A woman posted in a forum recently that, as a young graduate student, she wanted to learn more about how to better advocate and communicate with the parents of her students. Those of us who have been in that position truly understand what a delicate dance it is to empower parents when their children present with learning problems.
Let me start with what I think is the core issue. How can I effectively empower parents so that, over time, they become more effective in advocating for their kids? Keep in mind that you will likely spend a small proportion of the child’s educational life as an advocate for them. To be most effective, the focus should be on giving the parents the skills, tricks, know-how so they become the expert.
As an example, let me review the top three things I do with parents who come to me needing a diagnostic evaluation for their child.
- During the initial consult, not only do I listen carefully to the content I need, I also listen to what their experience has been as they’ve tried to navigate the system and get their child’s needs met. We want to know how well they’ve mapped out their process. I also want to make sure that, by the end of the first touch, they feel a sense of relief that someone is listening and that they’ve got someone they can lean on and learn from.
- Parents often don’t have a map of where they need to go and what they need to do. Take the time, even if it takes repetition over and over, to explain and predict what is coming next in the process—whether it’s the testing process, the IEP process, setting up other evals—whatever it is give them a sense of prediction and control. Remember that when someone is in a highly emotional state—whether it’s fear, anger, sadness, etc.—their decision-making can be negatively impacted. Be kind, for goodness sake, but also be competent. Understand that the beautiful child that they brought into this world is suffering and oftentimes has been for years.
- Most importantly, remember that parents need to be educated about how their children’s brains are wired and how that informs their behavior and learning styles both good and not-so-good. I almost always recommend a couple of books, articles, videos, etc. Long after you are gone, these moms and dads are going to have to continue to advocate. Just as importantly, the parents need to educated about how their OWN brains are wired!
Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Problems at Home and in School. Mel Levine, MD. 1994 Educators Publishing Service, Inc. (Note: This book is easily available online at Amazon, Alibris, etc.)