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by Chris Chagaris


 The New Rochelle Public Library was the setting for a recent panel discussion designed to help Westchester parents better grasp the often daunting task of advocating for their children from elementary through high school. The Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA) sponsored the event, entitled “Negotiating the School System: How to Advocate for Your Child’s Academic Needs” — a topic which attracted parents and professionals alike.

   The panel addressed various concerns, including how parents can communicate effectively with teachers and school staff regarding their children’s academic needs, both before and after problems arise. Panel member Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, now retired and former school psychologist for the Ardsley school system for 34 years, provided a handout of tips for dealing with school-related dilemmas.

   “A good way to head off problems with a child’s academic performance is for a parent to have a relationship with key people in the school who relate to the child before any problems surface,” he advised. “This, of course, would include teachers, a guidance counselor, or even the school psychologist.” He stressed the importance of creating these relationships early on rather than waiting for a problem to arise, to better understand how the school functions. “Schools welcome parental involvement,” he added.

   Panel member Carole Boccumini, an education law attorney and the legal director of Student Advocacy, an Elmsford-based non-profit that helps students and families with problems ranging from discipline to academic performance, concurred. “The most important part parents can play in their child’s academic life is to keep communication open so that they and the school are looking at the child’s needs,” said Boccumini, who also taught for 24 years. “It’s important that these needs be articulated the right way.” Boccumini emphasized that parents and teachers be good listeners and take themselves “out of the kid’s equation. There may be a disconnect with some kids; they may be shy at school, for example, but gregarious and active at home.”

   Dr. Cohen and Boccumini agreed that parents should keep an open mind when meeting with teachers and staff about their kids. “Schools work harder with a cooperative parent,” said Dr. Cohen.
   Stephen O’Rourke, Ph.D., WCPA board member who was an attendee at the event, noted: “It is natural to want to fight for your child’s needs. However, fighting for suggests someone you are fighting with. A better view is to approach the situation as working for your child’s best interests.  Working for implies working with. You will most probably get the best results by maintaining a positive approach when discussing your child’s needs.”

   Dr. Cohen added that if the school is not helpful, the parents should seek out appropriate channels, such as the school principal, district superintendent or Student Advocacy.

   The panelists shared their views on the matter of homework, especially since a common complaint among parents is that schools assign too much of it. “Parents should tell the teacher or other appropriate staff at the school of a child’s inability to do homework,” said Boccumini. “If a child can’t finish his or her homework, then the parent should write a note on the work itself saying that is the case.” Boccumini and Dr. Cohen mentioned the importance of providing the child a quiet, appropriate place to study. “It’s also important for parents to encourage their kids by giving praise and rewards for work, even if it’s not perfect,” Dr. Cohen said.

   Overall, the panel cited the value of parental involvement with a child’s school activities by attending school functions, parent/teacher conferences and back-to-school nights, for instance. It is also key for parents to be supportive of their child. “Parents — and teachers, too — need to encourage children to believe that they can learn,” Boccumini summed up.


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