In the education arena, talk centers around parents as being an advocate for their child at school. What it not spoken about is exactly what being an ‘advocate’ means to parents.
“My son’s teacher is just not listening to me. He needs more individualized attention. He’s not intentionally a bad child. He just needs more help. His I.E.P.[Individualized Education Program(or Plan)] says that he is supposed to receive more one to one time, but his teacher says that she just doesn’t have enough time to provide that, AND that the school won’t hire an Assistant or a Paraprofessional to help in the classroom.” “I am just through with this.”
This parent is angry, disappointed, frustrated and confused. Moreover, this parent feels helpless, misunderstood and ignored at IEP meetings and conferences where her child is the topic of conversations.
Broadly defined, an advocate is someone who publicly supports or defends a particular cause or policy. Advocates essentially plead the case for something or someone. Advocacy is supporting or suggesting an idea or way of doing something. For parents, being an advocate is natural as it goes along with wanting the best for that child in all areas of life. When parents leave another person in charge of their child’s well-being for any amount of time, there are usually tips or suggestions given that will instruct that person on how to best care for that child in the parents’ absence.
When we translate this idea into school environments, being an advocate for a child is essentially the same. The difference is that the primary areas of advocacy pertain to learning, including behaviors as well as mental health well-being. Advocating for your child in the school system is using your knowledge and expertise of your child to exercise your voice. Advocating for a child in special education programs at school is vital to your child’s overall success in that environment. To ensure best outcomes for your child, and optimize the total learning process, parents are critical.
Trying to manage a challenging or troubled child, can be challenging and parents can’t nor should they try to do it alone. Yet, parents are also expected to understand how to navigate the complicated legal and social systems that could offer help. Unless you are a ‘seasoned’ parent in the school system or special needs children, you’re gonna need help from others. They are usually teachers.
It is very often in school where and when we are introduced to those sources of extra help we may need for our children. That introduction is not easy and often very contentious. When parents enter the schools, they are almost exclusively novices, beginners, and it is the staff and teachers, particularly, who possess the information and knowledge parents need to effectively and efficiently navigate the system and advocate for their child. Yet, even when everyone has good intentions, it is often very messy from the start. Below, you’ll find a few advocacy tips.
To be a successful advocate:
- Try a little understanding. Schools always struggle with budget restraints. However, when it comes to your child, you don’t want him or her to suffer because of a budget issue. It certainly difficult to be compassionate. A parent was told by a special education teacher that” If we send your child to a special school, we would have to fire a kindergarten teacher next year.” That was not legal or helpful for the teacher to say that, but it was not a lie either. Students with big needs cost the community big bucks. Services for one child could mean that 25 other children will be left in overcrowded classrooms. Nonetheless, it is still best to advocate well for your children. Try to be collaborative in mindset while understanding the positions school officials are in.
- Get support for yourself. Join a parent support group or just talk to other parents with kids with special needs. They may offer relief and help. Many of them have gone through your current challenge, and already know the ropes. Most schools have parent advocates who can explain the laws to you, go with you to meetings, and make sure you are heard and receive appropriate responses to your concerns. Their services will cost you nothing. If you go to a paid advocacy service, determine whether paying a cost now will prevent higher costs later.
- Get to know your child’s rights. Be conversant with your state’s education laws and policies of your local school system and district. It helps save time in asking for things that you aren’t entitled to, and you will be taken more seriously by administrators when you have taken the time to learn and understand what you’re working with.
- Prepare for meetings-ALWAYS. Make a list of talking points and questions to ask. Your time is too valuable to spend covering issues you already know about. Determine your agenda and address the concerns to use that allotted time as best you can.
- Have a friend or partner with you at meetings. The usual scenario is that there will be six or more professionals present in the room and it can be intimidating. Taking your own support person with you may mean that you are more relaxed and can take in all that’s being said. These discussions can seem overwhelming and the person there with you may also remember things said. Having an ally helps you stay focused and make sure you cover all that you set out to.
- Try to leave your younger children at home. First, it can be too distracting when you need to be focused. If you can’t afford a babysitter, look to a friend or relative for help. If you can’t find someone to care for your child, make sure you bring snacks and something to keep your child’s attention while you talk.
- Keep your cool. It is never very helpful to approach discussions with anger and threats. It makes others defensive and resistant to cooperation. If you find yourself about to boil over in anger, end the meeting or phone call before you say something you’ll regret that may impact your child. You also don’t want to have school staff avoiding or running away from you when they see you coming. It’s best to have their willing participation in helping resolve issues about your child.Work with school personnel, not against them.
- Do not wear out your welcome. You absolutely want to follow up and stay on track with your child’s progress and ensure all supports and services are in place. But micro-managing, to school staff, will fall on deaf ears. You do not want that. Keep calls to a minimum, and when you do call the school, know what you want to accomplish first or request a meeting. Staff are actually very busy with a myriad of other student and administrative issues and they are more likely to be busy helping a dozen or more other parents with pressing concerns about their child.
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else. You know both strengths and needs. Most often, you can predict your child’s responses and behaviors under certain circumstances. If you find something that your child needs that’s different than he or she gets at school, your first point of contact is the school and the child’s teacher. As you are your child’s best, most important advocate, it can be rather intimidating to approach these ‘professionals’ with your concerns.
You may feel like,”Who am I to question these people?” Don’t feel that way. You are that child’s parent and it is in your job description to be totally concerned and involved in your child’s development, health and safety. Children don’t develop in a vacuum. It happens at home and in school, and naturally you have an influence on what happens in both environments. Own that truth. Use it. Use your voice, rationally and informed, feeling self-assured that there are always answers to questions and concerns. There’s no such thing as a dumb or stupid question, especially when it concerns you or your child’s well-being.
Ask your child every single day, “How was school? and “What did you learn in school?” or “What happened in school today?” If you do not like or understand what you hear, contact the school. Advocacy is also about your child’s academic performance, and as in other aspects of your child’s development, ask teachers and staff for tips and strategies that you can employ at home to help your child.
Stay informed. Advocate.