Successfully Advocating for Your Child
One day last spring Sean Colbert-Lewis (M.T. ‘00 Social Stud Ed; Ph.D. ‘05 Ed Pol Studies) happened upon a scene at his son’s elementary school that disturbed him. When he arrived to pick up the second-grader from after-school care he saw his son running back and forth between two sixth graders passing a Frisbee above his head. After observing for a a few minutes, Colbert-Lewis became convinced that they were purposely excluding him from play, and his son was increasingly frustrated by it. Colbert-Lewis went to the supervising teacher, who stood watching passively, but she refused to intervene.
It didn’t help that two weeks earlier Colbert-Lewis had heard from a program staffer that an eighth grader walked up to his son and called out, “Hey, fatso!” This staffer reported that he also had failed to intervene.
“After these two incidents, I decided to have a conversation with the vice principal, who I had a very good professional and personal relationship with,” says Colbert-Lewis, who is a National Board Certified Teacher and director of the secondary social studies teacher education program at North Carolina Central University.
Like Colbert-Lewis, many concerned parents feel compelled to intervene on behalf of their children not only about social relationships but about academic progress, classroom discipline and more.
And they should, says Justin Malone (Ed.D. ’14 Admin & Supv), assistant principal at Charlottesville High School.
“Few things are more important to the function of a school than the relationships within. In my experience, the relationship between a student and teacher is one of the most significant indicators of student success. By extension, a family’s relationship with the school is tremendously valuable.”
Some parents, though, feel uncertain about the best way to advocate for their children at school, so Curry Magazine turned for some expert advice to some education professionals who were prepared by the Curry School.
When is it appropriate to step in?
“The most important advice I give my parents is that it is never too early to intervene or step in,” says Angela Mason (M.Ed. ‘04 Spec Ed), a sixth-grade math teacher at Farnell Middle School in Tampa, Fla. “The most successful students aren’t the ones with the most money, but the ones with the most parent involvement, plain and simple.”
Malone agrees and recommends parental involvement throughout the K-12 experience. “In the elementary years, a family’s involvement in their student’s school fosters a community-building component that extends to dinner table conversations,” he says. “As students move through the middle school years, and as their content options expand along with their impulsive behaviors, the family’s relationship with the school helps provide stability and balance through what is often a tumultuous tenure.
The most important advice I give my parents is that it is never too early to intervene or step in.
“By the time students enter high school and continue to foster their independence, the school-family partnership works collaboratively to provide motivation and strategic advice about working towards graduation and post-secondary options.”
Robin Alberts (B.S. ’88, M.Ed. ’89 Social Stud Ed) an English teacher at Yukon Middle School in Oklahoma, believes that any time a parent has a concern is the appropriate time to step in.
“Most school districts have online grading systems where parents can see what their child is missing and what the grade is,” she says. “This is the first step, if the concern is grades. There may also be a social issue or some other problem that needs attention.”
“There is not really a wrong time to step in,” says Michael Irani (Ed.D. ’14 Admin & Supv), principal of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Charlottesville. “I would say that the more important question is, When is it appropriate to step back? Once you have advocated for your child and you have worked with the school on a solution, it is important to provide everyone the space and time to implement a plan.”
Where should I begin?
I would say that the more important question is, When is it appropriate to step back?
“In general, your child’s teacher is the first person you should touch base with,” says Irani.
Not only is the teacher the one who probably knows your child best in a school, he says, but the teacher can provide direction on next steps should things not find immediate resolution.
“That said, I hope that most schools have structures in place where parents feel comfortable approaching a counselor or administrator as well. There should not be a wrong entry point, but going to the teacher first almost always provides the most efficient entry point,” he advises.
What is the best way to reach out?
“Effective parental advocacy requires fairly simple action – have a presence,” Malone says. “Families should always feel welcome at their student’s school. I always recommend families take advantage of the school’s accessibility by visiting classrooms, volunteering for school or parent-teacher events, and attending parent-teacher conferences.”
A weekly email or phone call initiated by parents is an easy way to avoid surprises and build a relationship, he adds. “Most teachers welcome the communication, particularly if the family initiates the discussion.”
Most teachers welcome the communication, particularly if the family initiates the discussion.
