But we want them to be doing the asking.”
  • Help the child think of different ways to ask for help: “I need help, please” or “I don’t get it” or “What page are we on?” You can also devise a visual—rather than verbal—signal for help.
  • Set up a classroom or home help exchange. In this activity, students or family members write down something with which they need help and put the papers into a box. Either randomly or at set times, a slip gets pulled from the box and read aloud. The class or family then discusses ways in which they can provide assistance. The help exchange can be anonymous or not.
  • Create a classroom visual depicting different ways to ask for and receive help. This benefits all students, not just the ones with learning differences.
  • Establish a peer buddy system in the classroom. This enables classmates to ask each other for help in a relatively private way.

Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is the author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. The second edition of her popular 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism and Asperger’s will be released this March. For book excerpts or to explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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