How to be a Parent Advocate
Parental involvement in their children’s education is a critical factor for success, yet many don’t know how to best accomplish this. Most parents are invested in their child’s academic career, but don’t necessarily know the most effective strategies to advocate for their child when it becomes necessary. Some level of advocacy will almost always become necessary during a child’s academic career, whether or not they receive special education services. The topic of parent advocacy has long been a passion of mine, as effective parent advocates raise students who are more successful learners. The education system can be complicated and confusing, so many parents get frustrated and don’t know the best course of action. Understanding the barriers to parental participation and advocacy can help parents harness their full power and get the most out of their school district.
What is Parental Advocacy?
Parental advocacy is a simple concept, and occurs when parents speak up for their children in various settings including schools, camps, or special education programs. Many people associate parent advocacy with special education, but all children need a parent advocate at some point. Students with and without disabilities all deserve to receive a high quality education in (or funded by) their home school district. Many students will need additional assistance in a certain skill, class, or subject area, and they may not receive the help they need without a parent speaking up on their behalf. Anytime a parent has a conversation with a teacher, school, or department head, they have an opportunity to advocate for the child if and as needed.
Research of the last several decades has shown that parents who advocate for their children and participate in their children’s education raise students who perform better in school. (I authored Research Summary that goes into greater detail re: Special Education.) It is therefore only appropriate that parents, especially of struggling learners, know what is going on in the classroom and what their child is doing in school. Too many parents are “shut out” of the learning process by being inadequately informed of what is being learned, how it is being taught and assessed, how your child is performing, and what you and the school can do to increase student learning.
If your child’s academic, physical, or emotional needs are not adequately being met in school, or worse, if something inappropriate is occurring, you will need to act as an advocate or hire someone to advocate on behalf of your child and family. Many parents feel held back by fear of asking too many questions or of “bothering” schools, administrators, and teachers.
Parents frequently don’t want to bother teachers, many of whom are already overworked and underpaid, which is compassionate and understandable. However, good teachers figure out a way to communicate regularly with parents, whether through an e-board or classroom newsletter, blog, or other media, between in-person conferences.
You Are Not the School’s Keeper
As a parent, your first obligation is to your child and family. Parents are not responsible for the wellbeing of the school; rather, schools are responsible for the wellbeing of students. Your child’s education is your top priority, and you are entitled to ask as many relevant questions as you need. It is your right to know what is going on in your child’s classroom and how they are spending their time in school. As a taxpayer, you are essentially a consumer of public education, and it is therefore only appropriate and lawful that parents should be able to know what they are paying for.
“The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil”
Not only is it “ok” to speak up, but it is essential for being an effective advocate! If there are specific teachers whose class you want your child to be in the following school year, request them. Many parents are hesitant to “bother” schools by asserting what they want for their child, be it a specific teacher/classroom, services, or simple answers to questions. This creates a situation in which there are a limited number of vocal parents, with districts generally more willing to acquiesce to those outspoken parents. In my personal and professional experience, parents who ask more questions and are more insistent get better results for their children.
Questions to Ask Teachers and Administrators
Parents, especially those with struggling or underperforming students, should have answers to the following questions.
What is the student’s reading level? Specific areas of weakness?
What content is being taught in all subject areas?
What curriculum(s) are being used for each subject?
How often is student assessed and how? Do assessments vary? (i.e. not just tests)
Is work being returned in a timely manner with feedback?
How are any learning challenges addressed? What strategies are being taught in those situations?
How often is student getting small group time with a teacher for a specific subject (i.e. reading)
What is/are the classroom routines, rules, and expectations? Systems of management and discipline? I.e. Individual reward chart, whole-class system, etc…
How is the day structured? How much time spent on each subject and in “specials”?
What is the literacy model and how much time is spent on independent reading? Guided reading? Shared Reading? Read-alouds?
How and how often is reading progress monitored and assessed? How often do students confer with their teacher?
What leveling system for books does the school use? (i.e. Fountas and Pinnell, Lexile, Reading Recovery, etc…)
How do students learn to check out/pick“ just right” books for themselves?
How often do students get to go to the library and check out books?
What does the mathematics curriculum consist of?
Are games incorporated into the learning? Technology?
Documentation can become critical to successful advocacy, especially when students have disabilities and may need evaluations, additional services, and an IEP. Insist on getting everything in writing, as you have no way to hold districts accountable for verbal statements.
Parent Training Programs
Organizations such as the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) provide parent training programs that provide concrete and actionable methods for parents and other advocates to use when engaging with a school district. The COPAA website offers helpful tips and tools, as well as listings for other organizations,
When to Seek Outside Help
Many people can be effective parent advocates once they know their goals, the right questions to ask, and their legal rights. However, families dealing with school districts that are attempting to circumvent the law may need the help of a professional to get the school to adequately serve their children now and in the future. In those cases, it is a good idea to contact a non-attorney advocate, such as The Savvy Tutor, to act on your behalf or in concert with you.
Hopefully this information will provide you with the knowledge and resources to effectively advocate for your child. If you need assistance with a more complex case, reach out to find out how we can work together to obtain the high quality education your child deserves!
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