What should you do if your child is placed with a teacher who's not a good match? How do you proceed if you suspect your son has a learning disability? Where do you turn if your daughter is bullied during recess? You become your child's advocate by working with the school to create a solution. We spoke with school principals and other educational leaders to define guidelines for putting your energy, focus, and in-depth knowledge of your own child to its most effective use.
- Build good relations from the start. Don't wait for an issue to emerge to introduce yourself to your child's teacher. Raising a concern will be easier and less confrontational if open communication has already been established. There are many ways to become a positive force in your child's classroom. Consider dropping a friendly note or making an appointment with the teacher early in the year just to touch base. Volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning a class trip will also help you get to know the teacher better, as well as allow you to observe your child firsthand.
- If a problem occurs, gather the details. Perhaps your child is struggling with a subject that used to come easily, or maybe he has voiced concerns about being teased. It makes sense to act when you observe an issue or your child tells you something's wrong. Trust your own judgment and move forward, but also make sure you have all the information available.
- Begin with the teacher, usually. In most cases, an informal chat with the classroom teacher should be the first step in addressing any issue. Starting with the teacher gives you the opportunity to escalate your complaint should a suitable solution not be reached. The guidance counselor and school psychologist are also helpful in-school resources. The principal is the next step. You can contact the superintendent if the principal is not able to help reach a satisfactory conclusion.
- Connect with others. There's strength in numbers and most likely any school-based issue is not unique to your child. Look into your local PTA to connect with other parents. If you're concerned about a disability of any kind, contact your state's federally funded parent resource centers.
- Keep a record. Document all your communications, both to be on the same page about expectations and so you'll know who told you what and when. If you move beyond the casual chat level, express concerns in writing. Keep a copy, and send the letter by certified mail.
- Avoid the blame game. Mixing an important issue that concerns your child with busy teachers and school administrators can make for potentially frustrating feelings. For best results, try to keep your cool. Do try to be considerate of the teacher's time. Even though you may have to be persistent, keep in mind that ultimately everyone involved wants what's best for your child.
- Know your rights. Most issues have a good chance of being addressed to everyone's satisfaction within your school community. But if you are unable to get to the resolution you need, legal means are available. If your child's disability affects his educational performance, you have the right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) to have your child tested to determine his special education eligibility. You can also request mediation or a "fair hearing." Mediation brings you and the school district together with a neutral third party who is trained to help everyone come to an agreement. At a fair hearing, you and the school district present the dispute and a judge issues a decision.