From choosing a doctor to changing the foods we eat, we are advocating for our little people before they even make their grand entrance. And once they are here, we advocate for them by making a million little – and big – decisions on their behalf. So, by the time you are ready to ship that precious little peanut off to school, you should be a pro at advocating. Right?
Well, advocating for your child in a school setting presents new challenges. There’s a lot to learn and some things that just aren’t in your control. (Begin deep breaths.)
Wait, that sounds scary. And I don’t want to be the “Crazy Mom” or the “Difficult Mom” or the “Helicopter Mom”…but I also want what’s best for my kid.
Is there a middle ground?
Of course. There’s a space between doing nothing (and being unhappy) and being the dreaded “Crazy Mom/Difficult Mom/Helicopter Mom.” Do I have a step-by-step plan for you? No, but I do have some loosely-strung-together thoughts, a lot of experience, and the hope some of this will help you.
Why do you need to advocate?
The professionals at your child’s school are invested in helping your child grow. They also have many other children they are helping. Do children fall through the cracks? Yes, they can – if parents aren’t engaged in their child’s education. You and your partner are the adults who know your child best. If you aren’t going to advocate for your child, you cannot count on someone else doing the job for you. There are too many kids and too many issues for teachers to make that happen in every instance.
So when should I advocate?
There are different reasons you may need to advocate. I, along with a few of my friends, have children with varying types and levels of special needs. Behavioral, emotional, physical, learning differences…If your child has any kind of special needs, or you suspect they might, you need to familiarize yourself with the federal laws, your state laws, and your school district policies. There are lots of great national and local support groups that can help you understand your child’s educational rights. The laws aren’t meant to be something to hold over educators’ heads as a threat. They are there to protect your child and ensure services for any special needs.
Yikes. That sounds like a lot of work.
It is, but your kid needs your voice. And since when have we dodged hard work?
What will they think of me? OMG, what if they label me the “Crazy Mom?”
Well, let me give you a personal experience. An incident occurred at my son’s school and I was not happy with how it was handled. I wasn’t happy with much of anything that year. BUT I didn’t want to be the “Crazy Mom.” That mom the teachers must surely talk about with eye rolls. Which is completely ridiculous. I was a teacher. I never talked about parents with eye rolls. I knew better, but I still felt funny about expressing my concern. (Note: I did not say “complaining.”) I shared my hesitancy with a friend who was also a teacher. She looked me in the face and said, rather sternly:
“You slap on that ‘crazy-mom’ name tag and get your butt in there.”
Whoa. I have to say, it wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. Yet this advice has come back to me more times than I can count. She was telling me to get over my concern of what the teacher will think of me. It’s none of my business what the teacher thinks of me, anyway. There was an issue to be addressed and it was my job to address it. Pretty clear cut.
So now I slap on that invisible “crazy-mom” name tag before drafting emails or making a phone call. Just as my own little way of acknowledging that I’m not completely comfortable with advocating. It’s not a personality strength.
Maybe you aren’t worried about being the “Crazy Mom.” Maybe you don’t want to be perceived as the Overprotective Mom, or the Helicopter Mom, or the Demanding Mom, or the Mom-Who-Thinks-Her-Kid-Is-Perfect. Whatever perception you are struggling with…figure out how to get past it. Fast. Because your kids need your voice.
Fine, you’ve convinced me. But what does good advocating and communication look like?
You need to begin with the classroom teacher and your succinct concern. Nothing is more annoying than finding out there’s an issue with a colleague from your boss, right? Give the classroom teacher a chance to address a situation or direct you to the right person. It’s a matter of being respectful, and even kind. The teacher-parent relationship is important and should be built on respect. Besides he or she is on your team. They want the best for your kid, too. (Yes, I know there are awful exceptions to this, but they are exceptions.)
What do I mean by direct? I mean, stop using that watered-down, self-doubting, people-pleasing language so many of us were raised to speak. Slash the “maybe’s.” Cross out the “Sorry to bother you.” Do not even think about writing “I’m sure it’s no big deal.” Those words are unnecessary. Stick to the facts.
I am concerned because…
I would like to meet with you to discuss…
Do you have suggestions for how to address this…
You do not need to determine if it is a big deal. Or exactly what size of deal warrants communication and what doesn’t. If you are bothered about something, address it.
As for timely, remember it’s better to reach out rather than stew on something. Don’t wait for a few weeks to address an issue.
But, but…you like the teachers and administrators and you have this ridiculous need for them to like you or think you’re a nice person. Fine. You can still be nice. Thank them for their time. Thank them for the work they do every day for your child. Don’t let your concern get lost in your flowery gratitude. Make your point. No one has time for long emails anyway. Geesh.
Case in point: I recently re-read an email I sent when my oldest son was in second grade. I was livid about something. Liv-id. (It takes a lot for me to reach liv-id.) If you were to read the email, you would have no idea I was mad. Or even concerned. I had spent so much time trying to sound nice and word my email just right, that my concern was lost. Do not do that. You will not get any results.
But what if I try to advocate and I don’t get the results I want?
1. Each district has processes and procedures. Familiarize yourself with them and determine your options and next steps.
2. Talk with other parents.
I DO NOT mean stand in the dog food aisle at Target and gripe.
I DO NOT mean post raging tirades on social media.
I mean, find parents who’ve had similar issues. Ask them for advice. The reason I got put on the right track to learning about sensory processing disorder (which one of my sons has) is because I reached out to a mom who is part of an organization that advocates for kids with special needs. And she helped me! She directed me to other moms who had already managed their way through the hoops in the district. I learned from them and my experience was easier. Parents helping parents, helping kids. It’s a beautiful thing.
So, to re-cap:
1. You are your child’s #1 advocate.
2. Be respectful and be direct in your communication.
3. Familiarize yourself with district policies and state/federal laws if needed.
4. Reach out for help from parents who have similar issues.
If advocating for your kid were easy, we wouldn’t need articles like this one. It’s hard, but your kids spend a great deal of time in the school setting and they need your voice on their behalf. You got this.