Sweeping budget cuts at the federal and state level mean less one-on-one time between teacher and student. How can you make sure your child isn’t just another name on the roster? Now more than ever, children need to learn how to become self-advocates in the classroom. When children can communicate what they need, what their resources are and what they can do to achieve their goals, they become partners instead of pawns in the academic experience.
Step One: Self-Inventory
The first step in teaching children self-advocacy is teaching them to first understand themselves. Help children take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses. These can be social, academic, or even physical—anything that impacts their classroom performance. For example, perhaps your sixth grader is a math whiz, but he struggles to see the board at times because of vision issues. Your high schooler may feel competent at poetry, but challenged when it comes to term papers. Often, self-analysis is one of the hardest steps in self-advocacy: it is difficult for children to evaluate themselves both honestly and thoroughly, and sometimes young children don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about their strengths and weaknesses in this way.
If children are having a hard time assessing themselves, consider looking to a classroom teacher for input. This may not necessitate a separate conference; instead, it might be as easy as looking at the teacher’s most recent comments (both complimentary and critical) on a report card or series of essays. For young children who struggle with self-assessment because of language barriers, try asking simple feeling questions: “How do you feel in science class?” If the answer is “frustrated” or “scared,” there may be an issue worth looking into.
Finally, help your children set realistic and specific goals based on the things that challenge them most: “I want to get better at math” is too vague and difficult to measure, but “I want to memorize my multiplication tables through 12 and do well on the next test” is specific, reasonable and easy to assess. Support your child in writing these goals down in a notebook or on a calendar for future reference. This encourages your child to take ownership of his or her education, an important cognitive shift in becoming a better learner.
Step Two: Locating Resources
Once you have helped your child identify his or her strong points and challenges, it’s time to identify potential resources. It’s a good idea to jot these down by the goals, as the two go hand in hand. If your child is a special needs student, you as a parent will want to be aware of his legal rights as established by federal law—this will give you some idea as to what kind of entitlements are guaranteed to your child in the classroom.
But all children are entitled to a good education, regardless of whether or not they are on IEP or 504 plans. Have your child do some research on what resources are available in the classroom—does your son’s 1st grade teacher do before-school tutoring? Does your daughter’s chemistry professor keep a web page with links to help children with difficult concepts? Is there a retesting policy? Many schools sponsor after-school tutoring or open library hours, too; check your school’s website or handbook for information on what is scheduled. It’s important to keep your children as involved as possible in locating resources, as personal involvement increases their accountability.
Identifying support beyond the classroom teacher and school can also be helpful. Perhaps your child knows that a friend is doing well in a class that she is struggling in; this person might be a valuable ally as a peer tutor. Local libraries, if they don’t have study groups formally scheduled, will often at least have separate study rooms that offer a quiet place to work. Outside agencies such as Kaplan or Sylvan may offer specialized academic services (SAT and ACT prep among them) in your community—but for a price. Talk to your child. Keep all options open, and see what seems to make him or her most comfortable.
Step Three: Taking Action
With goals and resources in mind, your child is now fully equipped to take action. The first part of that involves being able to communicate his or her expectations and goals to the classroom teacher. Kids might be more comfortable doing this in writing rather than approaching the teacher face-to-face; either way, it is important for them that they are given the chance to articulate their academic needs instead of depending on a parent to do it for them.
Encourage your child to be as specific as possible when approaching a teacher: saying “I’m bad at English and I need help” isn’t as likely to get results as “I’m having a hard time with verbs—can I come in for tutoring on Tuesday morning? Also, it’s difficult to see the board sometimes, so could I be moved to the front?”
Educators who see that a student is self-aware, motivated and able to set precise goals are almost always eager to help. This kind of behavior gets kids noticed—and in the best possible way. Teachers are not mind-readers, and all too often (especially in larger classes), children’s needs are often overlooked simply because the teacher is unaware that problem even exists.
Once your child has enlisted his or her classroom teacher’s aid, it’s time to start taking action. This means following through—referencing the written goals and resources, showing up for tutoring, managing time wisely, etc. Kids who have gone through the entire process of self-analysis, goal-setting and communicating with teachers are likely to be successful in meeting those goals.
Step Four: Evaluating
Too many times parent-teacher conferences consist of just that—the parent, and the teacher. But children themselves are the most integral part of the equation of classroom success. Take your children to conferences, help them to reflect on their goal-setting with their instructors present and encourage them to (politely, of course) speak up and be heard in the classroom. They know themselves, and it’s this kind of academic awareness and confidence that can be the difference between being a name on the roster and a full participant in a personal educational partnership.