Working with families as a family/parent coach, I get to hear a lot of the stressors that parents endure while raising their children. Although I tend to focus on the behaviors of the child and the relationship between the parents and the children, I can’t close my ears to the plight of families navigating the various systems they encounter while trying to access care for their child. In this series, I will talk about how parents can advocate for their child in areas like school, mental health, and medical care. The second in the series will focus on speaking up for your child’s mental health care. You can read the first post — advocating for your child’ medical care — in this series here. And, you can read the second post — advocating for your child’s mental health — in this series here.
In this last post on what to do to advocate for your child, I’d like to focus on advocating for your child’s education. Advocating for your child on this level can include getting them educational services to help them academically, navigating parent-teacher conferences, and working with the school to help your child with a bullying issue. It can be difficult at times to speak up when dealing with school systems and administrators who insist that you are over-reacting or making a mountain out of a molehill. But, from my experience, the best way to really get your child’s needs met at school is to have the language and the tools needed to be heard. The following lists of tools will give you some insight on how to advocate for your child and help them succeed in school.
When you take the time to develop relationship with the school personnel it does a few things:
- They get to know who you are
- They are more likely to be aware of your child
- You are more likely to know who is in charge of what
I challenge parents to not only know who their child’s teacher (or, teachers if your child is in a higher grade), but meet the principle, vice principle, dean, counselor, parent office assistants, and other administrators who watch over the school and your child. And, don’t wait until something happens to know these people. The worst time to develop a relationship with the principle is when your child is being punished. A good way to develop these relationships is to participate in school events/activities and/or volunteer in your child’s school’s parent center. Taking this extra step will set you up for the other tools presented in this article.
Many times parents can be left in the dark about how schools get things done. I have heard from many parents that schools will change policies, enact punishments, and create discussions about sensitive issues all without informing them. It can make you feel very helpless when you child comes home with a flyer or consent form asking you to allow your child to participate in something that goes against your family’s values or ideals. But, instead of getting enraged, get curious. I encourage my parents to go to the school, or talk to the teacher, about the issues that concern them. You should ask the following questions:
- How did you come to this decision?
- Will this enhance my child’s learning?
- What alternate activity is available is I don’t allow my child to participate?
- Can I volunteer to help make this issue less confusing for my child?
- Who will be contacted if my child does not adhere to this new policy?
- What will occur when, or if, my child does not adhere to this new school rule?
And, while there are many more questions you could ask, these few will start the conversation that will help you feel clearer about what the school is asking of you and your child. It’ll also help with the first tool – developing relationships – as the school will see that you are taking an active role in your child’s education.
Ask for the Right Resources
When your child is struggling academically, having issues with peers, or dealing with a difficult transition, obtaining the resources to help your child cope can be a tough process. Schools are sometimes dismissive when parents ask for extra help for their child, and as a result, your child has a harder time staying focused in class. For this, I challenge parents to find out exactly what your child needs by asking for a student success team meeting. While this type of meeting may have a different name in your school district, the goal is to help the school and parent find out what the child needs and what resources the school has to meet that need. In these meetings, I tell parents to do the following:
- Have a detailed list of what you are noticing with your child
- Be open to what each member in the team is saying
- Take notes on what is being said (even if they have someone there to draft the meeting minutes)
- Ask questions about interventions/accommodations that are unfamiliar to you
- Restate the next steps that were agreed upon in the meeting and ask for timelines (make sure to note the timelines)
By the end of a student success team meeting, each person involved should be aware of their role in helping your child succeed at school, and when these goals should be completed. An additional way to ask for the right resources is to volunteer at the parent center on your child’s campus. Here you will get firsthand accounts of issues that other children and parents are facing, and that can help you advocate for larger changes in your child’s school – enacting long lasting change.
Talk with Your Child
Sometimes the simplest tool is the most overlooked. But, talking to your child about what is going on for them at school can give you really succinct insight into what their school experience is like. And, this doesn’t have to be an intrusive conversation – you’re not looking for dirt to get your kid in trouble. Here are a few ways that you can talk to your child that will help you be a better advocate for them:
- Did anything happen at school today that was different than (yesterday/the day before/the week before)?
- How has your teacher been after (the last report card/the last parent-teacher conference)?
- How are you feeling about (your teacher(s)/your friends/the campus aides)?
- Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your experience at school today?
These questions go a bit beyond the “How was your day?” generalities and give you a clearer picture of your child’s school experience. You can use your child’s answers to these questions to spark your own curiosity about what may need to change in your child’s school environment. For this tool, I encourage you to focus more on your child’s overall answers as opposed to focusing on your child’s behavior. Remember, you’re looking for ways to advocate for your child.