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The importance of being an effective advocate for your child

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The importance of being an effective advocate for your child

Parents are the child’s first and best advocate. Advocacy is being able to speak, write, represent or act on your child’s behalf as they may not have the knowledge, skills or experience to advocate for themselves. Many professionals and agencies can help with advocacy activities; however, parents remain the central and most important support for their children.

Common concerns where parent advocacy can be very important are placements in special education, evaluation and assessment for health conditions, discipline issues, bullying, academic performance, discrimination of children in education streams in high-school, ESL learner challenges, child-protection issues and eligibility decisions for social services and disability supports.

Parents who learn to advocate on behalf of their children can work collaboratively and produce positive results that benefits the child, family and society. Children with parents who actively work with their school, health care providers or community agencies have shown progress and success in both educational and health outcomes.

For immigrant families, navigating an unfamiliar school or health system can be very challenging. Many immigrant children and families have traumatic experiences in their countries and continue to face uncertain and difficult circumstances as they integrate and settle. Parenting can be very difficult when you also have children who have special needs or other mental health challenges.

Additional barriers such as having to learn a new language, low digital literacy, poverty and discrimination can compound their stressors leaving them to fear that their children will be left behind, not receive equal opportunity or develop mental health problems. It can also be difficult for newcomers to access health care and other services that are linguistically and culturally appropriate. Gaps in programs and services can also have long-term effects on wellbeing of families. Strengthening and supporting families to advocate will ensure that systems and services are accountable and families receive quality care and service that is culturally-responsive to their needs.

Here are 10 things parents can do to advocate for your child:

  1. Learn: Invest time in learning about systems, services, your rights, skills and mentorship programs: anything that can benefit your child
  2. Ask: Seek clarification, request summaries and document everything that happens at the parent-teacher meetings or with other professionals.
  3. Get organized: Sort and organize information, emails and documents by date and time to access easily when needed.
  4. Prepare: Develop goals that you would like to accomplish and prepare in advance so you can be focused in the meetings and get answers.
  5. Collaborate: Build strong relationships with professionals and teachers and show them that you value them and want to work with them.
  6. Be calm: There will be challenging situations and the recommendations may not be what you are expecting, but being polite and staying calm can help to strengthen relationships.
  7. Reach out: Join parent groups in school or organizations that are dedicated to improving lives of children. Approach community leaders to get involved and advocate for changes at a broader level.
  8. Get help: Faced with barriers, seek additional support from cultural interpreters, family, friends and resource persons in the community to make the process easier.
  9. Help your child: Help children, especially teenagers to stand up for themselves and offer your support.
  10. Be brave: Do not be afraid to disagree or seek support at higher levels as processes are in place for families to share their concerns.

There are several programs available (including one that I developed) that recognize advocacy as a critical skill for families. Learning about impact of self-advocacy, skills training and working with real-life scenarios can help see advocacy in action and the opportunities to create change both individually and also as a group.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that the COVID-19 situation could have presented families with unique challenges which might be overwhelming. This could include loss of employment and income, violence in families, racial injustice crises, new learning models and lack of traditional means of support for newcomer families and families with special needs. It is important to keep the needs of your child in mind and continue your involvement and advocacy to ensure the needs of your child even during these difficult times.

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