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Be Your Child's Advocate

Become a part of your child's school solution.

Work with teachers and administrators to help your child succeed at school.
Work with teachers and administrators to help your child succeed at school.

What should you do if your child is placed with a teacher who's not a good match? How do you proceed if you suspect your son has a learning disability? Where do you turn if your daughter is bullied during recess? You become your child's advocate by working with the school to create a solution. We spoke with school principals and other educational leaders to define guidelines for putting your energy, focus, and in-depth knowledge of your own child to its most effective use.

1. Build good relations from the start. Don't wait for an issue to emerge to introduce yourself to your child's teacher. Raising a concern will be easier and less confrontational if open communication has already been established. There are many ways to become a positive force in your child's classroom.

Consider dropping a friendly note or making an appointment with the teacher early in the year just to touch base. Volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning a class trip will also help you get to know the teacher better, as well as allow you to observe your child firsthand.

2. If a problem occurs, gather the details. Perhaps your child is struggling with a subject that used to come easily, or maybe he has voiced concerns about being teased. It makes sense to act when you observe an issue or your child tells you something's wrong. Trust your own judgment and move forward, but also make sure you have all the information available.

For instance, if you want to switch your child to another teacher, you will need concrete examples to explain why. School rules differ about what legitimate reasons are, but Les Potter, a 35-year veteran of public education, a college professor, and currently the principal of Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, says pleading that your child's friends are in another class or first period gym is inconvenient is not likely to result in a change. However, he adds, if your child is academically misplaced (in a class that's too easy or too tough), it is possible to make a change.

Julie Kwikkel, an elementary principal for 11 years, currently at Storm Lake Community School East and West in Storm Lake, Iowa, says she'll consider a switch if a child's learning style clearly doesn't match the teacher's methods. She stresses that you'll be most likely to get the switch you want if you approach the principal with solid evidence and concrete examples, rather than hearsay. Take a look at your child's notebook and assignments or speak with another class parent. Even if you don't know the whole story, you'll want to be as specific as possible when you approach the principal.

3. Begin with the teacher, usually. In most cases, an informal chat with the classroom teacher should be the first step in addressing any issue. Elizabeth Ramos, a teacher at Chatsworth Senior High School in Chatsworth, California, says, "As soon as the problem is brought to my attention, I become part of the solution."

Potter says he appreciates when parents use the chain of command. Starting with the teacher gives you the opportunity to escalate your complaint should a suitable solution not be reached. The guidance counselor and school psychologist are also helpful in-school resources. The principal is the next step. Potter points out that you can contact the superintendent if the principal is not able to help reach a satisfactory conclusion.

4. Connect with others. There's strength in numbers and most likely any school-based issue is not unique to your child. Look into your local PTA to connect with other parents. If you're concerned about a disability of any kind, Justine Maloney of the Learning Disabilities Association of America recommends contacting your state's federally funded parent resource centers.

5. Keep a record. Document all your communications, both to be on the same page about expectations and so you'll know who told you what and when. If you move beyond the casual chat level, express concerns in writing, says Maloney. Keep a copy, and send the letter by certified mail.

6. Avoid the blame game. Mixing an important issue that concerns your child with busy teachers and school administrators can make for potentially frustrating feelings. For best results, try to keep your cool. Do try to be considerate of the teacher's time. If educational jargon has left your head spinning, use our teacher translator, but also feel free to ask for clarification. Principal Potter hopes parents "never look at school as 'us against them,' but as an institution that wants to work with the family for the best for the child."

Even though you may have to be persistent, keep in mind that ultimately everyone involved wants what's best for your child. Potter says, "Principals enjoy working with parents to come up with workable solutions."

Principal Kwikkel hopes parents will:

  • Keep an open mind
  • Trust professional judgment
  • Realize principals have families too
  • Communicate honestly
  • Ask questions
  • Be good listeners

"I put my welcome mat out pretty far," she says. "The solution to any problem has to be a collaborative effort."

7. Know your rights. Most issues have a good chance of being addressed to everyone's satisfaction within your school community. But if you are unable to get to the resolution you need, legal means are available. If your child's disability affects his educational performance, you have the right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) to have your child tested to determine his special education eligibility. You can also request mediation or a "fair hearing." Mediation brings you and the school district together with a neutral third party who is trained to help everyone come to an agreement. At a fair hearing, you and the school district present the dispute and a judge issues a decision.

8. Have a plan, but be flexible. In Kwikkel's state, Iowa, parents, teachers, or administrators can request a child study meeting to work toward a solution to any issue. Teachers, parents, and possibly other members of the school community form the team. They meet regularly to plan for a particular child's needs. Many schools have a similar process in place. Come to the table with any thoughts you have about a possible solution, but also keep an open mind about how to proceed. Kwikkel points out that parents and teachers have access to different first-hand knowledge of the child. She says, "If a child knows we're a united front, that helps."

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