a parent's guide to Educational Advocacy

What is Advocacy? According to common dictionary definitions, advocacy is a noun, meaning:

  • “giving aid to a cause”
  • “active verbal support for a cause or position”
  • “the act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy”
  • “active support”

A parent can be a child’s best advocate, although everyone has the ability to become a strong advocate. To become an effective advocate, you must spend time preparing and learning important advocacy skills.

Advocacy comes in many forms, ranging from friendly, gentle persuasion to aggressive in-your-face confrontation. The form or style that is most effective often depends on the type of advocacy you are pursuing. When it comes to parent advocacy in education, there are extremely important considerations: the long term working relationship between you, as a parent, and the educators who have a continuing role in your child’s educational development, and how that relationship may affect your child’s educational environment.

If you set out to advocate against a new shopping mall development that would crowd out a neighborhood park and playground, an all-out-in-your-face confrontational style may be necessary to gain attention and make your voice heard. If that is necessary, it may be appropriate. After all, you probably do not need to have a constructive long-term working relationship with the real estate developers, and the outcome for the park is probably all or nothing. There are some big drawbacks to adopting a “scorched earth” policy in educational advocacy. A constructive relationship between parents and educators and the ability to communicate effectively are important, and especially so for children who have Individualized Education Plans. It is a long-term working relationship and involves many issues and decisions, not just one.

A Guide to Effective Educational Advocacy

Observe the Golden Rule

First and foremost, treat others with the respect and courtesy that you expect to receive from them. Tensions and emotions may run high, but behavior can be moderated. If that is particularly difficult for you, practice. Recruit a friend or relative (or several) and ask them to take the other side of your argument—practice stating your position, making your case, and responding to a different point of view before you go into the more stressful real-life setting. The more confident you feel about what you have to say, and the more clearly you can express it, the more effective you will be as an advocate, and the more likely that you will be able to keep your emotions under control.

Respect and courtesy are not just about what you say—if you roll your eyes, sigh loudly, make faces, or sit throughout a meeting with your arms crossed and a scowl on your face, you are demonstrating your disrespect for the process and the others participating in the meeting. Everyone on the education team— that includes parents, parent advocates, and educators—are professionals in terms of the knowledge and expertise they bring to the table and everyone should behave accordingly and demonstrate a constructive attitude.

An effective advocate prepares

It is not enough to know what you want. You need to know your rights—and their limitations, as well as your responsibilities. Knowing your rights gives you power. Knowing their limits gives you credibility. You also need to know why you want what you want for your child and be able to explain that to others who have a different point of view. That gives you bargaining power. Negotiation is just another part of life where good preparation is half the battle.

Advocacy is not about the advocate

An effective advocate speaks in support of “a position, cause, policy, or idea” – not in defense of him or herself. If you find yourself slipping into a posture of trying to prove you are right and everyone else is wrong, you need to take a step back and remember it’s all about the issue—not about “them” and not about you.

Negotiation is not weakness, but refusing to negotiate can lead to loss

Reasonable people can have different views on just about anything. It is not reasonable to expect that all differences of opinion will be resolved in your favor. At times, you will need to accept compromise to get most of what you want. Negotiation is the process that is used to work out differences about issues that are of mutual importance to the parties involved. It should result in the best possible outcome that meets everyone’s basic needs and comes closest to achieving what everyone wants. Keep your mind open to solutions you may not have envisioned, or that may not be perfect, but will work.  

Know your bottom line

Define what you want ahead of time, including the minimum result that is going to be acceptable to you. You have to allow some “wiggle room” for negotiation and compromise, but you also have to know when you are prepared to say an option is too far away from your goal to be acceptable. It’s your bottom line and you have to decide where to draw it. 

Keep your eye on the goal

The goal is usually not the outcome of this particular IEP meeting or programming decision. The goal is your child’s total educational program and long-term progress. Your ongoing working relationship with the school district and AEA personnel is a very important component of your child’s successful education. Unless you plan to pack up and move to a different school district every time you have a disagreement with educators, you may need to recognize that some things you would like to have for your child in the short term are less important than the big picture: a program and a relationship that are moving in the right direction. Some individual issues may be so important that you are willing to risk some disruption to the parent-school relationship, but choose them wisely. If you go to battle over every minor point, don’t expect to maintain a good working relationship.

Regardless of the outcome, be as gracious as you can be

Some negotiations may end with you getting exactly what you wanted. Some may end with you feeling like no one even heard what you said, and most will probably come out somewhere in between. Regardless of the outcome, thank everyone for their time, and if the meeting has been emotional or confrontational, it can be very productive if you are able to say something like, “We’ve covered some difficult ground today, and even though we are not yet in agreement, I hope we can continue to work together for (Susie’s) sake.” If that’s more than you can offer, try to at least leave with a nod, a smile, or a pleasant look that leaves room for starting again next time without hard feelings.

ASK Essential Questions

  • What are my triggers?
  • What is my goal? What is my bottom line?
  • What might be motivating others’ decisions?
  • What are my options if we don’t come to an agreement?

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