It’s hard enough to have a child who is considered “difficult.” The daily struggles that parents have to deal with are innumerable: the constant behavior battles, the arguing, trying to discern truth from fiction, getting your child to go to bed, and then to school. But it’s even harder when you have to convince teachers that it’s their job to work with you to help your child. But don’t give up. With persistence and tact, you can become an effective advocate for your child.

While the persistence goes without saying, the tact may be even more important. Remember, you will be dealing with several professionals who will have different opinions. Also, you know how your child acts at home; he probably displays the same behaviors at school. He may not have a big fan club there. Regardless, he is entitled to the same free public education every other child is.

So, who is the “difficult” child? And how do you help him? He can have the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Conduct Disorder (CD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), Pervasive Developmental Disability (PDD) or a number of others. Start by learning as much as you can about his unique diagnosis. You are the first line of defense when it comes to school negotiations. Knowing exactly what’s best for your child will help you present an informed, valid argument at school meetings rather than letting decisions be made for you and your child. Knowledge is power! Here are some other key points to remember when advocating for your child:

Familiarize yourself with your child’s rights as a special needs student. This does not mean you have to become an expert (although this does happen with many parents, and that’s great!). There are many wonderful resources available for parents to bone up on their special education law and find tons of support and information.

Be a familiar presence at your child’s school. Of course people have lives, jobs, younger kids and housework. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep up with your child’s progress. Attend as many meetings as possible in person. If you can’t be there, try to arrange a phone conference. Arrange for progress reports on a regular basis. A parent-teacher log is a great way to keep more steady contact.

Start a behavior modification program that your child believes in. Linda I. Slone, a special education advocate and speech-language pathologist, says the most important strategies are focusing on the targeted behaviors and knowing what reinforcement is important to your child. “When designing a behavior modification program, enable the child to replace objectionable behaviors with acceptable ones that both make sense to the child and have inherent rewards so that they become to feel natural to the child,” she says. A child won’t follow a behavior modification program if he doesn’t believe in it.  

Teach your child to accept responsibility. Your child’s disability is an explanation, but not an excuse, to behave badly. When he does lose control, he should assume some responsibility for his actions. Simply pointing to his condition will perpetuate a learned helplessness, which will not help him once he leaves the safety of the school system. No one would give him such a pass if he lost control at work or on the street, for example. If necessary, he could work with the school psychologist or social worker to improve his behavior.

Keep in mind, as frustrating as your child is to you, he is to his teacher as well. However, it is always her job to be respectful to him. Abuse is never okay, and any allegations should be taken seriously.

Seek help if you need it. If you feel you are getting nowhere with the school, you can get assistance in the form of an advocate or, in some cases, lawyers who specifically deal with education law. Be sure you have plenty of documentation to present to your attorney or advocate.  

Remember, you are the utmost expert on your child. You’ve known him longer than anybody else and you spend the most time with him. As much as the so-called “experts” know about his condition and about education (and they may know a lot), you know him! Do your best to work together to figure out what’s best for him.