As a parent of a young child with complex needs I often read that we have to be advocates for our kids at school. This is because schools tend to cater for the majority of kids, who have a built in ability and desire to conform and the ability to ignore distraction and socialise with other kids, rather than those with additional or complex needs who find school to be a challenging environment.
Even though schools now have to prepare plans to help our additional needs kids access the curriculum and succeed, I have learned that it is not helpful if we just go along with the flow and leave it up to the school to recognise issues, and design and implement appropriate responses.
This is where mindful advocacy comes into play. Here are four steps I have found helpful in over 9 years of advocating for my daughter in NZ and different states in Australia, in early childhood, kindergarten and primary school settings.
First and foremost it is important to identify and write down my own feelings in relation to my child’s experience at school. Emotions such as anxiety and fear as well as complacency, powerlessness, denial, frustration and confusion may come up as well as embarrassment, uncertainty and even self-righteousness and moral indignation. These emotions are real and valid, neither good nor bad, but ultimately they are not helpful. Having written them down I acknowledge these feelings but I am no longer beholden to them.
Next, you need to list all the things at school that your child finds challenging preferably in order of importance. I have drafted a list of potential challenges in the table below as a starting point, but you can add other things like sitting still at assembly, opening their lunchbox, remembering what they need to do, writing legibly etc.
I then list all the people at school that can help and how they can help and write them down next to the challenges. See the table below for an example.
Next up, I have found a good approach is to set up a meeting, with all the people you have identified above, at about week 5 or 6 of the school year. Your school may initiate this process but it is important to ensure you have most or preferably all the people who support your child at school in attendance. By this time they will have observed your child enough to be able to contribute to your prioritised list of challenges and solutions.
Including all your childs’ support team in this meeting and seeking their input helps build a team of allies for your child rather than create adversaries who may resent your perceived interference in their professional expertise.
You are now in a much better position to mindfully advocate to the right people at the right time on an ongoing basis about what your child requires to succeed at school without becoming overly emotional or being seen as unhelpful. The table you have created can also provide the basis for completing prescribed planning processes which schools are legally required to do.
Example of a table with a list of things which can be challenging for children with additional needs at school and who can help them and how.