As parents one of our key jobs is to advocate for our children. As the adults, we have a position of power children don’t have and a wealth of knowledge they have not yet acquired. Hopefully, by the time we are parents, we have learned to navigate a number of professional and social situations, and can use our experience to support our kids in a lot of different ways.
That being said, figuring out how and when to best advocate for our children is not always obvious. At some point, we need to allow our children to make mistakes so that they can learn from them. We also need to help them speak up for themselves, to learn and gain self-confidence from that. But sometimes they need us to be their strongest supporters and promoters.
This is especially true when dealing with our children’s schools. Schools are complex social systems as well as institutions of learning. Students have to navigate not only scholastic expectations, but also what may be an unfamiliar school culture, diverse teacher dynamics, ever-evolving peer friendships, a mash up of athletic/artistic/academic extra-curricular activities, community service obligations, and eventually romances. All of these elements are part of young people’s education.
My son is an adult now, but I remember the few times I had to intervene on his behalf very well. Once, when he was in 2nd grade, he came home from school upset that the teacher had written his name on the board with the kids who behaved badly that day because when he threw a crumpled paper in the trash can, he “slam-dunked” it. I made an appointment to see the teacher, met with her, and asked to hear her version of what happened to see if it aligned with what my son reported; it matched my son’s story quite closely. That allowed me to advocate for him, letting the teacher know that she had every right to ask him to throw his papers away more calmly to keep order in her classroom, but that calling his fun way of helping to clean the room bad behavior was unwarranted.
Supporting my child in this instance was possible for a number of reasons. My son and I communicated well, so he was able to tell me what happened. I had attended parent/teacher conferences and had volunteered to direct the 2nd grade play that year, so I had formed a positive relationship with the teacher. I didn’t assume right away that my son was wrong, nor that the teacher was wrong; I checked in with both of them to get the facts as best I could, and followed through from there.
Sometimes advocating for our children is about a learning moment. My son attended an academically rigorous high school. During his sophomore year, a number of student lockers were robbed. The interim acting (IA) principal gave the student government the opportunity to take a referendum on whether the school should require or only recommend that all students use a more expensive, heavier duty padlock on their lockers to thwart the thefts. The student government voted to recommend, not require. And then the IA Principal over-ruled their vote and made it a requirement. I was quite appalled by this decision—why give the students a choice if in the end he was only going to rescind it and make the decision himself? In a school where students were meant to be learning critical thinking, would it not have made more sense to let them make their decision and see if it was a good one or not? Those are the questions, more or less, that I wrote to the IA Principal in an email.
By the time students reach high school, part of advocating for them includes providing them with the tools to advocate for themselves. In the case of the purloined referendum, when the principal overrode the students’ decision they had protested to no avail before I wrote that email. Other times, students might be more successful in advocating for themselves.
When a colleague of mine, Ali Mercier, was in 9th grade, she was given a C in gym and believed she should have had an A. She sought help from her parents, asking them to call the school and fix it for her. Instead, they told her that it was her responsibility and gave her the tools she needed to be successful, suggesting that she go see the guidance counselor and state her case respectfully. (If her attempt had failed, her mom would have then intervened, but she didn’t tell Ali that at the time.) So Ali advocated for herself, and got her A. The experience might have left her temporarily frustrated by her parents, but in the long run it helped cultivate a strong ability for self-advocacy.
There are yet other times when we need to advocate for our children to get the educational or social services they need and that they have a right to receive. Having established a relationship with the school administration and with your child’s teachers prior to addressing those needs helps to form a foundation for honest and sometimes difficult conversations, and can help you learn the best way to approach the school staff to advocate successfully on your child’s behalf.
The key factors that help in advocating for your child that we’ve found are:
- Leverage what you know about your child. Be honest with yourself about when your kids need advocacy in a situation or need to change their approach or behavior. Check with school staff to be sure you’re getting the whole story from your child. Be a strong role model when your kid needs to adjust, and a strong advocate when the school needs to adjust.
- Keep communication channels open with your child. If your child is not afraid to come to you when something is wrong, you will learn what is going on and be his or her strongest ally.
- Help your children become advocates for themselves. Model and teach them respectful communication skills with peers and authority figures. Prepare them for success and for disappointment, so that they will continue to stand up for their rights even if sometimes they don’t get what they want.
- Establish good communication with teachers and school administration. Come to PTA meetings and parent/teacher conferences. If you can’t fit those into your calendar, schedule an alternate time to meet with the teachers. You learn a lot about teachers by visiting them in their class early in the morning before students arrive!
- Learn who’s who in your child’s school. The office staff, school aids, and other school employees are often well-informed and well-placed to answer your questions and provide information.
- Learn school expectations. Help your child understand what is expected of him or her in academics and behavior at school.
- Respect teachers’ time. Find out ahead of time when and how is the best time and way to reach the teacher. If you make an appointment keep it, or let the teacher know you can’t make it.
- Be the expert. Inform teachers about any special talents, skills, or needs your child has and any special circumstances that arise. No one knows your child better than you do.
- Become informed about your child’s education rights. The federal government and most states and school districts have education department websites that can inform you of your rights concerning everything from class size to special services. Inform yourself before meeting with school staff.
- Create a network. Meet other parents at school family events. Find out what has worked for them in advocating for their children. If there is not already a parent support network, help create one.
Have ideas of your own for how best to advocate for your child, or still struggling to empower? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below or tweet us @Leadershippin—we’d love to celebrate your best practices and help troubleshoot your challenges.
"Empowering Parents to Advocate for Our Children", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016