The moment when Carmen Farrell saw her son Ges alone on the school playground, pressed against the fence, face looking out, fingers gripped tightly to the interlocking chain barrier, a tsunami of emotions engulfed her. Along with the shock, uncertainty, fear and heart-break came a crystallizing moment that would (unbeknownst to her) not only change her son’s life but would alter the path of a school. In that moment, she accepted that to best support her son, she would need to step boldly into a larger role as her child’s advocate within the school system.
Over the next few years, Carmen went on a new learning journey. Her son, 13-year-old Ges, is on the autism spectrum and became the focus child for Club G, a peer-mediated friendship initiative at Highlands Elementary School. Carmen’s experiences and “lessons learned” during this time can be helpful to any parent who wants to work collaboratively with the school system regardless of their child’s needs or challenges.
Carmen shared her top 5 keys to creating a strong foundation for successful parent advocacy within the school system.
1. It’s personal...and that’s ok!
Strong emotions, and not typically positive ones, are often the point of entry for parents within the school system. Parents may feel there is a disconnect between what is happening for their child and what they feel is needed. The strong feelings exist because parents care so much. Every family wants the best for their child and when something is wrong, they find themselves acting in the face of those strong feelings.
The first act as an advocate is very tough because it requires courage to approach the school system in a positive way, not “lose it” and try to get what you believe is needed. Try to remember that wherever the "disconnect" is for you or your child, no staff is deliberately ignoring it or trying to make the situation worse. They are doing their best. School staff need your support, and it's your job to make it as easy as you can for them to understand your point of view. To be productive and to establish a relationship with the school that will endure equally requires four other key factors.
2. See the good intentions of others.
Advocacy within the school system requires finding a balance between feelings (disconnection, sadness or even anger) and understanding. Understand that the people in the school system are there because they want to support children. Teachers, educational assistants, administrators and specialists have all chosen a career path that is in service of society. Their work days are dedicated to the development of children. To do their jobs well, they need you as a parent to help them understand your child, to communicate your feelings, and to express your needs.
3. Use respect to get respect.
Respect and be informed about the communication processes that a school and school district has set up to interact with parents. The first contact is usually with the classroom teacher. Begin a conversation with the teacher and ask who else could be a part of the dialogue. Districts have educational assistance, teachers, principals, and district level people who all focus on student support in different ways.
Increase your chances of having your voice heard by using “I” statements. This strategy keeps communication doors open (and also works well with children and teens!)
I know there are always two sides to a story. I'd like to understand yours, because what we're hearing at home is...
I’ve noticed this about my child…
To me it looks like my child is...
I’m hoping to have a conversation about this and wonder who else should be a part of it.
4. YOU are the expert of your child.
A parent’s job is to provide information about the child to help the school do their job better.
Be open and honest about your child’s abilities, differences, challenges and needs.
Invite questions and curiosity - help fill the gaps in people’s knowledge about your child with correct information to prevent stories and assumptions that will limit the child’s potential.
Offer information about activities that work well and would be enjoyable to your child. Don’t make assumptions about what a school can and can’t do. For example, even with limited space, equipment and resources, the school has found ways to engage Club G in the kitchen, and Ges loves to bake.
It's equally important to proactively communicate about your child with other families in your child's class. The teacher can support this by sending a letter your write home, for example. You need to let parents know what is going on with your child and invite the curiosity of others. They won't ask questions on their own. Other moms and dads can become your allies in helping your child make friends out of school if you given them examples of how their children can help your child.
5. Stay informed, available and encouraging.
Let the school do their thing…but don’t disappear. An ongoing connection provides a convenient way to show interest and concern. Do this by regularly asking how things are going and if the home can do anything to help. Furthermore, take the opportunity to tell school staff how their efforts are valued and how much they have made a difference in your child’s life. The key is maintaining open and mutually respectful relationships! It's also about the power of a simple, heartfelt "thank you".
It’s a pretty long list of “can’ts” for Carmen Farrel's son. He can’t speak, he can’t navigate a friendship on his own, and he can’t play the sports of other ten year old boys. But just by “being there”, Carmen says he has changed a whole group of children, classmates he’s been with since kindergarten, for the most part. Just by being a part of that group, he has made those kids something different than what they would have been without him. Read Carmen's story about them…and him.
Peer-mediated friendships are defined as an alternative to traditional social skills training for people with developmental challenges. They employ peers as instructional resources by training developmentally-typical peers to interact effectively with a focus child/youth/adult.
Carmen is the Executive Director of SEEDS (Social Emotional Empathy Development Society) and promotes proactive, inclusive and engaged ways for parents to interact with their child's educators.
Watch the Club G Video.