The ABC's of Advocacy

A is for advocate, B is for b*&#!, C is for communication, concern, and compromise. One mother of a child with cerebral palsy taps 20 years experience to offer tips for getting results for your child without, well, becoming a "B."

If you have ever had to advocate for your child within the realm of public education you may be wondering where the line is between A for advocate and B for bitch. So how do you “A”dvocate for what your child needs without becoming a “B”? The answers often start with C: concern, communication, and compromise.

little boy with abc alphabet blocks

Children need parental advocates.

“Shouldn’t the school always do what is best for my child?” A common question. The idealistic answer: Yes, of course. The realistic answer: Yes, but they don’t always. What is in the best interest of your child might not be the most expedient for the school system. And yes, it is a system: designed to churn out as many educated children in as little time as possible.

Most teachers and administrators genuinely care about students. But they have a job to do, and often with less time and resources than they need. Knowing this, should you compromise your values? Absolutely not. As a parent and advocate, your job is to push back against the system; to expand the box. You and your child will live with the outcome. And you will likely benefit other children who do not have such strong parent advocates.

Communication and compromise get results.

As the parent of a child who uses a wheelchair, I am an accidental advocate. But I am also the parent of another “typical” child, so I know that all children need a little support to navigate the system. Occasionally, for instance, your child may think that he is being unfairly treated by the teacher in the classroom or by other students on the playground.
Communication with your child is the first essential “C.” Make sure you are listening to him. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t assume he did something wrong or that he is perfect. Show him the second “C” for concern. And don’t just show it when you think there is a problem.

If your child tells you about a struggle he is having, start by discussing how he can solve the problem on his own. It is both highly empowering for your child and a good way to develop problem-solving skills. Monitor the situation by listening for clues in what your child says to you and others. Keep the lines of communication open. Let him know that you are there for him.

Choose your battles.

If you want to be taken seriously as an advocate, you have to pick the hills to die on. You lose credibility when you become a helicopter parent, someone who hovers over their child.

If your parental intuition tells you that a problem is bigger than your child can sort out himself, communication with his teacher is the next step. The story that your child tells, although it’s critical for him to be supported, might not be the full story; always ask for the teacher’s perspective. Relay what your child is telling you, and then ask for some clarification. Whenever possible, involve your child in the discussion. Ask questions in a way that is not accusatory.

Consider that you are modeling advocacy for your child—your behavior, your approach, and the outcome of your intervention will help your child become a better self-advocate over time. Start with the assumption that the teacher really does want to help you—because in most cases, she does. If in fact there is an issue, ask the teacher what she feels the possible solutions are. Then ask for some time to talk to your child, and arrange a follow-up meeting.

Most problems have relatively easy solutions. But if you feel that there may be an underlying issue that is holding your child back, make sure to have it investigated. Your child may not necessarily have a disability or a condition, but we all have limitations. My son, for example, has fine motor limitations that make printing and writing laborious for him. It takes him extra time to complete assignments and exams.

A two-pronged litmus test helps keep you focused.

Once you understand what challenges your child is facing, the key to success in advocacy is to start with a clear vision. Focus on your child’s strengths. Come up with ideas to enhance your child’s strengths. Take those back to the teacher.

But how do you know if what you are asking for is reasonable? A reality check is a necessary step. If you are asking for an accommodation or special treatment for your child, it should pass one of two tests. It should either level the playing field or be considered reasonable for another child to have as well.

Leveling the playing field means giving each child a fair chance to prove himself. My typically-developing child, Devin, was offered the opportunity in ninth grade to conduct some of his English test on the computer because his limited writing ability put him at a disadvantage relative to other students. Using the computer leveled the playing field for him. Start by explaining your child’s challenges and then ask the teacher what can be done if you feel your child is at a disadvantage. Teachers are professionals, and they may have a solution that you haven’t thought of.

The second test is to see if your idea would be reasonable for another child. For example: When my daughter Kasenya started junior high, the school wanted to send her home an hour early each day to avoid the inevitable traffic jam and long waiting times caused when everyone leaves the school at the same time. We vehemently disagreed with this. So we asked ourselves: Would it be reasonable to send our son home an hour early? We decided that it would not be. We did, however, agree that in order to beat the rush, Kasenya could end her day 15 minutes earlier. Good advocacy, after all, also includes “C” for compromise.

How to keep the “B” out of advocacy.

If you are being true to your child’s needs, assessing his teachers and each situation as it comes in a fair manner, and most importantly, if what you are asking for in the way of accommodations meets both criteria of our litmus test, then chances are you are not out of line.

Remember to do your best to hold emotions in check when you are advocating—especially anger and frustration, which may only hide the really good intentions behind your requests on behalf of your child. And remind yourself, and your child when appropriate, that those on his caregiving team—teachers, therapists, doctors—do have his best interest at heart, but that they might need to be clued in to his specific needs in order to help make his treatment and education best suited for him.

Laverne M. Bissky is a mom of two children. Her daughter Kasenya has cerebral palsy and type 1 diabetes. Bissky’s family has a passion for travel, and she documents their journeys—across the globe and through the landscape of special needs—at