Advocating for Your Child in the Education System: Tips from an Educator

Jennifer Opalewski

Advocating for your student can be one of the most stressful tasks you take on as parent or guardian. But it doesn’t have to be. The term itself has taken on a somewhat negative connotation over the years. This has developed from parents, guardians, and legal groups insisting a student was not given fair treatment. This is rarely the case because, by law, schools are required to give every student an equal and fair education. There are different ways in which you can advocate for your student. This can be formal (meetings with the teaching team, documents, attorneys) or it can be informal (parent/guardian-teacher meetings, emails, or phone calls). Both are regular occurrences in school districts across the country.

There is nothing wrong with advocating for your student. But it’s best to enter into these situations with an open mind and a willingness to work with your student’s teaching team. If you are formally involved in making sure your student’s needs are met, this will typically require an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or a 504 plan (titled as per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), depending on the exact nature of the situation. In these cases, you will have an entire team working with you to ensure your student’s success. Your student’s team typically, but not always, will include a core subject teacher, counselor, social worker, administrator, resource teacher, and you. All of these people have your student’s best interest at heart, especially your student’s teacher.

A common misconception is that teachers are overworked and don’t have the time to devote to every student’s specific needs. This could not be more wrong. When advocating for your student, your strongest allies are the teachers. Teachers are not only highly trained to help your student but also, they care deeply about the success and growth of your student. All too often, the relationship between parent/guardian and teacher is muddied by outside interference or miscommunication. As an educator, there have been times when I needed to know more about the help I needed to provide to a specific student, so I went straight to the source: the parent/guardian. I would call, send an email, or set up a one-on-one meeting. I encourage you to do the same. If you have a concern or even just good information about your student that you think the teacher should know, then by all means, call! There is no limit to your student’s success when you are on the same team as the teacher.

Another person who knows your student just as well as the teacher is the counselor. School counselors are a great resource! They spend the most time outside of the classroom with your student and have the greatest insight into their needs. Counselors are specially trained to mediate and resolve any conflicts or concerns. Don’t be afraid to use them. They also have access to your student’s entire schedule and future plans. They will be the ones on the front lines helping with college applications and testing deadlines. The help they can provide has no boundaries. In addition to the teacher and counselor being extremely helpful, the administrator can also make clear the esoteric nature of navigating curriculum while also offering you all of the school’s resources. Administrators, generally speaking, were once teachers or counselors; therefore, they have extensive knowledge on all the workings of the school. They spend time in classrooms throughout the building, they are well-aware of the resources that can be provided to your student, and they have a strong understanding of the curriculum. Many times, the administrator can resolve any conflict before it escalates. In the absence of a counselor, administrators take on the role of the mediator, and they are excellent at it.

It’s in everyone’s best interest for your student to succeed, so be open and honest. Provide as much information about your student as you possibly can and do not be afraid to ask questions or voice concerns. As with most professions, sometimes we move fast in our meetings because we assume everyone understands the jargon or content discussed, but that’s not always the case. If you find yourself in a more informal interaction with your student’s teacher, I encourage you again to be honest. Ask questions if you do not understand a grade given or an assignment. I would rather the parent/guardian just come right out and question me so that I can help explain rather than the student and parent/guardian being upset and confused. Advocating for your student should operate the same as any other professional relationship: with respect, an open mind, and a willingness to work together. Everyone in your student’s school wants to help. It’s just a matter of creating the right space for that to happen. When you view this process as a collaborative effort among allies, your student will be in prime position to receive the best care and education possible.


Jennifer Opalewski

Jennifer Opalewski is an English teacher at Troy High School in Troy, Michigan.