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Advocating for Your Child

Medical staff speaking with woman
What is advocacy?

Advocacy means speaking up for your child’s interests. You may have to advocate for your child’s needs:

  • in the classroom
  • in the principal’s office
  • whenever your child’s identification and placement committee meets

You are the expert on your own child, but also listen carefully to what educational experts can tell you about children with ADHD and how they learn.

Be positive

One key to successful advocacy is to stay positive. The goal is for your child to work hard and achieve high standards. This opportunity to learn is every child’s right, but it is important to understand that schools exist with a limited number of staff members and a set amount of money. You need to have reasonable expectations about what can be accomplished in one school.

It may be necessary to push for changes in a school, such as additional staffing, or accommodations that require equipment or additional classroom space. Also look at other nearby schools and find out if the needed resources are already offered there.

Teachers and the school system they work in are not always aware of research that indicates how children with ADHD can be effectively helped. You may need to bring information on research-based programs to the school. It is OK for you to ask “Have you heard of this program? Can I give you some information?”

Understanding the system

Often parents are intimidated and frustrated by the “system” of education. This structure may seem complicated, but you will probably find you can navigate it just fine once you clarify who is in charge of what. Parents may want to see if their school board has a website or brochure that describes the process.

In elementary schools, the principal or vice-principal is expected to coordinate and oversee the work of the special education team, which may include:

  • the special education teacher
  • the classroom teacher
  • the teacher-adviser, and support staff

The special education team is involved in developing, monitoring, and reviewing each student’s education plan.

School boards usually have a superintendent of special education who has ultimate responsibility for all categories of special education in the district.

In Canada, school boards themselves answer to the Ministry of Education in each province. In the US, school boards in each county report to the state board of education, which guides the policies of the state’s Department of Education.

In partnership with teachers

There is research evidence that children whose parents are more involved with their child’s education achieve more in school. Your attitude towards school, teachers, and learning rubs off on your children. Part of helping your child succeed is building a successful partnership with his teacher and school staff.

Even if you disagree with a teacher, show her that you respect the profession.This will establish the basis for a productive relationship. A child cannot really learn from a teacher if her parents do not respect the teacher. A teacher cannot really teach a child if he thinks the parents do not respect him. You want to create that trust.

Here are some strategies to help you build the teacher-parent relationship:

  • Maintain open communication with your child’s teacher. You must be willing to listen, ask questions, and carefully consider the ideas your child’s teacher brings up. There are good teachers of all ages, all genders, and many different styles of teaching and relating to children.
  • Pay careful attention to reports on your child, including the yearly identification and placement meetings, the regular report cards and interim notes. The teacher spends five hours a day, five days a week with your child and is trained to observe progress and spot roadblocks.
  • Observation works both ways in your partnership. If you notice your child cannot finish his homework or is struggling with something new, write a note to let the teacher know.
  • Let your child's teacher know about the important things that are happening in his life that might affect the child's performance. If Grandma comes to live with you, or a new sibling is on the way, it may help the teacher to know.
  • Focus on actions and results, not blame or responsibility. What can you do as a parent? What is the teacher’s plan to help the child with a difficult area? Whenever you describe a problem or a need, try to suggest what can be done to address that need. You may need to become familiar with interventions that have been shown to help children with ADHD. 
  • If you are trying to make changes in how your child is taught, focus on key skills. Ask teachers what teaching strategies or instructional techniques they will use to make sure the student keeps progressing. Ask whether these strategies are based on research that shows their effectiveness.

Advocating all around

While advocating for your child, keep in mind that there are important aspects of life beyond your child’s ADHD. Children with ADHD need opportunities to do something other than struggle with their most difficult challenges. Many successful adults who struggled with ADHD as children found one area in which they were as good as or better than anyone else. This sense that they are “good for something” helps children feel like they have a problem, rather than feeling like they are a problem.

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD