As a parent there is one job that comes with the gig that can sometimes be very daunting. And it can be even more daunting when you are dealing with children with additional needs.
However, as daunting as it may be, this job is possibly the most important one for parents of school aged children.
The job of being an advocate.
So what do I mean when I talk about advocacy?
The dictionary meaning of advocacy is
The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.
I consider advocacy to be standing up for the rights of your child. To speak up to ensure that your child’s needs are known and catered for. To be their defender and their voice and their go-to person.
You don’t have to have children with special needs to be an advocate. Every parent is naturally an advocate for their child, whether they are aware of that or not. Who else will speak for their children in their younger years when children cannot really speak for themselves?
However, for parents of school aged children with special needs, advocacy takes on a whole new meaning. To be an effective advocate, special needs parents need to be experts in their child’s condition, knowledgeable about relevant school policy (such as discipline, funding and disability policies) and aware of their rights to appeal adverse decisions.
It can be daunting but it is possible to become an effective advocate for the needs of your child, especially if you keep the following tips in mind.
Be informed – know your rights
You really need to do your homework and become familiar with your rights and the rights of your child at school. Each school (based on their overall jurisdiction, be it in the public or private system) will have their own policies and procedures in relation to discipline, funding and special needs provisions.
It pays to be aware of what help or assistance your child may be entitled to so you can follow-up on this if it is not forthcoming. I have heard of a few examples where parents have not been consulted when funding for their child has been reduced or even informed when their child has become eligible to apply. You cannot automatically assume that you will be informed when circumstances change.
As I discovered myself last year, it also pays to know about the school’s discipline policy so you can understand the decisions the school makes when it comes to suspension and other disciplinary action. This knowledge could be essential in cases where you may need to consider appealing a decision.
Open, honest and timely communication – with teacher, aide and school executive
The best way to advocate for your child is to establish strong communication with the school. This means building a good relationship with the classroom teacher, teacher’s aide, members of the school executive (deputy, learning support teacher) and the school principal.
Having a good relationship with the school means that you have a better chance to communicate your concerns and nip issues in the bud. Providing as much information as you can about your child also means that the school has the opportunity to more fully cater to their needs.
Don’t be afraid to ask for meetings with school staff to discuss your concerns. Request a daily communication book if you wish to know more about your child’s progress in the classroom. And insist on asking questions if you are not sure about any aspect of your child’s education.
Be involved – be visible and contribute
I have found that being involved in the school also assists in your role as advocate for your child. Helping out with canteen, assisting with reading groups, joining the P&C or offering to provide ongoing support in other ways to the school goes a long way in building good will for you and your child.
Being involved also gives you a great opportunity to watch your child’s experiences and identify any potential issues before they arise. By being there you can see first-hand how your child is progressing and how the school is accommodating their needs.
Taking the time to provide feedback on school surveys and talking to staff about your thoughts on the school can also help you to make a difference to your child’s experiences while in their education setting.
I hope these tips can help improve your relationship with your child’s school and give you the tools to effectively advocate for your child’s needs. I know that I am a far better advocate for my own kids since realising the importance of these aspects of advocacy.