Navigating the School System to Get What You Need

As an advocate for your child, how do you navigate the school system to get what you need?

D. Wright, Public Relations Specialist with the Murray School District, weighs in with some valuable perspective as a parent, and an educator.

Navigating – or having a successfully functioning situation within your school-parent relationship is much like working out your own family dynamics. There are no absolute techniques that work in all situations, but rather a common sense approach of mutual respect would optimally result in the desired communications. Does it always work that way? Not according to many parents with whom I’ve spoken. In fact, it’s very likely that some of your own schools professionals have had their issues with navigating their own kid’s school systems.

The problems are as diverse as the children themselves and the grades that they are in during the time that you may need extra critical “navigation.” What may have worked well with one kid, teacher or school, may be worthless in the next situation.

Let’s start with basics: As in business, it is common sense and most respectful to try first dealing directly with the immediately concerned party. In most cases, that would be your child’s teacher. If you have made extra effort to establish a relationship, either through volunteering in the school, attending back to school nights and parent teacher conferences, being organized and following up on school to home communications, then hopefully the teacher will know you personally, or at least have some idea of your desire to show support for your child’s educational needs.

If the interaction with the teacher doesn’t provide satisfactory results, it may be time to talk with your school principal, if your child is elementary aged – or the school guidance counselor, if your child is in secondary grades. They may have some ideas for you that you haven’t thought of, because they may have seen a similar situation in their past experiences.

If the situation draws attention of the principal or counselor for some specific reasons they may recommend special programs for more specific screening, such as learning disabilities, vision, hearing or other concerns; or scheduling time with the licensed school psychologist. They would assist you with making those arrangements.

If different teaching methods or situations are put into motion and you still have concerns about your child’s success in school, or regarding other problems that you do not think are being dealt with appropriately, you may want to consider making a call to your School District Offices. After explaining your problem to a staff member, you should be directed to the administrative area that could best serve your needs. Sometimes extra workshops or training may be offered to help inform you of special needs or services that your child may be qualified to obtain. Other times, someone in the school district offices may be able to help you in a mediator type of role to work out differences or miscommunication between you and your school.

Contacting a School Board Member is usually reserved for very rare and unusual problems, often community based, but sometimes a unique situation about which you feel the school board representative from your area may have a special understanding. School board members are elected by you (and/or your neighbors) and have asked for your vote, so it is not unreasonable to ask for them to hear your own school-related concerns.

If all else fails and the matter seems to be totally out of any neighborhood or local hands, the State School Board may be the next stop if resolution to a problem can be obtained. Again, they may have ideas or insight that you don’t know about or haven’t thought of regarding the situation.

As in every relationship in life, the specific approach to anything usually sets the tone. If you approach a school problem in an accusing, angry fashion, the chances of reaching a productive working relationship are bound to be slowed or even halted before anything can be worked out. This doesn’t mean that you are expected to walk on eggshells, but certainly to try to have emotions in control and coach yourself to be willing to hear both sides in order that you can see the complete picture. Remember that a child’s perception may be very different from what you may ultimately understand to be the case. That doesn’t mean your child is wrong or deceitful – it just means that you need the facts from both sides of the equation before a problem may be able to be resolved.

To recap, consider this order of guidelines when dealing with school concerns and don’t overlook the other considerations that may be within your own social or community circle:

1. Teacher Contact

2. Principal Interaction (the order on this and Counselor Guidance may be reversed in secondary grades)

3. Counselor Guidance

4. Special Programs for special screening; School Psychologist

5. School District mediation &/or intervention

6. School Board contact – in the case of concern for staff competency or curriculum

7. State Board of Education – if the school or district situation seems highly concerning

Other considerations:

• Outside professionals for consultation to your child’s specific needs

• Discuss your concerns with a teacher or other professional educator who does not know or is not working with your child

• Network among other parents of children with similar challenges

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