Power-up! Empowerment as a way of life

by Mary Mazzoni on August 6, 2012

What does empowerment mean to you?

The 800 youth, parents, and professionals at our state-wide transition conference were asked this question.

Want to hear how some of us responded? Check out this great short video produced for the final keynote by Chris Mielo.

The challenge – for us – and for our kids, is to live empowered lives – not just at a conference – or some day in the future – but right now – today – every day.

Obstacles abound. The behavior of others may sometimes be unhelpful, and even downright disrespectful.

But we – and our kids – can still say YES to our own lives.

Here are some questions we can ask – and practical things we can do – to make empowerment a way of life.

Let’s power-up!

What skills are needed?

Some people think there is a “minimum skill requirement” – some intellectual, behavioral or communication capacity that is required for a person to live an empowered life.

Not true.

When supports and opportunities tailored to a person’s needs are provided – any person can exercise some degree of choice, control and contribution.

Conversely, as people exercise self determination, they can, with support, develop skills that enable them to be more fully empowered.

This site is filled with tools and strategies for teaching self determination skills.

If you have questions about where to start or how to adapt these tools to your child’s needs, leave a comment or send me an email (click the white envelope in the sidebar).

The time to empower our child is now. Not “someday” when certain skills have been mastered.

Some challenging questions

We humans tend to think about what others should do differently.

We say, “I will do x when “they” do y”. 

But, does this empower us? Does this empower our kids?

Let’s have the courage today to ask hard questions about how we ourselves can more fully empower our kids.

Do we:

  • speak about our child to others as if she weren’t there?
  • answer questions for our child?
  • make assumptions about what’s most important to our child?
  • make plans for our child’s life without his active involvement?
  • allow our child to voice opinions that differ from our own?
  • let our child test-drive her interests through experiences?
  • allow our child to work toward  his own goals his own way?

These are difficult questions. Chances are, our honest answers will not be “yes” or “no”, but, rather – “sometimes”.  So then, let’s consider what next steps we can take to more frequently and more fully empower our kids.

It’s my life!

It’s your child’s life – your child’s future.

Like every adolescent, your child is doing the work of defining self.

Who am I? What are my talents and my needs? How do I want to contribute to the world? How do I want to spend my days? Who do I want to be with? What matters most to me?

Here are a few ways kids can engage questions about self and future:

  1. A simple ongoing project can be a “Me Book” – with sections like My Talents, My Favorite Places, My Favorite Things to Do, What Matters Most to Me, Accommodations that Work for Me, My Dreams for the Future. You can encourage or support your child to add pictures, notes, and memorabilia to the different sections over time.
  2. If communication and/or reading are challenges for your child, check out this post - with links to preference profiles.
  3. Check out the By Youth for Youth Toolkit developed by the PA Youth Leadership Network.
  4. Look around in the Whole Person section of the Free Transition Tool Workshop on this site to explore other tools.

(These are just a few ways kids can engage important questions about themselves and their future. The links take you to posts that explain ways to use each tool).

Real-life experience

No one can make informed choices without real experiences.

It is only by getting out in the world and observing and trying different activities and environments that our kids will develop their own passions and fine-tune their goals for the future.

Our kids can test-drive their interests by trying out recreational activities, job shadowing, volunteering, internships, travel training, and work experiences.

Sometimes parents want to protect kids from disappointment. We really do our kids no favors by preventing them from exploring their interests through direct experience. You just never know what will unfold.

For example – a young woman who uses a power wheelchair is passionate about soccer. Most adults in her life dismissed this interest as irrelevant to her future. But not her stepfather. With his support, she attended hundreds of games, immersed herself in the rules and nuances of the sport, and volunteered with a youth league.  Now she’s a respected youth soccer referee.

Sometimes experiences help kids understand they don’t really want to continue pursuing an interest. (That’s what happened to me when I volunteered at a hospital as a teen). Sometimes experiences don’t turn out the way kids had hoped. And sometimes – experiences help our kids pursue their interests in unexpected ways.

Support your child to plan experiences that test-drive his interests in the real world. Then support him to reflect on those experiences and plan next steps.

Help your child tap into your extended network of friends and associates to develop opportunities.

A mom recently told me that her daughter – who loves baseball – now has a customized job at the local minor league ballpark through the intervention of a friend of a friend of a friend. Indeed, active networking is how most people land jobs and learn about opportunities.


That whole “it takes a village” thing? It’s true!

Our kids are empowered in all sorts of ways by being part of a network of relationships. In fact – this is the topic of an entire section of this website. Check out  Growing Personal Networks for a growing collection of stories and resources.

Speaking up for myself

Here are just a few tools to support your child to speak for herself in various situations.

Before the start of the school year, or meeting a new teacher

Well before the school year begins, or your child starts work with a new teacher or therapist, ask your child what she wants that professional to know about her upfront. Help her decide how she wants to communicate that information. It can be done in all sorts of ways – in writing, with pictures, using video or audio.

Planning ahead what and how she wants to communicate to a new professional in her life is very empowering.

For ideas – check out the One pager at IMDetermined.org. You’ll find videos of kids and a sample “One-Pager” template.

At the IEP meeting

Well before the IEP meeting, support your child to decide what he wants to communicate to the team – and how.

Support your child to make prior arrangements with the teacher so that his time for input occurs at the very beginning of the IEP meeting.

To promote positive collaboration – your child should share what he plans to communicate at the IEP meeting with his teacher at least a week before the meeting – so the teacher knows what to expect and can support your child.

Your child can express his input at an IEP meeting in all sorts of ways – video, writing, pictures, powerpoint, and/or verbally.

Click here for a powerpoint template and short videos showing students at IEP meetings – from IMDetermined.org.

With medical professionals

Well before a medical appointment, ask your child what questions she has for the doctor and what she wants the doctor to know. Support her to put her questions and statements in writing. Your child will be empowered by giving this written information to the doctor at the beginning of the appointment.

Click here for links to videos and resources that empower kids to gradually learn skills for interacting with medical professionals and taking charge of their health care.

Making my goals happen

Kids often feel that their life is at the mercy of luck or the whims of adults in their lives. They rarely have opportunities to learn effective ways to make what matters most to them happen in their life.

Check here for practical ways you can support your child to set goals, make plans, and take action.

Your turn

If you’re still reading – you clearly have a commitment to empowerment as a way of life for your child.

But where to start?

How about setting a time to come back to this post and explore the links (there’s too much here for one sitting.)

Then, with your child – choose one idea from this post. Together – make a plan for how to make it happen.

Notice how empowerment in one area impacts your child’s whole outlook – and yours. Talk with your child and decide on empowering steps to take in other areas of his life. Watch his confidence grow – and see the change in his interaction with others. Step by step – empowerment will become a way of life.

Please share your experiences with the rest of us here in the comments. By sharing our stories – we can help ourselves – and our kids – power up!

Did you find this post helpful? Please share it!. Thanks!

Photo credit: Power Button by LivingOS at Flickr, Be Brave Book by Let’s Be Positive on Facebook

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