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Advocating for Your Child within the School System

Advocating for Your Child within the School System“I’ve had it.” The parent on the phone is incensed. “The teacher just won’t listen to me. My child needs more individual attention. She isn’t a bad kid. She just needs more help. She’s on an education plan that says she is supposed to get more one-to-one time but the teacher says she doesn’t have enough time and the school won’t hire an aide.”

“Will you come with me to the next meeting?” Another parent has called. “Whenever I get in one of those meetings, I get overwhelmed. I get so upset by what the teacher and principal are saying that I end up not saying all I want to say. I don’t think they really do it on purpose but it seems I can’t get a word in.”

“I’ve got to get my son to a residential program. We just can’t handle his behaviors anymore. The school says it’s not their problem. Their problem is only providing an education. But my wife and I need relief. We want the school to help us find a place where his mental health issues can be managed and his behaviors can be controlled so he can actually learn something.” This dad was at the end of the proverbial rope.

Maybe one of these conversations — or a part of one — sounds familiar. Your child is having difficulty in school. Perhaps he has been diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability. Maybe she has autism, a developmental disability or a significant behavior problem. You know your child is entitled to additional support but the school doesn’t respond as you had hoped to your requests for services. With every passing month, you know that opportunities to ameliorate the situation are being lost and the behavior may be growing worse or more entrenched. You are frustrated, upset for your child and just upset. What can you do?

While trying to manage a challenging or troubled child, we parents are somehow also expected to know how to navigate the complicated legal and social systems that could provide help. The school is often our first point of entry to getting the extra supports our child needs. But it isn’t easy. Often it’s contentious. We’re rank beginners while the school personnel have knowledge and experience from working with other families. Even when everyone is well-intended, it can feel like a conflicted situation from the start.

Tips for becoming a successful advocate:

  • A little understanding goes a long way. Like everyplace else, schools are straining to stay within budgets and to stretch their money the best they can. Yes, we all understand that. But when it’s our own child who is suffering or whose learning is falling behind, it’s hard to stay compassionate. One parent I know was told by a distressed special education director, “If we send your child to a residential school, it means that we may have to let go of a kindergarten teacher next year.” It wasn’t legal or helpful for her to say it. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the truth. Kids with big needs cost the community big bucks. Services for one child can mean that 20 other kids are in an overcrowded classroom. We do have to advocate well for our children, but it helps us be more collaborative when we can also appreciate the position it puts school officials in.
  • Get support for yourself. Joining a parent support group or talking with other parents who have kids with special needs can be both a relief and a help. Some of those parents are way ahead of you in the process. They know the ropes. They can provide you with important factual information and they can give you emotional support when you need it. Many communities also have volunteer and professional advocates who can explain the law to you and go with you to meetings to make sure you get heard and that the school responds as it should. If it’s a paid service, consider whether some money spent now can prevent higher-cost legal help later.
  • Know your child’s rights. It’s very important to be conversant with your state’s education laws and the policies of the local school system. That way you won’t waste people’s time by asking for things that you aren’t entitled to. You will be taken more seriously by administrators if you have taken the time to learn and understand what you have to work with.
  • Always prepare for meetings. Take along a list of talking points and questions. Your time is valuable. So is the time of the people convened to meet with you. You want to use the time you have as best as you can.
  • Always take your partner or a friend with you to meetings. Often there are six or more professionals arrayed around the table. It can be daunting. It’s very difficult to take in everything that is said in a meeting when you are emotionally invested. When you have an ally with you, it’s easier to stay focused and to make sure you cover everything you want to cover.
  • Leave younger children at home. Small children aren’t always cooperative when parents need to be focused. If you can’t afford a sitter, ask a neighbor or relative for a child care swap. If you really, truly can’t find someone to take care of your younger child, make sure you bring a snack and something to keep the child busy while you talk.
  • Work with the school personnel, not against them. That means being open-minded as they try to find ways to meet both your child’s needs and the needs of the other children they serve. Sometimes there are creative, less expensive ways to provide support beside adding staff or sending a child to an out-of-school placement. Interns from local colleges, some parent participation, or in-home support are options that should at least be explored. There is usually more than one way to help a child be successful.
  • Keep your cool. It is never helpful to approach with anger and threats people who have something we need. It only makes the other person defensive and resistant. Keep your sense of humor. If you find yourself reaching the boiling point, end the phone call or meeting before you say something you’ll regret or that may backfire on your child. You don’t want to have school personnel running for cover when you want to talk to them. You want their willing participation in solving your child’s problem.
  • When following up, don’t wear out your welcome. Yes, you do need to have regular contact about how your child is doing and whether supports are in place. But if you attempt to micro-manage, school personnel are going to become “deaf” to your requests. Keep calls to a minimum. Always have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish before you call or ask for a meeting. School staff are legitimately busy with often a dozen or more other parents who have equally compelling needs.
Advocating for Your Child within the School System

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Advocating for Your Child within the School System. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.