Excerpts from a recent interview with Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, mother and associate dean of the School of Counseling and Social Service at Walden University, about her Do’s and Don’ts for parents regarding child advocacy in the school.
I used to teach a graduate course called Education and Social Diversity for education administrators and we often talked about parents who wouldn’t come into the school, and parents who were marginalized because of socio-economic status, race, and ethnicity. I was always interested in encouraging parents who were too intimidated or lacked the self-confidence to advocate for their child.
When my daughter started school, I started reflecting on what I knew about the do’s and don’ts of advocacy and started to employ them myself. I was actually surprised when she was in the first grade, I experienced some challenges and had to employ a lot of what I knew.
At the parent teacher conference, I’d asked the teacher, “ How did you assess my daughter’s reading level?” She tried to explain it to me but I left there not having a clear understanding of how her reading was assessed. I was thinking to myself, I have the ability to understand complex concepts but no amount of questioning made the issue any clearer for me.
DO #1: Get a Mentor Who Can Help You Understand Advocacy in Your School System
I knew another parent who I’d watched with her three daughters. She was very involved and always seemed to know what the issues and concerns were for them. She had a really strong presence in schools. I told her, I’m not sure I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill.
My friend said you need to ask more questions. You don’t need to have any questions remaining.
If you really want a good mentor, find a retired educator. They are so invested in children doing well and they speak the language. If they’re retired, they have the time, the knowledge, and the concern for the welfare of children. If you feel you don’t speak the same language as the school, ask them to go with you.
A person is not weird, strange or different because he or she is afraid to go into a school system. Ask for help, you don’t have to rely on only yourself.
Do #2: Understand Testing and Other Assessments
Prior to the parent – teacher conference, I also talked to a veteran educator to ask what kinds of assessments take place in the first grade for reading and I asked her questions I should be asking the teacher and the administrator in my conference. She explained the evaluation and how I should expect my daughter to progress throughout the year.
So when I went to talk to the principal and teacher, I could ask questions that made me appear to be well informed. I asked specific questions.
Don’t be Passive With Your Child’s Learning and Believe That Everyone is Going to Look Out For Your Child’s Welfare.
I wrote down all of my questions so that when I went in, I was armed with a clear agenda and clear destination for that conference.
What I got was much better than I expected. I went in wanting access to the best materials the teacher had to offer for my daughter’s learning. What I got was a review by the principal to see if my daughter was misplaced, which she was; she should have been in the higher first grade reading group.
Communicate with Your Child Each Day About His or Her Experience in the Classroom.
I think that parents need to make sure they’re setting up their home environment so their child can be successful at school. It’s hard to resist the urge to allow electronics to entertain our children when children should be reading or studying.
My daughter is in an extracurricular activity five days a week, so I have to be very rigid that she does her work when she comes home. I also have to make sure she’s eating well. In the morning and in the evening, I try to make sure she has really good meals so that she’s ready to go to school and take on the next day. I make sure she has good hygiene habits so she’s not socially ostracized from her classmates. I also try to make sure that she’s ready and well-rested each day.
Volunteer in Your Child’s Classroom and at Your Child’s School.
You have to assess the environment. You have to interact enough with your child’s teacher to feel confident that this person will treat your child fairly.
You wouldn’t assume that a daycare provider or new babysitter is trustworthy without knowing for sure. A child’s teachers are more highly skilled but it is the same thing. The fact is your child is with this person 6 ½ – 7 hours a day and you need to make sure you’re watching what happens. You need to watch what happens at recess, in the cafeteria, or in any other environment your child is in at school.
Educate Your Child’s Teacher About Your Child and Your Child’s Cultural Experience.
When my daughter walks into a school, I inform the teachers and administrators who she is and that I expect to be in partnership with them.
No one else is as invested in her future as I am. Administrator and teachers are just passing through her life but I have a commitment to helping her become a healthy and productive citizen and member of society.
Parents have to do a lot of self talk. Nobody is going to be as invested in my daughter as I am.
It doesn’t mean the teachers are my adversaries. It just means that I know my daughter, her talents and her strengths. I also make sure I inform the teacher about anything that might make my daughter feel like she’s “other.”
Here are a few more do’s and don’ts for parents . . .
Don’t #2 Don’t Expect That You Can Be Objective Where Your Child is Concerned.
Don’t #3 Don’t Be Too Aggressive When Things Are Not Going Well.
Don’t #4 Don’t Expect that All of Your Child’s Education Will Take Place in the Classroom.
Do #6 Read Your Child’s School Handbook Thoroughly.
Do #7 Join Your School’s PTA.
Do # 8 Read Materials that Your Child’s Teacher Sends Home.
Do # 9 Speak Candidly with Your Child’s School Counselor.
Parents worry about their child being mistreated, that’s why it’s so important for parents to be present in the school. Parents think, if I am an advocate, what is the experience my child is likely to have in that school?
Dr. Phil always says, “How’s that working for you?”
Be careful you aren’t looking for an opportunity to not achieve your goals. Doing so is usually an indicator that you are afraid of trying for some reason.[by using the worry of a child being mistreated to not advocate]
Remain focused on your goal. Your goal is not for things to be smooth and easy for the year but that your child gets the best education possible so he or she can be a productive citizen that can take care of him or herself.
The reality is teachers are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Never underestimate your area of expertise – you know your child.
Protect your investment. In the same way you make sure you protect your car and make sure your car has an oil change, you need to protect your child’s education.
Bio: Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, associate dean of the School of Counseling and Social Service at Walden University, is a licensed counselor and specializes in family and parenting issues.
More on Parent Advocacy: Visit the Mom Congress Blog-a-Thon on Parental Engagement.