Advocacy in Action: How to Change the World for Your Child

Successful advocacy is a process of respectful and thoughtful collaboration.

Posted Sep 17, 2015

DoDEA Creative Commons via Flickr
Source: DoDEA Creative Commons via Flickr

By Dona Matthews, PhD, and Joanne Foster, EdD

School is not always a positive experience for children, and parents can feel helpless against a system that feels impenetrable and immovable, as if designed for someone else’s kids. In reality, however, educational policies, practices, and systems are always evolving, and parents—when they get together with others—have far more power to make changes than most of them realize.

From decades of working with children, families, and schools, we’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t, and have designed a ten-step plan for parents who want to make changes that will support their child’s optimal development:

1. Look for like-minded others. Approach other parents, as well as teachers, principals, counselors, community leaders, and anyone else you think might be interested. Advocacy is easier, infinitely more effective, and far more congenial when working collaboratively.

2. Nurture a climate of trust. Any talk of change elicits emotional reactions, and a school community is a complex and interdependent workplace. Because of this, a climate of trust is essential if you’re going to effect a healthy and productive long-term change. From the very beginning (even if you believe you’re right and everyone else is wrong), be honest, considerate, and approachable.

3. Get the facts straight. Gather the necessary information about the situation or concern. The people defending the status quo may try to trip you up if you’ve been careless in this stage, so be resourceful in searching out as many of the facts as possible, making sure they are up-to-date and accurate. Organize the material so it’s easy to understand and refer back to.

4. Prioritize. Identify the core of the issue. Discern exactly what needs to be addressed, and why, in terms that are as clear as possible. It’s easy to get sidetracked or divided in your efforts, so spend whatever time is needed with your collaborators to find consensus on priorities. You’ll need to invest repeated effort in priority-setting, from the start, throughout the advocacy process, when making recommendations, and as other people respond to your ideas.

5. Make a plan. Define simple and reasonable goals, a sensible time-line, and fair responsibilities. Even the best-laid plans need to change as circumstances do, so be flexible about making adjustments along the way.  

6. Be specific and practical. Put your ideas in writing, then discuss them with others. Make sure your suggestions are focused, sensible, and clearly communicated.

7.  Think broadly. Consider community resources including individuals and sectors of society not typically associated with education, such as businesses, volunteer groups, industry, media, seniors, retired educators, and other professionals.

8. Foster respectful and productive working relationships. When encountering people who disagree with you or who want to obstruct the changes that you believe are necessary, listen thoughtfully and respectfully. Do your best to understand their perspectives and concerns. Maintain open communication channels, and aim for mutually respectful dialogue.

9. Stay committed. Try to retain a sense of optimism, even when the advocacy process gets bogged down. From time to time, you’ll probably need to regroup and think about ways to regenerate forward momentum.

10. Encourage children and teens to engage in self-advocacy. Include your child and others in the advocacy process to the extent their age and maturity allow. Assist them in learning to identify and communicate their own learning needs, as much as possible. There is no more powerful advocate for a cause than a child. 

One final thought: no one can change everything at once. Start small, go slowly, and be patient.  

by Dona Matthews, PhD, and Joanne Foster, EdD

For more on this topic

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (House of Anansi, 2014). 

‘Attunement and Advocacy: Strengthening Home and School Connections’ by Joanne Foster, Kids Post/Post City Magazines, Jan. 2013 

‘The Role of Educational Advocacy’ by Karen L. Schiltz 

‘Parent Advocacy: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ by Annie Kidder 

‘10 Ways to Be an Effective Advocate for Your Child,’ by Geri Coleman-Tucker

‘Are Your Kids Mentally Healthy?’ by Alyson Schafer

Book Give-Away!

Enter a back-to-school challenge and win four copies of Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids for your child's school.