School Struggles

Advocating for your child

School Struggles

As a parent, you want to help your child succeed in school. We offer simple steps to help you advocate successfully for your child.

Jan Stewart clearly remembers the day she got a call from her son’s elementary school teacher. The Manitoba mom was informed that her son, then in Grade 4, although bright, wasn’t taking school very seriously. Stewart, a former school counsellor and primary teacher herself, panicked.

“I was worried that this was the start of a downward spiral to countless school phone calls and meetings with administrators,” the associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s faculty of education tells alive. She laughs about it now, but at the time she had to take some deep breaths.

“I sat down and planned an educated response,” Stewart says. “I called my husband and told him to book off work first thing the next morning. I cancelled a meeting, and we headed for the school to meet with the teacher.”

When to seek help

  • When you feel you’re not being heard or when you have exhausted the resources within the school. Go up the chain of command: if meetings are unproductive at the school level (with the teacher, principal, administrators, or counsellors), set up a meeting with the school board, district authority, or divisional representative.
  • If your child’s grades drop suddenly.
  • If your child is upset about something that happened at school, either with his friends or the teacher.
  • When your child doesn’t seem to understand her homework or doesn’t seem to have any homework.

Their son joined them, and although he shed some tears, the talk yielded positive results. He hasn’t had any trouble since that morning two years ago.

Even with all her years working in the school system, Stewart experienced the kind of stress that so many parents feel when they discover their kids are struggling in school, whether it’s behavioural problems or learning difficulties.

Now that school is in full swing and parent-teacher meetings will be coming up soon, what are moms and dads to do if things aren’t going smoothly?

Simple steps to solutions

Parents have a right and responsibility to advocate for their child, but they might not know how to go about it.

“Your job is to be a problem-solver in helping your child to be successful,” Stewart says. “You’re a mom first, and it’s really an emotional thing when your child is called on something. Be logical—even when it’s emotional.”

To that end, Stewart suggests that parents attempting to navigate the sometimes murky world of school systems consider this acronym: TGIF.

T = Talk

“Talk to the teachers at the first sign of issues,” Stewart advises. “If your child comes home with stomach aches or talks about getting in trouble or the teacher being mean, call the school, set up a meeting with the teacher and principal if necessary, and get the facts.

G = Gather

“Gather as much information as possible,” she adds. “What behaviours are evident? What time of day is it happening? In what subjects?”

I = Inform

From there, it’s crucial that parents inform the teachers about what they see at home or if there have been any major life changes, such as a new baby, a move, divorce, or a death or illness in the family.

“Your intuition as a parent is also very valuable; you know your child best,” Stewart notes. “What is your hunch? Help the teachers to understand your perspective.”

F = Formulate

Then formulate plans and follow through. Identify behaviours you want to target, such as excessive distractions, and devise a plan of action with the teacher to limit or correct the behaviour.

“Remember that the best-laid plans are often not brought to fruition. Teachers and parents are busy, and it’s so important that once you develop strategies, you all commit to working on the behaviour or learning issue together.”

It takes teamwork

Carol Symons, director of leadership services with Edmonton Public Schools and a former principal, agrees that teamwork is essential to meet the needs of a child who’s having trouble.

“The parent and school need to build a partnership, a trusting relationship, with the effect of working collaboratively. It’s about parent as partner … Don’t assume the school won’t work with you. It doesn’t have to be a battle.”

Symons urges parents to meet the school staff and get involved with the school at the beginning of the school year to build a positive relationship. Attend welcome activities, fundraising events, and meet-the-teacher appointments.

“You don’t want your first encounter to be when there’s a problem,” she says. “However, if there are signs of concerns, they should be explored as soon as possible. Once things come off the rails, we’re already behind.”

Symons notes that the level of intervention depends on the severity of the problem. A teacher might ask the parent to do some extra homework. In other cases, formal testing or assessments are recommended. If a student ends up in the care of a pediatrician or other health professionals, Symons urges them to become part of the team as well.

“Get all of the relevant people to the table, sharing as much as possible. Together, gather solid insights into what the child needs for learning support.”

Avoid diagnosing or labelling, Stewart emphasizes. It’s not up to parents or teachers to determine the nature of a serious problem.

“Labels like ADHD [attention deficit hyperactive disorder] get thrown around a lot,” Stewart says. “Step back and get people who are trained involved if necessary. Leave that to the experts.”

What parents and teachers can do is communicate clearly and effectively. Effective communication is essential to working together. Simply ask the teacher what her preferred method of communication is—face-to-face meetings, phone calls, email, or written notes—and be specific about what concerns need to be monitored.

How often you communicate with the teacher depends on the extent and the nature of the problem too; the important thing is to be in touch regularly.

Stewart reminds that, despite the stress and worry parents might experience, everyone has a shared goal: to see that boy or girl be happy and do well.

“Work together, problem-solve, try out different strategies, and don’t give up,” she says. “The common denominator is everyone cares about the child.”

How to help kids

  • Isolate the problem from the child. Jan Stewart says to give this message: “Your behaviour’s not appropriate, but I love you no matter what. My love isn’t tied to your behaviour.”
  • Let your child have a voice. Include her in meetings with school staff and ask for her input on what’s working and what isn’t. Give her choices.
  • Focus on what your child is doing well, not just the problems she’s having.
  • Trust your child. Foster a relationship that allows her to talk openly with you.
A successful school year

Research shows that children do better in school when their parents are involved.

  • Help your child with homework.
  • Help your child develop skills to manage time and stay on task.
  • Talk about school issues at home.
  • Ask teachers what else you can do to help your child at home.

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