How to advocate for your child

Charlotte Latvala

When your child needs an advocate, there’s no better person than you. But what’s the best way to be an effective advocate?

Whether your child has an ongoing issue or a one-time problem, at some point you may need to be his advocate at school: speaking up for him and working with other adults on his behalf in ways that, as a kid, he can’t. Here’s how:

Ask yourself: Do I really need to step in?

There’s a fine line between helpful advocate and helicopter parent. “If it’s a question of safety or health, you certainly need to step in,” says parenting and education expert Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. More often, you have to make a judgment call. “You want to empower your kid to ask questions, clarify instructions, and get along with classmates, not rely on you to solve every little problem,” says Borba. However, if you suspect bullying or notice a regression in your child’s behavior—baby-talk, thumb sucking, clinginess—that lasts longer than a couple days, it may be time to intervene.

Go through the proper channels.

If you decide to advocate, don’t show up at a school official’s office and expect to discuss your child’s ADHD or reading problem on the spot, says Susan Cooper, a former vice president of operations for a chain of 350 preschools. “Start with the teacher, and ask her what’s the best way to talk,” she advises. “It’s never wrong to keep an open line of communication, but you need to find the right time for serious discussions.” If the situation (like bullying) warrants an in-person meeting, ask that the appropriate professionals be involved from the get-go, rather than have to repeat the same information multiple times.

Check the emotional baggage.

“Don’t be confrontational, or immediately blame the teacher or another parent,” says Borba. “When you put people on the defensive, they’re less likely to hear what you’re saying.” Instead, she suggests, let the other person talk for the first five minutes and see where she’s coming from: Is she aware of the problem? How does she describe your child? A smart approach: Jot down key talking points beforehand. “You’re more likely to stick to the facts and be calm if you’ve got everything written in front of you,” says Borba.

Be a team player.

Your goal should be to get everyone on board, says Cooper. “Always use ‘we,’ not ‘I,’ when you’re discussing the issue,” she says. Ask what you can do to help, whether it’s volunteering in the classroom or working with your child at home.

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