Updated: Apr 23
Question: What can I do to advocate for my child and support their school experience?
Point 1: Prevent issues instead of reacting to them.
Many parents send kids off to school, and never give the educational process much thought beyond the first days of kindergarten. It is important that you stay engaged at whatever level possible, no matter the age of your student.
Get ahead of potential problems by being proactive rather than waiting for a crisis.
The worst thing you can do is only contact the school when you are angry or upset. Reverse the situation and consider how that would feel on the receiving end. Besides that, reactivity is counterproductive in most cases.
You are the expert in your child’s needs and personality. Offer a succinct description of your child to the teachers as the school year begins. Include information the teacher may never know without being told. This will save months in diagnosing how to get your child on track at school.
Here are some examples information to provide:
-Family circumstances: moves, hardships, siblings, medical issues;
-Developmental facts: birth irregularities, age of milestones such as talking, walking, or fine motor skills, vision and hearing data;
-Child’s temperament: introvert or extrovert, thinker or feeler, detailed or global; spontaneous or routine; willful or compliant;
-Interests: favorite subjects in and out of school, playmates, fears, weekly activities.
Point 2: Set up systems and routines at home that sync with the school schedule.
Along with the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality described above, many parents are unaware of the systems already in place to make the home-school connection more successful. You can access almost all the key details you may need online: academic calendar, lesson plans, homework, and gradebook.
Most schools require teachers to provide newsletters and push them out to parents on a regular basis. Make it a point to put key events and assignments on your calendar. When something big is coming up, pre-empt the situation by emailing the teacher to ask how you can provide specific support.
One single mother, whose two adopted children were in my classroom, made her own tracking sheet of what she wanted to know about her children’s weeks. She trained her son and daughter to put it on my desk every Friday. Filling it out took me only a few moments, but it saved many email tennis matches. It also trained her kids to be responsible and accountable.
Apparently, getting this paper filling this out was tied to a special privilege at home, and this motivated the students to cooperate. This might not be needed or possible for every family, but for certain situations, it is a wonderful idea! If your child is too young to do this, mark your own calendar to check in every week or two with the teacher via email. Ask specific questions such as:
-What is my child’s current grade?
-Any missing work? (this may be accessible online)
-How would you rate my child’s effort this week (1-10)?
-How would you rate their cooperation? (1-10)
-Any suggestions for me to support you at home?
Point 3: Build a good working relationship with the teachers early in the year.
If you have made the efforts as described above, I promise the teacher will already appreciate you and look forward to hearing from you. You can read more about working with the teacher on academic issues in my post about homework.
However, here are some quick points I wish I could tell the parents of my students nearly every year:
- I rarely work less than 10 hours a day, besides my commute.
- I usually work part of the weekend also.
- My class roster is longer than I was told it would be.
- I care deeply for all my students, and sometimes worry I can’t do enough to help them all.
- I am a real person just like you, and make mistakes.
-Please be gracious and presume I am already trying my best.
Point 4: Hear what your child is not telling you.
Children primarily respond based on the environment they experience. If they are in a peaceful and safe environment, they generally will produce the same attitude and behavior. When they are in a chaotic or scary place, they will carry that stress with them. The difference between a child and an adult who is dealing with stress or trauma is that they don’t have the words, skills, or self-awareness to process or communicate what they have experienced.
There are often some common signs of a child or teen that are dealing with something they aren’t able to manage well on their own. This article from the American Psychological Association describes in more detail symptoms to check. While all people can be moody on occasion, seeing a few of these signs over a prolonged time frame is cause to put on your detective had to investigate. This is what I often notice as a teacher:
- Change in friends or where they choose to sit in class
- Quieter or louder than normal
- Wanting to talk to me when they usually do not
- Changing the subject
- Hygiene or clothing irregularities
- Increase in absences, tardy to or leaving class
- Body language that is avoidant (head down, disengaged)
If you notice these issues at home, contact the school to see if the teachers are noticing the same signs. They may have insights about something that your child would not tell you.
Have a simple and tender dialogue with your child about your observations. Reassure them that you are a safe place to share what is bothering them. They may not tell you right away. Give them some space, but keep asking if your intuition tells you to do so.
Explain that you will not be mad, you just want to help. Many children who are in abusive situations have been told they or their loved ones will get hurt if they speak out.
I have had several students and friends who were abused that did not tell me until years later. I didn’t know to ask. Remember, it never hurts to ask about what they're dealing with and be wrong. It does hurt when victims are left alone. So, ask and prepare yourself to help, even if you feel ill-equipped. Being alone is worse. This is especially true with individuals at risk for suicide. You can learn more about how to talk about that here.
Especially if what your child discloses is severe, remain as calm as possible. If you freak out, they will also. Tell only those people necessary to keep them safe. If you share it with everyone in the family or at school, it will embarrass them -- and they will likely never trust you with other information again. On the other hand, do not promise to not tell anyone, because if you find out something illegal you will need to report it. You can find more information for very serious suspected problems here.
Point 5: Follow the organizational chain of command if you are not satisfied with a situation.
Once you discover a problem, any loving parent will want to act immediately to solve it. However, composure is essential. You need to collect facts. If your child is being bullied or abused, your own rage may get in the way of you helping them. If they perhaps received an unfair mark or the teacher was less than appropriate somehow, the tendency is to immediately retaliate. You don’t want to do that.
Follow the normal system for inquiries or complaints—unless the situation is dire. In that case, getting legal counsel and contacting a government agency will help you find out your options and rights as a parent.
Run-of-the-mill school foibles should always be directed to that classroom teacher first. Angry parents are notorious for going straight to the administrators to complain. This may get the staff’s attention, but not in a good way. It makes a parent look unreasonable and adversarial, and this won’t help you or your child.
When you meet with the teacher, or later an administrator, have sufficient documentation of your concerns. Yes, trust your child’s words, but also realize that they may be sharing only one view of the story, and by default theirs is likely less mature. Ask open ended questions such as:
-What are your thoughts on…?
-What do you suggest we do to improve this…?
-What resources can you recommend to fix this issue?
-My child sees this as the problem…what do you think about it?
Take notes in all your meetings and reflect them back to the school employees. Follow up in a week or two to see if the situation has changed. Consider reconvening once more with the teachers before you choose to contact someone above them.
When you do contact a higher-up, bring all the data you have collected, including correspondences with the teacher. This shows a good faith effort to team with the school, and also shows what has already been tried.
Finally, if you are not satisfied with the school principal’s response—or even the district office, you have my warmest endorsement to find out what legal support exists for your child’s circumstance.
You have been entrusted with your child, and they need your voice to defend them. If you won’t do this, who will? And if no one speaks up for your child, what will result in the future?