verb: to act as an advocate: a father who advocates for his disabled child.
noun: a person who pleads for or in behalf of another; intercessor.
Parenting a child from a hard place (any special needs child) is a challenging undertaking, and the school environment can be one of the most challenging to navigate! Many parents are intimidated by the idea of advocating for their child at school, but I believe that the parent-teacher relationship is essential to a child’s success at school. (And, if approached properly, can be very rewarding!) I taught in elementary schools for a number of years before I became a parent, and, despite some ups and downs, have had great relationships with my children’s teachers. Before I offer a few tips based on my experience, I think it’s helpful to establish that to advocate in this context is to intercede or plead for or in behalf of your child. Our children are unable to advocate for themselves when they are young and need us to learn how to do this well. One of my children has great difficulty in noisy, crowded environments, and finds the lunchroom space especially difficult. While he can usually let me know when he’s unable to tolerate a certain space, he has had trouble letting his teachers know – last year he started telling his teacher he felt sick as the noon hour approached so that he could eat his lunch in the office! I was able to educate his teacher about his needs and we made a plan to support him. As the parents, we are able to provide insights that are key to our child’s success at school! Our knowledge of our child combined with the teacher’s knowledge and experience in the classroom can lead to an optimal learning environment for our child.
I saw this awesome t-shirt recently. I’d buy it but I know I wouldn’t be able to resist wearing it to a meeting with a teacher or administrator who didn’t know me all that well and it might not set the best tone for our meeting!! And this brings me to my first, and most important, point:
• Remember – you are on the same team!!
As Siegel and Bryson point out in The Yes Brain, “It all, and always, begins with relationship.” Your relationship with your child’s teacher is key. If you take an adversarial approach, assuming hostility, that may just be what you get! I have found it most helpful to assume that all of the adults working with my child at school want the same things I want for him: a sense of safety and belonging at school, an experience of joy in learning, and academic success – whatever success may look like for him. If I assume this common ground, then we are able to move forward and develop a plan.
• Be prepared
Decide beforehand what personal information is appropriate and necessary to share. It is easy to overshare at school meetings (I’ve been there) and this does not honour our child’s privacy and may erode her already fragile trust in us. Figure out what you can share that will help the school take your child’s needs seriously, and enable them to view your child with compassion. If your child is adopted, it may be helpful to speak in general terms of the risk factors your child may have experienced, or share this article which articulates the risk factors very well. Also, I have always shared reports and assessments I’ve had done for my child, such as psychological assessments and occupational therapist’s reports. I believe that the more information the school has about my child’s current ability level, the more helpful their interventions will be.
• Keep it achievable
Suggest just one or two main areas of focus. Trying to address all of the areas in which my child is behind will surely lead to frustration and failure! The most helpful and successful plans we’ve had included one social/emotional goal and one academic goal. Last year’s IPP for one of my children consisted of a self-regulation goal and a literacy goal. Since self-regulation and literacy are so foundational and broad, it felt like we were focusing on the most important things while still giving ourselves the flexibility to shift and respond as our child’s needs and abilities changed.
• Stay the course
It may take time to win over the staff at your child’s school and see positive changes. Stay focused on the relationship, and stay patient. Despite lots of training and years of trying to parent differently, I still revert to old, disconnected ways more often than I’d like to admit. Many teachers and administrators are quite entrenched in their current practice and will not change their approach overnight. Be willing to compromise and respect the years of experience school staff are bringing to the table.
A few years ago, one of my boys had a teacher who would send him out into the hall when he became dysregulated until he was calm enough to re-enter the classroom. His behaviour was not improving and she was growing frustrated. During my meetings with the teacher, I shared articles (such as the Purvis and Call article I linked to earlier) and I shared generally about how sensitive adopted children are to rejection. These rejection/abandonment triggers make strategies such as the time-out ineffective and damaging. I suggested that she find ways to bring my son closer to her in his moments of dysregulation – I said that perhaps she could set up a workspace for him by her desk instead of sending him into the hall. She tried it, and experienced immediate success! Her focus shifted from punishing his behaviour to helping him regulate his emotions. The really neat outcome of all this was that she became an advocate for my son with other teachers and supervisors in the building, encouraging them to bring him close when he was acting out! Despite the rocky start, the school year ended well. Effective advocacy is incredibly rewarding!
Whether your first response to the idea of advocating for your child at school is fear, frustration, exhaustion or confidence, I hope that you have found some helpful ideas here. My children are in the process of making the transition from elementary school to middle school, and I have found it helpful to think about what has worked well in the past as I start over with different teachers and administrators!
We’d love to hear what your experience has been! What are your tips for being an effective advocate for your child at school?