I suppose I already knew it. I have a couple of friends who advocate professionally (which is amazing, all by itself!) It just didn’t hit home until I found myself in a position where I needed to advocate for the “other one” and I already knew what I was doing. I was grateful for the skills that I had built up over the years battling for the things Yoshi needed.
As parents, with or without a special child, we will all find ourselves in a place where we need to speak up for our kids at some point. It can be tricky because we second guess ourselves—am I overreacting? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I don’t want to be that parent.
We all know at least one of those parents. The ones that push too hard and too far when it is inappropriate. Sometimes we have to let our kids fight their own battles. Sometimes we don’t know everything and we need to listen to what the professionals have to say. Sometimes, we’re just the wrong party and we can’t see it.
Often, though, we do need to advocate. And not just for our kids. The rules and processes for the micro game translate well to the macro version. Once you figure out your way around successfully standing up for your child, you can speak up for many.
I am not a professional advocate. Far from it. But I have picked up a few things along the way. I learned a few lessons the hard way, figured out some things that work better than others, and managed to cobble enough together to get by when I need to. These are my suggestions—whether you are advocating for your own individual child who is being bullied at school, or the entire school when a change is necessary.
Understand Your Goal
Be specific. You need to know what you are trying to achieve before you get started. You need to be completely sure, because it is not helpful if you change your mind part way through the process. You need to keep your message consistent.
Listen to Your Peers
This is key. I am not talking about your friends or your family. They are either going to be sympathetic to your cause or afraid of hurting your feelings. You should test the waters a bit before going full bore. You cannot always see your passions with an unbiased eye and you only want to push an issue that is worth pushing at an objective level.
Gather Evidence to Support Yourself
Arm yourself with facts and solid evidence. Document, document, document. You do not want to find yourself in a position where someone asks you a question that you cannot answer, because that makes you seem unprepared. Do not lie or make up an answer on the spot. It will come back to bite you. You can always say that you will look into it and get back to them, which is a much better response than a fake statistic. Speaking of which, avoid statistics as much as possible. Anecdotes can be more powerful.
This can be difficult. I know. Everything takes time, and usually it’s more time than you think is reasonable. Make a point of marking a date on your calendar that you are going to wait until you call or email again. If you are waiting for an initial response, a couple of days is reasonable for another call. But if you are waiting for the other party to complete an action on their side, you should usually give them a month before you follow up—unless it’s an issue of medical urgency.
Work Your Way Through the Proper Channels
Don’t skip a link in the chain. When you have completely exhausted every effort at the bottom and are ready to move up, you need to be prepared to explain why you are coming to the next level of command. The higher you get, the longer your explanation should be. A brief summary of how you have tried (and failed) at each step up to where you are is important. It shows that you have a valid reason for “bothering” a person who wouldn’t normally handle this sort of thing. It also sends the message that you mean business.
Keep Your Emotions in Check
People are quick to dismiss an irate or sobbing parent. They will listen, assuming that once you “vent” your feelings, you will go away. Or, they assume that the issue isn’t based in fact because you have skewed reality through your emotions. As hard as it can be sometimes, you have to keep a level head the entire time you are presenting your case. Close your eyes and count to three (any longer and you’ll lose your reliability as a witness), take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that as soon as you are alone you can loose it. But you have to hold it together. Reread (again and again) any emails or messages to look for anger or blame. Keep that out. It won’t help your case.
Pick the Right Time
When the teachers are busy with the end of the quarter and rushing to get grades in, it’s not a great time to ask for them to give you their focus. In the middle of budget negotiations isn’t the time to ask the board to review their policies on special ed ratios. Right before the holidays is never a good time. Try to not put yourself automatically at the bottom of the pile because there are already so many things on the to do list.
Ask for Help (in the Right Places)
Again, your friends and family are not the ones you’re looking for. You can often hire an advocate, depending on the situation. Go to the news—almost every area has at least one station that will do community stories. Write to the paper. Seek out others in the same situation through support groups or other areas where you are encountering the problem you combatting.
Stick to Your Guns
Please take this one with a grain of salt. There are times that this doesn’t apply. There are certain situations that you need to realize that you are fighting a battle that shouldn’t be fought. Those are typically micro level battles. You may be running a race that can’t be won. You might be wrong.
If you are certain that you are right, especially if you have garnered support, don’t back down. Be the squeaky wheel. Eventually, you’ll get your grease. While you do have to practice some patience, you can make a pest of yourself. Let them know that you are not going anywhere until they meet your goals, or you at least reach a compromise. (Remember those goals? They need to be specific!!)
I’m not going to pretend to know everything there is to know about advocating. These are the things I’ve picked up over the years. Most of what I have done has definitely been focused on one kid (mine!). The last month has helped me to see that I can apply the same strategies to a larger scale.
I have friends that are much better equipped to teach you how to change policies at a higher level. I haven’t ever gone further than the school board. People are capable of amazing things, with just the power of their voice and their presence. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right.
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