We know our children best. We know their strengths and weaknesses, their talents and triggers. It can be easy for us, as parents, to see how little tweaks to a schedule or a shift in policy would help our kids to be more successful in school. And it’s our job to advocate for our kids, right?
On the other hand, there is a fine line between “advocating” and “being pushy.” So, how — and when — do you get involved in your child’s education without being overbearing or taking it too far?
Be proactive where it counts
I know that my son’s behaviour in school will be pretty good all year — except for September and January, the two months when he’s coming back into the classroom after a long break.
I can also tell you that he will have among the neatest handwriting in the class, he’ll think literacy lessons are boring (even though he loves to read), he’ll get a little too physical from time to time at recess, and he’ll pick up new maths skills with ease. Do I tell his teacher all of these things at the beginning of the school year? Nah. Those are the little things she’ll figure out on her own.
What I have told teachers at the beginning of the school year (or at points throughout the year) is about factors that could affect his emotional state and, therefore, his behaviour. We were foster parents for a few years, so whenever we receive a new placement — and especially when a child who had been with us for a significant time left our home — I told his teachers. Not to excuse any particular behaviours but to provide context for what he was dealing with at home that they otherwise wouldn’t know.
In my experience, teachers are grateful to know what their students might be struggling with and it makes them better able to reach our kids. K.S., a parent in our Offspring Parenting Facebook Group, says she took this same tactic with her daughter, who was struggling with severe anxiety that manifested into an extreme fear of failure.
“Partly my goal was to inform him (the teacher) of past struggles, partly to inform him of current struggles, partly to request extra sensitivity in how he talked with her about her work,” K.S. says.
“When we had the parent-teacher conference a few months into the year … he was able to tell me in much more detail some areas where he was noticing her anxiety, such as being very slow to start writing for her daily notebook time, and the emphasis he was using for her and for the whole class that it’s OK to make mistakes.”
Start at the bottom
The fastest way to escalate an issue with homework or behaviour (and create a contentious relationship going forward) is to leapfrog over the teacher’s head and go straight to the school administration. That looks less like collaboration and more like tattling.
Also, we’re all a little less terse in person than we are when we communicate digitally, so start by setting up a meeting with the teacher at the school to talk about your concerns.
Don’t come to the meeting armed with reams of research studies about homework or ready to argue over why the lunchtime needs to be moved up because your kindergartener can’t last that long without a meal. There’s a good chance the teacher already agrees with you and has ideas for ways to accommodate your individual child’s needs without calling for new school-wide policies.
If the issue is behavioural, ask the teacher if including the school’s guidance counselor would be possible — sometimes a slightly outside perspective can help, and a counselor can also meet with and be a supportive resource for the student.
(Also, to be clear: I’m not talking here about special education issues or safety issues, such as bullying. If your child is not safe or is not getting the accommodations he or she needs and is legally entitled to, you very well might need to go up the chain of command both at the school and district levels.)
Keep your perspective
I’m a naturally anxious person with a gift for worrying about the things that are happening, the things that are likely to happen and the things probably won’t (but could!) happen. When I’m particularly worked up about something as disturbing as, say, being late to a meeting, I ask myself this: Will this matter in a week? In a month? In five years? Usually, the answer — even to a week — is a resounding of course not.
Use that same test when you ask yourself whether you should step in because Jimmy was placed on the junior varsity basketball team even though he’s devastated and you know he deserves to be on varsity. Will a year of junior varsity ruin Jimmy’s chances of growing as a player and a teammate and, longterm, a successful adult? Or is it potentially an opportunity for him to be a leader on that team?
Carrie Bauer, who teaches middle and high school students in New York, writes for Slate’s parenting advice column that stepping in here is the difference between appropriate advocacy and being “That Parent.” She offers another example:
Most high schools offer some sort of honour society that recognises high-achieving students. These organisations, by design, are selective, with eligibility criteria and an admission system that factors in teachers’ perspectives on students’ character. Every year, prospective students are accepted or declined, and every year, like clockwork, the calls come from parents of students who were not admitted, requesting that the selection panel reconsider their decision.
This advocacy tends to have the desired effect; in my experience, the student in question is very likely to be re-reviewed and admitted if a parent intervenes, especially if that parent has been especially assertive and persistent. But is this the right moment for intervention? I don’t think so.
It’s not the right time to intervene because ultimately, your kid is probably going to be fine either way. Maybe you even have a legitimate argument that the result wasn’t fair. But, as my Dad was fond of saying when I was a kid: Life isn’t fair.
Consider re-directing your energy
Keep in mind any inherent privilege you and your child already have when it comes to their education. Offspring Parenting Group member Michelle said her perspective on advocating for her child in school changed drastically after she read the book, “Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools.”
“As white parents of means, advocating for our children needs to balance opportunity-hoarding with our requests for something special or outside of the regular process,” Michelle says. “I will usually start by asking questions and following the regular protocol, then if I’m still not getting what I think I want, it might be worth asking why I think my child still requires it.”
This continued push for more is what Bauer describes as often being a “poor use of capital”:
I have trouble being sympathetic when families who already benefit from many advantages both in and outside of the school environment work so vigilantly to secure even more. I understand the inclination to provide as much as you can for your child, but I don’t believe this degree of individualism is the purpose of public education. I wish parents would allocate some of that time and energy toward rallying for causes that would benefit all kids, like funding or improved programming or technology access, rather than eking out further opportunities to secure their kid’s position in the 99th percentile.
That’s a balance we should all keep in mind: What they need versus what they deserve versus what you want.