How to Advocate for Your Child in School

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Do you remember when you found out your child wasn't perfect? And by "perfect" I mean perfect to you, her parent.

You know, that little person in your house who is perfectly individual, unique and quirky. The child with promise and potential and nothing but future and hope. Despite crying fits, sleepless nights, general mischief, and naughtiness, we have a blind spot for our kids. For the first several years - for those of us who are fortunate to have a child of average health and ability - they are utterly perfect. 

Until they're not. 

Until they're struggling and you have no idea how to help. This is where the "blind spot" comes into play. And when it comes in the form of a learning disability, there is no quick fix, no straight path or easy diagnosis. But there is plenty of frustration, panic and sadness as you watch your child struggle. And the learning curve - on your end - will shift your perspective and your expectations completely. 

Let's go back in time a bit. 

Starting in kindergarten, teachers would praise my daughter's sense of humor, talk about how creative she is and applaud her ability to ask for help. Start with the positive, right? Then they would go on to talk about her struggles in both math and reading. They often labeled her "average" or "at or just below benchmark" for those subjects. 

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Because she was, basically, getting by in class, she didn't qualify for extra help in school. The principal assured us, "she'll be just fine." 

Well she wasn't. 

Each grade passed with the exact same feedback from teachers. I trust teachers - they're the experts on education, right? And as such, I began compiling years of evidence that something was wrong. My daughter's ever-present struggle spread through her school days and landed her in a blubbering mess at the kitchen table over a sheet of homework. At the urging of a school employee, we finally hired a tutor. At a hefty cost, our tutor was a godsend. She came twice a week, even over the summer, and got my tween over the humps.

By 4th grade and with middle school looming, I grew more anxious about the fact that my daughter was still struggling. But not terribly so, which, come to find out, is worse because they fly under the proverbial radar, lost somewhere within the hazy category called Average. I'd never felt more unsure how to navigate a situation. I had no idea how to help my kid. But I knew in my gut that nothing would be solved if we simply went on, continuing with the tutor and failing to help our struggling child. 

The path to getting our child assessed and, ultimately, to receive the help she needed was long and circuitous. As usual, it takes a village and I've been fortunate to know amazing, supportive people who showed me the way. In writing this, my goal is to pull back the curtain and reveal what we did and how we did it. It's a daunting process but for many of us, a necessary one. 

 

if you think your child needs academic support, here's what to do. 

 

1. Always go with your gut.

You know your child better than anyone. If you see your child struggling and you're unable to help (you're not a teacher or a tutor, after all), don't be shy. Talk to teachers and school guidance counselors. It's easy to discount your own feelings when you're not an expert (be it education, medicine or any of the areas parents have to navigate). Please trust yourself.  

2. Listen to teachers.

But know that they're not all cut of the same cloth. One of our teachers brushed away our concerns. Others are at other end of the spectrum and give unnecessary cause for concern. There are teachers who will speak up and truly be a child's advocate. And more who only act within the guidelines of what the school suggests or allows. If your teacher doesn't echo your concerns, don't let it go. Research and talk to other parents - you'll be surprised how many are going through what you are. Continue to observe your child. Question the teacher again. Be the squeaky wheel.

3. Ask for a school assessment.

You have done the legwork and haven't seen your child improve. You feel strongly that there could be disability or challenge of some sort (you don't have to know what It is). Then it's time to formally ask the school for an assessment. I strongly suggest #4.  

4. Find an expert.

And if you can't find or afford an expert, read everything you can get your hands on regarding how to navigate the school system and special education assessments. We found a qualified, reasonably priced Educational Consultant (sometimes they're called Educational Advocates), who was instrumental during this process. Here's what to know about hiring someone to advocate for you and your child: 

- Discuss your child's history both in the education realm as well as any other factors that may affect his or her performance at school. Be open with your concerns. 

- An advocate will help you craft a formal request for a school evaluation and he or she will review all correspondence during this process. 

- When the assessment is complete you will receive the report and share it with your advocate. The advocate will evaluate the language used and decipher the testing statistics. They will help you to understand clearly both the school's evaluation and what the test results mean for your child. Here's an example: an observation that a child makes "careless mistakes" on homework can mean much more than carelessness. Instead, there may be attention, inattention or processing issues, all of which may qualify a child for services. 

- Finally, the advocate will attend your IEP/Assessment meeting at the school with the team of those who created the report(s). It's your choice, but in our case we allowed our advocate to be our voice at the meeting, knowing she had our best interests in mind while also understanding the hurdles the school must pass to initiate an IEP. Your advocate will insure that your questions are answered and your worries addressed. 

- The goal is to leave the meeting confident that the school will create an educational plan for your child's specific learning needs.  

5. Accept that it takes time. 

It's important to know that the process of assessments is time-consuming and follows a strict schedule set by the Special Education department. We requested a formal evaluation in February. The testing began but we did not receive results until May, at which time it was agreed my daughter qualified for an IEP (Individual Education Program, the term for tailored programs for children with learning needs / disabilities). School was out in June and there is a delay (I believe it is 30 days) while they organize the child's program. Therefore, from the time we requested the evaluation to the time it was in effect, seven months had passed until the services were enacted in late September. Those are *months* your child and you continue to struggle. 

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My daughter is in 5th grade now. It was a long road, but today she is both happy in school and has renewed confidence in her work and ability. We still have the occasional stressful evening with homework but it has decreased significantly. I know she's getting the help she needs and the thought of middle school is no longer daunting because we're giving her the right tools. 

As usual in parenting, there are times of confusion and times of clarity. For the moment, I'm savoring the clarity. I'm also savoring my daughter who is still just perfect the way she is. 

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Please share with anyone who might be in this situation. I hope that by sharing what I've learned, it might lessen this particular struggle for others.