Advocating for your child’s needs at school is a key part of an adoptive parent’s “job description.” In this article, teacher and parent Alison Wagler shares her tips on how to work with the school as an ally, not an adversary.

One memorable Halloween at the school where I teach, a parent kindly offered to bring in a smoke machine to make the Halloween party more exciting. The party became exciting indeed when the smoke set off the fire alarm, sending 400 kids in costumes out into the rain for an unplanned fire drill.

The next day I received a lengthy email from an upset parent who accused the school of bringing in the smoke machine on purpose to scare her child by simulating a real fire. The parent was trying to advocate for her child but with her angry email, she set herself up as an adversary instead.

In the past 15 years, I have had many experiences of having to advocate for children. First as a teacher, trying to advocate for support for struggling students in a school system challenged by increasing needs and decreased funding. Then, since 2016, as a parent of three adopted children, the oldest of whom receives specialized support in the classroom.

All of us want our children to be successful at school. The question is how best to advocate for our children’s needs effectively.

Step one: Ask, don’t assume

Your child has come home to you upset about an incident at school and you are concerned about the report. What do you do now? I would like to suggest an approach which will help build trust rather than put people on the defensive. While these steps will not guarantee a successful outcome, I believe that they will go a long way to ensure your child is supported at school.

Whatever the issue, contact the teacher directly to find out more information. Children rarely present the whole picture of what has happened.

There is usually more to it. Involve your child in the process as much as is appropriate. If their feelings were hurt, offer to come with them while they tell a child or teacher how they feel. Encourage your child to seek help in the moment. It is often very hard to get the full picture after the fact, especially when your witnesses are children! Also, do not go directly to the principal at this time unless it is a major incident or something that occurred outside of school time.

Step two: Check your emotions

When your child encounters a problem when you are not present your protective instincts kick in. Talk about how you are feeling with your partner or a trusted friend. When your children are around, be careful to speak respectfully of the people involved in the issue regardless of your personal feelings. Try to remain calm.

Recognize that the teacher is probably facing heightened emotions as well. They may be feeling defensive from past experiences and fear being attacked again. Start from a place of seeking understanding rather than someone to blame.

Step three: Define the issue

Is the issue

  • academic? (a specific assignment, your child’s learning needs, the curriculum)
  • social/emotional? (your child’s behaviour, an incident with another child, bullying, etc.)
  • teaching style? (the amount of structure the teacher provides, how your child is engaged)
  • support services? (the support your child receives either from a resource teacher or educational assistant)

Step four: Collaborate and listen

Inform the teacher of what your child has reported and ask the teacher’s perspective on what has happened. Some misunderstandings can be cleared up right then. Others may require follow up either by the teacher or by an administrator. Here are some examples of helpful questions.

Academic: How are my child’s learning needs being supported in the classroom? Is there a modification needed such as allowing more time, a quiet work space, fewer questions, etc.? How can we support our child at home?

Social/emotional: What did you observe of the incident? What part did my child play in the incident? Is there a planned follow-up or intervention?

Teaching style: Can you explain your teaching style? If the child is feeling sad or upset about going to school, ask if the teacher has notice any changes.

Support services: How are resource teachers or education assistants allocated at the school? How much supported time does my child receive? Are they being pulled out or supported in the classroom?

When you can’t agree

Sometimes, even after you have followed the previous steps, the issue remains unresolved. Either you and the teacher do not agree, or there is an unwillingness to address the issues.

In the first case, might I suggest you try their way first? There was a time when I proposed a strategy from my son’s counsellor and the school team was not ready to implement it. I felt I had a choice. I could insist on my way. They might agree in spite of their objections but I risked my good relationship with the team. Instead, I decided to let it go and see what happened. A month later they called to say their plan wasn’t working and they were going to try the plan the counsellor suggested. The plan worked and my relationship with the school team remained intact.

In the second case, where a breakdown of communication has occurred, request to include others in the discussion. This is the time when you can consider setting up a meeting with the principal and the teacher. Or you can ask to be referred to the schoolbased team. 

The school-based team is a group usually led by a resource teacher or case worker and often includes the teacher, any support teachers or counsellors, the educational assistant, the principal, and the parents. Adding more people to the discussion can help diffuse tension and provide more perspectives to consider.

Persist but don’t pester

As a parent, I have a singular focus: what’s best for my child.

The other people involved have to care for the welfare of many children. Therefore, I believe it is my responsibility to follow up and persist in seeing that recommendations for my own child are being followed through. This could be done informally through check-ins at the end of the day, notes in planners or emails, or through a home-and-back communication book. Or it could be done formally, through setting a meeting a month later to see how things are going. Don’t expect lengthy emails every day. Make sure you are also doing your part and following recommendations for support at home.

Raise up advocates

Your children are going to be in school system for a long time. Through their journey, they are going to meet some amazing people who are going to push them further than you even expect. That has certainly been our experience. When our son came to us, he was completing 25% of the regular curriculum. Three years later, he does 100% of the work everyone else is doing. We thank God for all the progress he has made. There are many factors to his growth. His own resilience combined with having a stable forever home and a strong community has brought him far. He has also progressed because we have worked hard as a team with his teachers and school staff to ensure he is being given the best chance to succeed.\

Your experience may be different. You may be facing some difficult obstacles. You may need to advocate and face opposition in order to ensure that your child gets the support they need. However, rather than be discouraged, remember that as you advocate for your children you are teaching them how to solve problems.

Model how to treat people respectfully rather than as adversaries. As you do so, you are raising up the next generation to advocate for themselves and for others no matter what challenges they may face in life.

Alison Wagler has been a teacher for more than 15 years and an adoptive parent for 8 years. She has three childs, and together they have faced a variety of challenges in the school system.