Teaching Health Advocacy

When asked what it is like to teach teenagers, I tell people it’s wonderful, because I know the future will be safe in the hands of my students. Many of my students have budding advocacy traits, and see themselves as someone who will make change. For that reason, teaching advocacy skills in health class is so very rewarding, but definitely a skill that some teachers find daunting to bring to their classrooms. You will want to read, and revisit this guest blog post from National Health Teacher of the Year Andy Horne again and again, and take notes, as he shares so many great ideas and resources.

According to RMC Health, the health skill of “Advocacy for Self or Others helps students build the capacity to promote their healthy behaviors and to encourage their peers to develop and maintain their own healthy behaviors.”  Health advocacy can be one of the most challenging “health skills” to teach because it requires students to be proficient in the skills of accessing health information (NHES #3) and interpersonal communication (NHES #4).  For health teachers, we have limited time with our students and we have to decide what functional health knowledge our students should know, and develop the health skills we think will serve them best (ideally all, but limited time can hinder proficiency in some of them).  

Now, consider for a moment some of the key skills students need for the 21st century. For example:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving
  • Perseverance
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • Technology skills and digital literacy

Over the last few years I have done a Health Advocacy Project with my students that not only develops many of their “health skills,” but also the skills needed for a 21st century learner.  It’s a win-win in many ways and I wanted to share briefly how I attempt to do this in my classroom.

Introducing the Skill of Advocacy

There are many ways you can do this.  I start by asking students the question of, what do you think it means to advocate for something?  After hearing their responses, we define advocacy as any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others.  

This project focuses on “health advocacy for others,” (rather than “self-advocacy) – meaning it’s about giving public support for an idea, plan, or way of doing something in an effort to improve the well-being of others.  Learning how to advocate matters because it gives students the tools to help improve the well-being of others and make the world a better place.  

We next discuss examples of advocacy my students see in the world and in their local community.  Perhaps it’s advocacy for mental health awareness (Erika’s Lighthouse), improving the climate (Greta Thunberg), or efforts to support refugees in Ukraine.  I also try to connect examples of teenagers making change in the world through their advocacy work.  I want them to know that they too can make a difference and it’s not just something adults do.  

Steps to Effective Advocacy (Skill Cues)

With any health skill, we must introduce the steps and model it with our students so they have an understanding of what to do and how to do it effectively.  I should mention that I teach students the health skill of accessing health information (NHES #3) before this project begins because it is a necessary part of doing this work successfully (see step 2 below).  The five skill steps I use for teaching health advocacy are:

  1. Identify and research a relevant and meaningful health issue. 
  2. Get your facts straight – Research a health issue to make sure you’re sharing accurate and up-to-date information.
  3. Know your audience – Define who your audience is and choose a method of communication they’ll respond to.
  4. Craft your message – Create a health-enhancing message about the issue that is supported by facts.
  5. Put into action – Share your health enhancing message to your audience.  Act passionately and with conviction.

After introducing these skill steps, I show an example advocacy poster of a health issue in our school community about perfectionism.  We go through the five steps a bit deeper together and talk about how the health message should:

  1. Grab the audience’s attention – How did they do this?  Is there a key question, graphic, stat, or catchy slogan they included?
  2. Quickly educate us about the issue.  What should we know?  Why should we care?  What key facts/stats do people need to know?  Ideally citing sources adds validity to the health message.
  3. Call the audience into action.  What do they want us to do?  How do they promote a positive health solution(s) to the issue?  Where can we go for additional information?

Step 1 – Thinking About a Health Issue

Once students learn how to perform the skill steps, it is their turn to think of a health issue that impacts their community.  I let them brainstorm together in small groups and share out as a class.  Some of the health issues mentioned in previous classes are in the word cloud below.

Other topics might include:

Addiction – Sports Gambling
Breaking the stigma around mental health
Teach younger children safe social media practices
Educate beachgoers about sun safety
Distracted driving & new drivers
LGBTQIA+ mental health
Positive peer pressure standing up against bullying
Creating more gratitude
Addiction – screens/social media
Sexual violence
Comprehensive sex education in all schools
Contraceptives access
Any health inequity or health disparity issue and raising awareness 
Reproductive justice
Period Poverty / Menstrual Equity
Marijuana and teen health risk

Step 2 – Get Your Facts Straight

I allow my students to work alone or with a partner.  I require them to find at least TWO sources (per person) to help better understand their health issue.  They are required to submit citations of their sources using Noodle Tools and list key information from each source that they find useful for their health issue.  

Before we begin, I underscore the importance of “The Investigation Stage”.  It is the most important stage of advocacy work.  This is where you will find a need/issue/problem (referred to as “need”) in the community you are passionate to learn more about.  You will find answers to your questions and discover facts, using credible sources, gaining the ability to teach others about the need.

As they read their sources to investigate their health issue, I encourage them to think about the following questions below to guide their research. 

  • How does this issue impact my community?
  • What is the history of this issue in my community?
  • What resources can I use to effectively investigate this issue?
  • What are some barriers to success related to this issue?

For this project, I am fortunate enough to team with one of our school librarians for additional support.  I would encourage you to do the same if resources and availability allow for it.  

The school librarian also helps direct my students to key databases and resources that our school provides.  Before “Googling” their topic, we encourage students to start in this order:

  1. Using Gale E-Books to better understand the issue
  2. Using MAS Ultra to find articles about the topic
  3. Checking our Health Library Class Page for more source ideas.
  4. Possibly Googling the topic, but they should be thinking about the validity and reliability of their source and doing some lateral reading if they are unsure of the source/author. 

Step 3 – Know Your Audience

I want students to think about how they can connect the health issue and message to specific groups of people in their local community.  Their message should be directed to a specific audience and hopefully not just “all teens” for example.  Prompting questions might include:  

  • Who is your audience? 
  • Who will benefit from your project?  
  • What age group?  
  • Grade level?  
  • Specific identity? (gender, sexual, racial, etc), 
  • People who engage in _______ behavior?  Etc.    

Step 4 – Craft Your Message

This step is arguably the most important to effective health advocacy work.  Students have to create a health-enhancing message about the issue that is supported by facts.  To do this successfully, it is important they work through these three key steps.

  1. Grab your audience’s attention – How will you do this?   Is there a key question, stat, or catchy slogan you could include here?
  2. Quickly educate people about the issue.  What should we know?  Why should we care?  What key facts/stats do people need to know?  Make sure to cite your sources to add validity to your health message.
  3. Call the audience into action.  What do you want people to do?   How can you promote a positive health solution(s) to the issue?  (narrow it down to solutions in your control)

Step 5 – Put Into Action – Share Your Health Message

This is where students create a final product and it must convey their health message (Step 4) in some creative way.  There are many ways students can raise awareness and create change around the issue.  See the class links page for ideas. (Some ideas include making a poster, podcast, video, website, song/poem, social media video, etc.)

Student Examples – Health Advocacy

In recent semesters, my students have come up with some amazing work.  Many create posters using Canva as they have some really slick templates to help put the health message into action.  See some examples below:

Materials To Help You Get Started in Your Classroom

If you found this post interesting and want to learn more.  Here are copies of the things I use.  Feel free to make a copy and tweek them to your needs.

Pair this blog post with the following from #slowchathealth:

Building Your Health Curriculum by Amy Prior

Helping Students Improve Their Health Literacy by Andy Horne

Lessons – A Book Review by Andy Milne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s