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Thoughts on Encouraging Students to Ask for Help

Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner

Learning to ask for help is an incredibly important life skill!


As obvious as this sounds, it's not always intuitive for individuals with social learning challenges. Learning to ask for help in the early years prepares individuals, as they get older, to self-advocate and not rely on others to anticipate their needs. Teaching different types of advocacy (stating one's opinion, negotiating, letting people know when you need something that you have not received, etc.) are all steps to add to a treatment or education plan.


Asking for help is also an important part of building workable and meaningful relationships with others. The person who never asks others for help or defaults to telling others what he or she knows, can be perceived as a "know it all" or arrogant.


Within the Social Thinking® framework, we include asking for help as part of the category of Initiation within the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking. Here are some examples of ways to explore asking for help:


  • Discuss why people ask for help and give examples of the types of people who ask for help. Many of our students choose not to request help because they think it means they're not smart. Many individuals have been told they are smart for years and feel that smart people don't need help. What they often don't realize is that the most successful students are the ones who regularly ask for help/clarification when unsure. These individuals will benefit from observing other students asking for help and then watching the teacher's response. The reality is that most teachers are usually responsive to students who ask for assistance!
  • Help the individual develop the ability to recognize when he or she needs help. Some individuals are so used to feeling confused with certain types of academic information that they become desensitized. They simply wait for someone (parent, aide, teacher) to swoop in and clarify on a regular basis. Work with the individual to develop a system so s/he can differentiate between when s/he understands the task or the situation versus when s/he feels confused or lost and may need help.
  • Establish a system for how to ask for help. Most students in a classroom raise their hand while looking in the direction of the teacher to indicate the need for help. If, after ongoing explanations and clear models of how to get help in this manner the student still does not use this strategy, then it's time to try another approach. For example, start with having the student simply flip a card on her desk to indicate, "I need help." Some students may benefit from having a visual cue card to hand to the teacher. These strategies can be very helpful to our less verbose or more anxious students. This is often a concrete, although temporary, solution to an abstract problem. Also, student with selective mutism may be willing to stand by the teacher's desk as a sign they need help.  Continue to brainstorm different choices for different students.
  • Outline what it means to ask for help versus asking for clarification. Some students need to simply check-in with someone to make sure they are doing the right thing (clarification), which is different from the need to acquire information that is unknown (asking for help). We distinguish between these two concepts as many students may just need clarification - but to them it looks like they need help and they don't want people to think they need help! These students usually feel they know (or think they know) what to do and just need to clarify! Making this distinction often helps reduce their discomfort.
  • Help the student understand that asking for help doesn't imply ignorance. Teach that asking for guidance/clarification on parts of assignments is commonplace for even the brightest and best students. Teach him or her to explain which part of the assignment s/he understands versus which part s/he needs further clarification.
  • Establish an expectation for how many times one should ask for help during class and at home. If the student is sitting in class and not doing the work like the other students (and has the ability to do so), help to pinpoint this as an expected time to ask for help. For our older students who struggle with this, we encourage them to ask for help once or twice a day in school, and once at home. Reward with praise when they are working to ask for help.  Of course, there is always the case where students ask for help too often. This is also an issue and we, as educators and parents, need to teach strategies to help the student do a bit more of his or her own problem solving. For these students, we can encourage them to only ask for help a set number of times during any particular class or for a set period of time. Reward them for figuring out what to do on their own!
  • Provide more praise when the student asks for help than when he completes his work! Always give the student positive feedback when he is showing improvement in one of the areas mentioned above. This is far more important than giving praising to him for doing something that you know he can easily do well. The research is strong in telling us that the best praise is where we tell students exactly what they did well (e.g., "I love it that you figured out your own problem and solved it" or "I like that you knew you needed help and you asked me! Perfect") rather than global praise (e.g., "Nice job in math.").
  • Know your students' strategies -both constructive and problematic! Teachers and parents should be assessing the strategies a student uses to ask for help as well as avoidance techniques! We should also observe how often the individual uses these positive or negative strategies when doing homework, when working in class, etc. Sometimes students don't ask for help in a traditional manner but instead appear to have behavior problems (highly distracting to themselves and others) when unsure what to do. You may notice that this same student does not use these behaviors when highly engaged in a task that she understands.
  • Social Thinking groups can help, but the work can't all be done in a specialized setting. Students need to take ownership for applying this information beyond one specific room. As your students acquire a better understanding of how to ask for help and why, teachers, clinicians, and parents need to help the student figure out how to apply these strategies in other settings and situations. Work with the student to develop strategies that encourage him or her to remember to use what they are learning in their classroom, at home, in the community and then provide opportunities to practice.

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