Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Advocating for Your Kid 101

In the past 10 years that Jake has attended public school, we have had to advocate for him at some point each year. Sometimes, the issue was totally minor and only took a small chat with the teacher, and others it took what felt like a Herculean effort.

Along the way, we made many mistakes, but I would like to think that we have learned some things, too. Things that I would love to share with all of you. Keep in mind that I am no expert, and the things stated here are strictly my own opinion. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me directly and I'll do my best to help you out.

1. It isn't your job to be best friends with the teacher (brown nosing doesn't get you anywhere)

This sounds a bit...harsh, I know. But it's true. The teacher is there to teach your child, not to be your best buddy. It doesn't win you any brownie points or guarantee that your child will be treated better if the teacher likes you, and just makes you an adult version of the "teacher's pet". Remember how kids all hated the teacher's pet in school?

That's not to say that you shouldn't recognize the hard work that your child's teacher puts in every day. By all means, recognize that. Surprise them with a little chocolate on Valentine's Day, a thoughtful little something at Christmas, and if you feel they are doing amazing things for your child, say so. Only if you really mean it.

The reason I say that you can't be their friend is that if you do have to stand up for your child, it's so much easier if you aren't. Otherwise you might be put on the spot of choosing between a friend and your child, and THAT is difficult. Keep it business-like. They are in the business of educating. Your job is to look out for your child's best interests. PERIOD.

2. Follow the chain of command (or you will look like a complete fool)

I admit, I'm bad at this. (sheepish grin) In schools here in BC, there is a chain of command if you are unhappy. First, talk to the teacher. Then if it's not resolved, you talk to the principal. If it's not resolved there, you talk to the assistant superintendent (or superintendent if there is not assistant). If you STILL aren't happy, you bring the issue to the school board. Most school districts have written policies regarding this that you can download from their websites or via pamphlet form from the Board Office, or at your child's school.

From personal experience, it's best to follow this and document everything. If you don't, usually the higher-up person will tell you to try to resolve it with the lower person first and you'll just look a bit foolish.

3. Document, document, document (I mean it!)

Did I say document? It's a good idea to keep a binder with your child's report cards, assessments, notes from meetings (dated and names of who is present), etc. Communicate important things to your child's school via mail and keep a copy for yourself. A paper trail is your bestest friend because if you need to take it to the next level, you have proof.

4. Don't get emotional (ie-calling people up and screaming at them is a bad idea)

I have been guilty of this as well. Do your utmost to stay calm, rational, and don't let them goad you into losing your cool. By all means, don't go in there and swear at them because once you do, it becomes all about your "abusive" behavior and less about your child. Count to 100, envision palm trees and ocean waves, do whatever you have to in order to stay calm.

That doesn't mean you can't be firm. Just don't lose it or they win because you then look like the crazy one.

5. Do your homework (especially if you have a special needs child)

One of the most important things you can do is know the School Act (as it's called in BC). Know your child's rights, and your rights as a parent. Know the district's policies, the school policies, and everything you can about your child's disability. It's a tall order, yes. However it also helps a great deal when you are advocating for your child. There's no surprises, then. Knowledge really is power.

6. Assessments are not a bad thing. Most of the time.

A lot of parents are wary of assessments, because it will mean that their child will be labeled. What if the label is incorrect and then their kid is put through years of therapy for something they don't even HAVE?! It's a valid concern.

Here is MY opinion...

When Jake was young, the district we were in had a really high amount of kids diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin. We were pressured to have him assessed to do the same. We refused. Suspicious of the whole 'assessment' of all these kids, we chose to have Jake assessed privately and pay for it ourselves.

If you pay for a private assessment, the information is in YOUR control. You only release to the school district what you want them to know. There is some risk to a private assessment, as we found out. School districts are not always willing to give them the same amount of weight as an internal one. Plus they run around $1500 + to have done.

If you allow the school district to assess your child internally, the information is in THEIR control. If the person believes they have something that you don't agree with, it's virtually impossible to shake that label.

It's up to you. Generally, if you can have an assessment done by the gold seal standard place in your area (with us it's Children's Hospital), then I believe that you are much better off. With Children's Hospital we went through our family doctor and the school recommended we have him assessed there, it was free, and nobody argues with THAT assessment.

Having the right diagnosis is pure gold because then you have something to work with, to point people to, etc when you are advocating. It can become the proof you need for your child to qualify for a scribe or reader later on in high school.

7. Get a Thick Skin

I hate to say this, but advocating doesn't win you friends. Sometimes you will be the unpopular parent in the class and everyone will resent you for rocking the boat. Sometimes you will have to take people to task, and when you walk in the doors of the school the atmosphere will be as cold as an ice cube. Suck it up.

If this happens, remember #1. You have a child to look after, and it's their needs that come first. PERIOD.

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