Parents often ask when should they advocate for their child (versus encouraging him to advocate for himself), who they should talk to and what they should communicate. The answers to these questions depend in part on what the specific situation is and whether your child has been identified as having special needs, but there are some general guidelines that can be followed to be a successful advocate for your child.
When Does My Child Need Me to Advocate for Him?
If he is consistently having difficulty in, or expressing dissatisfaction with a specific situation, such as piano lessons, math class or a sports team, you first want to try to determine the cause of the concern. It is important to understand whether the source of the difficulty resides primarily within your son or if other individuals are contributing to the problem. For example, in math class, he may be struggling with understanding the concepts presented because of an underlying difficulty understanding earlier math concepts. In this case, advocating is not required but remediation is, through review of older material or tutoring.
However, if the difficulty with understanding the concept is related to the manner in which it is presented and in which questions are received by the instructor (e.g., the teacher only presents information auditorally with few visual supports and does not provide additional or alternative explanations when questioned), then it is possible that intervening though a conversation with the teacher would be appropriate. During your discussion with your child, you want to determine how he has attempted to address the problem independently.
As parents, we always want to encourage our children to be able to advocate and stand up for themselves. Helping them find the correct way to intervene is important. For example, if your child is on a soccer team and is dissatisfied because the coach never allows him to play in the games, you should initially encourage your child to talk with the coach about his concern. If he feels his piano teacher is providing music that is too easy or too difficult, encourage him to give feedback directly to the teacher to determine if the concerns are heard and understood. If the problems persist after he has attempted to advocate for himself, you can become more directly involved and advocate for your child. If your child is involved in extracurricular activities and
has been identified as having difficulties with learning or with social/emotional functioning, it is important to first highlight strategies to increase his success with learning new skills and then monitor the implementation of strategies or accommodations to ensure the experience is successful.
Who Should I Talk To?
If your child's concerns are related to an extracurricular activity, you should address the concerns primarily with the person who has direct contact with him. Rather than approaching the division leader, approach the coach directly. Some parents may feel uncomfortable addressing someone they need to interact with on an ongoing basis, but the coach will feel more respected if he is approached directly than if a person in a more supervisory position is approached.
In the school setting, approach the teacher first to express concerns and request a different style or accommodation before bringing the concern to the attention of the principal. In a discussion with your son's teacher, you can jointly decide if a larger meeting is needed to discuss the concerns and possible accommodations or strategies that would be helpful for him.
What Should I Communicate?
To be a strong advocate for your child, it is important to be specific about the problem as you perceive it, as well as to be specific in terms of what you are asking for. If your feedback to your son's teacher is too broad or general, the teacher will have a harder time trying to modify her behavior so your son's concern is addressed. For example, inform the teacher that your child benefits from visual cues (graphs or diagrams) when learning math problems and ask if she can incorporate these into the lessons.
Talking with the soccer coach about allowing your child to play at least 15 minutes per game on the field is likely to be more successful than simply complaining that he is never put in the game. If you know that your child is anxious about his performance, and this is what is causing him to do more poorly than what is expected or possible, communicate this to the teacher or instructor and ask her to provide praise for positive performance or create a positive feedback system. Being positive is also important. If the teacher, coach or instructor feels that you are simply complaining, he is less likely to enter into a problem-solving dialogue with you. Begin by pointing out what he is doing that has been effective for your child, and then move into a discussion of the areas of concern. Again, the more specific you are (e.g., "My child really benefits from having the instructions written down."), the easier it will be to meet his need.
As your child's parent, you have access to the most first-hand information about his functioning, as well as what works and what does not; you are with him and will see or hear about the struggles he encounters in his day to day life. You are in a unique position to help him develop self-advocacy skills, as well as to be a model of effective advocacy yourself. Knowing that you are there to help navigate difficult situations can help him feel more supported in managing situations and will increase the likelihood that he will be able to advocate for himself as he advances through school. So speak up for your child; it helps him speak up for himself, and in this way, you both will be heard!
Lisa Lenhart is senior psychologist and director of The Testing and Tutoring Service at TLC— The Treatment and Learning Centers (ttlc.org), a nonprofit community service organization founded in 1950 in Rockville, that offers multiple services for individuals with special needs.