Teaching Intangibles: Encourage Self-Awareness and Self-Advocacy in Students

Teaching social and emotional skills in the classroom can help students grow into empathetic, kind and selfless adults. And while empathy is key to an equitable world, social and emotional skills aren’t limited to relationships with others. In fact, they’re deeply rooted in our relationships with ourselves.

Students who learn to think deeply about their own actions, emotions and abilities are much more likely to succeed both in school and life. This is what most people call self-awareness, and it can help students understand what they need and want most out of life. To foster self-awareness and confidence skills in your classroom, here are some helpful expert tips to follow.


Self-awareness skills are key to helping students understand their place in the world. According to Teach Yoga World, self-awareness is the state of consciously being present to thoughts, feelings and emotions. Self-awareness allows people to bring clarity to their internal state so they can better manage their external environment.

But if self-awareness is such an internal and personal skill, how can teachers promote it across a classroom full of students?

Strategies for Self-Awareness

One of the best ways teachers can promote self-awareness in the classroom is by helping each student set weekly individual goals. Debbie Malone of Edgenuity says that at the end of each week, teachers can give students time to reflect on why they did or didn’t meet these goals. This encourages students to think deeply about their own behaviors and abilities.

Another strategy for teaching self-awareness comes from Bentley School in California. Here, students at each grade level take part in self-awareness activities specifically designed to help them reflect on their own learning and possibly anchor their interest in a subject.

For example, first graders are asked to reflect on their experience with a puzzle by thinking cognitively about shapes and problems. Older students are taught to ask questions they don’t know the answer to in order to help them form hypotheses.

Meditation is another helpful self-reflection strategy that students can practice. School Climate Solutions explains that meditation can help students disconnect from negative thought patterns. Once realizing that their negative thoughts don’t control them, meditation allows students to achieve stronger self-awareness and more control over their thoughts.  



Developmental psychologist and writer Marilyn Price-Mitchell explains that metacognition — a form of self-awareness that involves being aware of one’s ability to think and learn — helps students achieve at higher levels.

“With greater awareness of how they acquire knowledge, students learn to regulate their behavior to optimize learning. They begin to see how their strengths and weaknesses affect how they perform.”

Price-Mitchell explains that one way to improve metacognition is to help students practice what they don’t understand. By taking time at the end of class to ask “what was confusing about today’s lesson,” students learn to view confusion as an integral part of growth and learning.

To teach students metacognition, author Thomas Armstrong explains that teachers can teach students how to use metacognitive tools. One of these tools is a metacognitive organizer such as a mind map, where students draw associated ideas and themes branching off of a single idea placed in the middle. This helps students organize their thinking and see relationships between ideas.

Teachers can also promote metacognition through checklists, rubrics and organizers. The Inclusive Schools Network explains that these tools aid in planning and self-evaluation to guide students through the decision making process.


Self-regulation, the ability to understand and control one’s emotions, is an invaluable skill to learn. But how can teachers help students who struggle with self regulation? According to the Child Mind Institute, teachers can help children become better self regulators by coaching them through difficult situations.

If a student is frustrated by a math assignment, for example, the teacher can check in at intervals and ask how the assignment is going, rather than coaching them through it and telling them to calm down. This helps the student grapple with their emotions on their own rather than having someone regulate them for him or her.

Another aspect of self regulation is stress management. Helping students develop proactive stress management techniques can improve conflict resolution and ensure everyone’s needs are met. Holly Cook explains that teachers should look at their personal stress management techniques to help identify when students can and might benefit from them. This has the potential to improve school climate overall for both teachers and students.

Teaching Self-Advocacy

Self-advocacy is an important life skill that helps students take control of their well being. It also relates closely to self-esteem and confidence. As Christa Dieckmann of Churchill Center & School explains: “Being able to advocate for themselves gives [students] the confidence needed for a school interview or a job interview, or if they have a question writing a research paper for college.”

Learning to stand up for one’s beliefs also teaches students to express the problem solving and social justice skills they often possess. The Davidson Institute says that these important skills can be honed by creating a presentation regarding a real-world school issue or writing up a proposal to a teacher.

Teachers can also help students develop self-advocacy skills by bringing students together in a community. On the National Center for Learning Disabilities blog, Dessie Weigel explains that finding a community was pivotal for her self-advocacy journey. She says that she became much more confident in her personal story once she was able to find a community of like-minded people.

If you know that students have certain needs, try grouping them together to promote a sense of belonging that enhances self-advocacy skills.


Get Student Input

Asking students for their opinions about the classroom environment is another way to promote self-awareness. TeachBeyond suggests inviting students to write one positive comment and one potential improvement about the class once a semester. Teachers can collect these statements, put them together and draw conclusions about what changes can be made. This can get students accustomed to speaking their minds and help them feel that their opinions are valued.

It’s also important to remember that students — teenagers especially — get distracted easily. According to psychologist Bradley Busch, director at Inner Drive, teachers can support teenage student learning by being explicit and clear about classroom expectations. He says that teachers should work with students one-on-one to figure out what distracts them and have students try to eliminate these distractions in class on their own. This promotes healthy self-control habits that keep distractions at a minimum throughout the year.

Can Learn Society teaching self-advocacy can be accomplished by teachers modeling vocabulary that helps students describe their own learning strengths and needs, using phrases like: “You seem to remember better when you get a chance to ‘see’ the information.” Another method is by having students prepare profiles on themselves as learners, identifying their strong points and challenges

Images by: Poodar Chu, Waag Society, Tina Floersch

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