As the summer is winding down, many people are preparing for back to school. This can be a time of excitement, but also a time of increased anxiousness for those who will need to advocate for additional support from an already fragile school system. It’s important we teach skills for self-advocacy from a very young age. By encouraging an individual to self-advocate, we empower them to be confident in stating what they need, be comfortable asking for help, and practice making informed decisions which will serve them throughout their entire life. My daughter has been attending school meetings since she started kindergarten and now at just twelve, she is already a pro. Nothing is a secret, and I don’t make decisions about her life without her input. She will need to know how to navigate this world long after I’m gone and how will she do that if she doesn’t practice? She enthusiastically lets her teachers and school administration know, “I can advocate for myself because I know best what I need.” I’m always there to guide the process, be her cheerleader, and ensure she has a network of people to support her.
Here are five tips we have found helpful on our educational advocacy journey:
Collaborate with the student, staff, caregivers, and community partners. We should all be on the same team and want what’s best for the student. A variety of barriers can make it feel like we are on two separate teams, but if we keep the focus on what is best for the student creative solutions will flow.
A student CAN and SHOULD advocate for themselves using the communication style that works best for them. This could include drawing pictures, using a choice board, sign language, gesturing, verbalizing, assistive communication device, play using objects to demonstrate wants/ needs, etc. Provide lots of choice, so each student has options to select what they feel would be most beneficial.
Be prepared and bring along copies of any important documentation you feel would help you to advocate. This could include professional or medical assessments, copies of report cards, suggestions from community partners, letters of support from your doctor or specialist. Bring copies of any laws, policies, or documents that pertain to your advocacy and highlight the important parts for quick reference. Be aware of the hierarchy within the school system and who to contact if your concerns are not being addressed.
Take good notes. Keep track of the dates and times of any meetings as well as the names, positions, and contact information of those in attendance. Be sure to get information in writing as it provides documentation you can go back to as needed. Provide a follow up after the meeting in writing to ensure everyone has the same information and ask to clarify anything you are unsure of.
If possible, have another person attend the meeting with you. This could be a spouse, friend, grandparent, or educational advocate. It’s helpful to have another person present to take notes and keep you on track.