- Kathryn Patterson
How To Be Your Child's Advocate
It is the job of every parent to be an advocate for their child or children - this message comes across in society through media and adult peer pressure. But rarely does the message contain how to be an advocate. Do you stand up for your child in every circumstance, always believing every word your child reports to you? Do you stand next to the teacher, never believing what your child tells you? What exactly does "being your child's advocate" really mean? As a mother who has had a child in Cobb County schools for a combined total of 19 years, I learned how to be an advocate for my children the hard way, through trial and error, blood, sweat, and tears. This is what I learned, in a nutshell. For 180 days, you, your child, and your child's teacher work as a team with the goal being a happy and productive school year for your child. That means that if a problem arises, all three of you need to work together to fix the problem. The team works the best when no one is trying to assign blame to another team member, but everyone accepts responsibility for their own actions. You will need to role model accepting responsibility for your child, since you are one of the biggest, most important role models in your child's life. For 180 days, this team exists. But only you and your child move on to form a new team next year. This means that you are the only adult continuously on this team, privy to knowledge both of your child and past history at the school. This is why you are your child’s advocate. Now, what I’m about to tell you is the secret for being an advocate - the knowledge that most of us had to learn the hard way. The crucial job as your child’s advocate is to communicate with the teacher and the school both proactively and reactively, and to not stop communicating if an issue is not settled to your satisfaction. That’s it. It really is that simple. But let’s go over two examples of being your child’s advocate. First, proactively communicating with the teachers. One of my children learns spelling words by either saying the letters out loud, or singing the letters. So at the beginning of every year, I always sit down with the teacher and explain this. Every year, my child’s spelling homework changes to accommodate her learning style. Second, reactively communicating with the teachers. Let’s say your son comes home and declares, “My teacher hates me! She picked on me in the hallway for talking and completely ignored everyone else talking!” First you must discount what your child tells you. Or as a teacher friend of mine says, “I promise not to believe everything your child says about home, if you promise not to believe everything he says about school.” Children, especially young children, see the world from a very me-centric viewpoint. That means that your child can tell you the absolute truth from his perspective and still leave out important information. If your child ever comes home and says something outrageous, question him for more details if you are worried. Personally, I would worry about this situation, because regardless of the teacher’s behavior, your child may not feel safe in the classroom. Feeling safe is important for your child’s success, so I would call the teacher and talk to her. Let her know that you merely wanted another perspective on the situation. Chances are there has been a miscommunication somewhere, or your child misunderstood what was happening. By communicating with the teacher, not only can you clear up this particular situation, but may prevent future problems as you, your child, and his teacher get a better understanding of each other. 99% of the time, when you speak with the teacher, you’ll discover that your son was yelling, or that she did tell everyone to stop talking. 99% of the time you’ll be happy after a phone call or email with the teacher. Then you can sit down with your son, explain what happened, and work it out. But that leaves the 1% of the time that you are not happy. The teacher might start harping on how loud your son is, raising an internal warning flag. Or the teacher might blow off the incident, saying your son needs to just be quiet and not worry about the other children. (Note: This might sound logical, but it does not exist in reality. Everyone worries about themselves in relation to others.) Here is where the tough part of being an advocate kicks in. You need to schedule a parent/teacher conference with the teacher to further discuss the situation. If you cannot resolve it with the teacher after a conference, then and only then do you escalate to the administration. I hope that you never get to the place where you must involve the principal. But if you do, make notes and take them with you about the situation. Schedule an appointment with the principal including the teacher, and present your concerns. If possible, present what you feel are reasonable solutions to your concerns. If the situation gets resolved, wonderful. But if you still are not happy, do not let up. Even if it gets to the point where you want your child moved to a different classroom, you need to keep going. To be honest, this is an extreme case. In my experience here in Cobb County,I have only had to move a child once. And the vast majority of my friends never had to go that far. A simple conversation with a teacher covers almost any situation 99% of the time. But as your child’s advocate, you need to be willing to go as far as needed. Here is the second secret about being your child’s advocate - parents wield immense power in the school system. You have several rights and responsibilities. According to the Board Administrative handbook (available http://www.cobbk12.org/), the school is responsible for “...Providing particular attention to situations in which the educational welfare of students may be jeopardized.” Emotional security is an intangible part of the classroom environment, but without it a child will not succeed. So if you feel that the school administration will not listen to you, pull out the handbook and force the issue. I can tell you that I have never had to push the local school administration to handle a problem. Never. Ever. The school administration wants everyone to be satisfied with the solution, because in the end that will lead to more success for the student. That is the nutshell version of how to be your child’s advocate. Please let me know if you have any questions, and I will try to answer them.