Alberts agrees that an e-mail is the most efficient way to contact a teacher: “Teachers have limited time in the day to get on the phone with classes, meetings and prep for the day,” she says. “If you would like to talk to a teacher, I would suggest sending them your phone number via e-mail, and they can call you when they are available.”
Irani recommends tailoring your communication medium to the situation. “An email can be very effective and easy for many issues, but in reality, when some concerns arise a conversation either on the phone or in person may be more appropriate,” he says.
Issues concerning a student’s social and emotional wellbeing or in situations where knowing some background to understand the nuances of the situation may require a verbal conversation for best results.
What is the most effective approach for discussing concerns?
“In order to effectively advocate for children, parents need to become informed and organized,” says Lynn Will (M.Ed. ’11 Reading), a reading specialist who works with struggling readers at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School in Richmond.
While it is important to show up and speak up, there is a way to do that without losing your temper.
“While it is important to show up and speak up, there is a way to do that without losing your temper, as that only gets in the way of your ultimate goal—success for your child.”
An ongoing relationship with the school is vital, she says. She recommends resources on the Wrights Law website.
“When you contact a teacher, please try to be supportive and don’t assume that everything your child says is true,” reminds Alberts. “You will get a better result if you are neutral and explain your concerns without accusing the teacher of anything.”
In her experience adolescents will sometimes say whatever it takes to avoid disciplinary consequences.
“Teachers are in the profession to help children and most of them have their hearts in the right place,” she says. “They do make mistakes, like any other human. They are under tremendous stress, but most continue to give their best for children every day. Most teachers really appreciate parent contact as it opens the door to communication.”
“For the parents of early adolescents, it’s sometimes hard for parents to coach their kids toward problem-solving and advocating. Instead, the I-must-solve-this-problem-for-my-child reaction takes over,” says Eston Melton (M.T. ’04 Engl Ed), who is assistant principal at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I often advise parents to come see me with their child and to let the student start the discussion. Getting a young person vested in resolving difficulties provides useful inertia for the next time something goes amiss.”
I believe all schools and all their teachers want all students to be successful. Tremendously successful.
Stacy P. Dean (Ph.D. ’06 Spec Ed), an educational diagnostician with Partners In Learning Educational Consultants, suggests keeping a notebook and folder with the child’s paperwork and notes from previous meetings, as well as written questions for upcoming meetings. (She likes the Harvard Family Research Project’s guidebook for help in formulating questions).
“I recommend frequent contact with specific academic or behavioral updates,” she suggests. “[Teachers] don’t mind when you ask. In other words, monitor your child’s progress frequently and consistently. Specifically, ask questions like, ‘Is my child making progress?’ or ‘Is my child on grade level?’”
What might be happening behind the scenes that a parent should be aware of?
Parental concerns, while hugely important, must also fit within the entire complex structure of a school, explains Irani.
“Being able to address a parent’s concerns can be either facilitated or hindered by the class schedule, mix of students in a class, personnel-related issues, space, financial resources, etcetera – all of which are things that a teacher or administrator should not openly discuss.”
“I believe all schools and all their teachers want all students to be successful. Tremendously successful,” says Malone. “School administrators, teachers, and division personnel believe every decision they make moves students toward that success.
“What’s happening behind the scenes? Well, plenty. But what families should know is that the school’s intention is to prepare for students to be self-determined, resourceful, empathic, creative, and innovative.”
Before Colbert-Lewis took his concerns to the vice principal at his son’s school, he had laid the groundwork for a positive response by establishing a reputation as a supportive parent with a strong background in the academic discipline of education. He adds this suggestion:
“If your Curry School training allowed you opportunities to have the expertise to do workshops that center on diversity and fostering positive school environments, I highly encourage you to volunteer your expertise. That’s what I did for the entire teaching faculty and staff of my son’s elementary school,” he says.
Colbert-Lewis offered to present a diversity/anti-bullying workshop training at no charge. The assistant principal accepted his offer, and the positive feedback he received from teachers afterward confirmed that his contribution to the school was much appreciated.
Read a related post on the Curry blog by Charlotte Wellen (M.Ed. ’91 English Ed) called “Parents Welcome Here.”