Regardless of whether a child is average, gifted or has exceptional needs – or fits a combination of the three – parents want to provide a positive academic environment that meets an individual child’s needs. As parents strive to keep kids from getting lost in an academic shuffle, they often become skilled advocates, not only for their own child, but for all children.
At any given time, a student can need support in some facet of the school experience. From preschool to high school, parents may face a host of school-related issues that include peer relationships, health concerns, teacher communication and logistics, as well as the most common: academics. Experts say one of the biggest barriers to advocating well is getting too wrapped up in emotionally charged issues.
“What not to do is lose control,” says Brenda Monforti, a parent educator with Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center, a nonprofit organization that provides information and resources to families in North Carolina that have children with disabilities.
“It doesn’t help anybody when you lose control, and it often results in the loss of that line of communication. Once that crashes, it’s hard to move forward and make changes,” says Montforti, who also serves as the liaison between the Wake County Special Education Parent Teacher Association and the Wake County PTA.
Parents’ protective instincts can make it challenging for them to step back and look at a situation outside the heat of the moment, but experienced parents and administrators say this is exactly what parents should do. They also offer some additional tips for those interested in learning how to best advocate in an academic setting.
Be involved and learn
Numerous studies tout the benefits of parent involvement in a child’s education as a barometer for success. Being involved at a child’s school helps parents learn about their child’s academic environment, and both advocates and administrators say information-gathering is a critical component of advocacy. Involvement also offers an opportunity to build relationships at a school.
“The more you are involved in a school and the more familiar you are with the people in the school, the more people see you as an advocate, not just for your child, but for the school,” says Blythe Luetkehoelter of Cary, a mother of two and a former elementary school PTA president.
Luetkehoelter says that, in her experience, parents most often ask questions about a teacher’s style.
“You can have a wonderful teacher that would just not be the best teacher for a particular type of child,” she says. But without a network of information, parents won’t know a teacher’s style.
Lib McGowan of Apex, who became involved in advocating for educational issues during Wake County’s conversion to mandatory year-round school calendars, also says that asking questions and learning as much as possible is one of the best ways to be equipped to support the needs of children.
Follow the chain of command
One of the most critical aspects of advocating is knowing who to approach for your particular need. Follow the chain of command at a school whenever possible. Both Luetkehoelter and Montforti say it’s best to start with the teacher if there is an issue in the classroom to avoid “stepping on toes” and creating conflict.
If a child needs assistance related to overall behavior, academics, peer relationships or family concerns, talking with a guidance counselor can be helpful.
From the first day of school – and even before that – administrators are bombarded with the needs of their students. Take into account that the staff has a lot on its docket, particularly in this year of budget cuts and staff reductions.
Karen Summers, principal at Davis Drive Middle School in Cary, says that she wants parents to communicate and be involved at school. She notes that parents often begin pulling back in the middle school years and suggests that parents remain connected to staff, whether through e-mails, notes or meetings.
“In elementary school, there often seems to be more open communication because it’s easier for parents to talk with teachers, and parents are in the classroom more often,” Summers says. “Sometimes I think, once a child has six teachers, a parent thinks it is best to just leave it alone, but it helps to have some communication.”
She says there is a lot of pressure on children to excel in all areas, and students feel that stress. She recommends that parents communicate rather than letting things simmer.
“When you have that gut feeling that something is just not right, it’s important to communicate with teachers, administrators and counselors,” says Summers, who firmly believes that a school is a partnership between parents and the school to help children learn and grow.
Services for exceptional to gifted
Areas where children need support vary greatly because children themselves are so different. Even the same child can have widely different needs at any given level of maturity or situation.
It’s impossible to do it all alone, says Monforti, who educates parents through workshops about intervention at all ages.
“Many children are not identified until middle school or high school, and I tell parents to reach out to schools, pediatricians and neighbors,” she says. “We do workshops from every level and angle to try to help parents learn to advocate for their child and themselves.”
Both Montforti and Summers, who has a background in special education, say that creating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for children can be a daunting task for parents.
In the U.S., an IEP is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires public schools to develop this specific type of plan for every student with a disability who meets the federal and state requirements for special education. The IEP refers both to the educational program to be provided to a child with a disability and to the written document that describes that educational program. By law, the IEP must include certain information about the child and the educational program designed to meet his or her unique needs.
Certain people need to be involved in developing an IEP. The law requires the following to be at the meeting: the student, if appropriate; a parent and, if desired, the family; at least one of the student’s special education teachers or, if appropriate, related services providers; at least one of the student’s regular education teachers; a local educational agency representative; and other agency personnel who have knowledge or expertise required to best serve the student’s needs.
Experts say that parents should have the courage to ask for explanations when they do not understand, and it helps if busy administrators can slow down enough to provide those explanations.
Keeping up with legislation is important for all types of advocacy, but particularly for special education. In the U.S., for example, parental consent is now required for schools to evaluate children and create an education plan.
“Parents do have rights, and as recently as 2008 some of those rights as far as giving permission for testing are changing,” Montforti says.
One of the best ways to be an advocate is to simply ask a lot of questions. Parents know their children better than anyone, and that fact alone qualifies them to be advocates.