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Teaching Your Teen How to Self-Advocate at School

As a school administrator, I occasionally encounter parents waiting in the front office who greet me by announcing, “I’d like to meet with my child’s teacher right now.”

In these situations, I start by explaining that the teacher cannot meet immediately because they’re teaching. Then I follow that by asking, “What did you want to talk about?”

Once, a parent wanted to meet with a math teacher because her son was struggling in the class. “The teacher doesn’t help my son,” she told me. “He says he asks for help, but she just ignores him and helps other kids or runs out of time and says she’ll have to help him next time. That’s not right.”

In some instances, a meeting is indeed necessary, though it should be scheduled in advance to allow the teacher time to prepare. Perhaps a child’s behavior had been inappropriate and the parent wants to meet with both teacher and student to clear the air. Or the parent is hearing conflicting messages about homework and wants to meet with the teacher to review expectations.

In other cases, the issue at hand is better served by a conversation between the student and the teacher. As parents, we have the best of intentions and are eager to support our children’s education, but it’s also important to help teens learn self-advocacy skills for themselves.

How can parents know when to step in and when to step back?

How to Help Your Teen Self-Advocate: 

Step 1: Talk to your teen.

If this were your child, I’d encourage you to start by asking your child some questions:

  • When during class are you asking for her help?
  • How are you asking? Do other kids ask differently? How so?
  • What other options could you try?

In thinking these questions through with your child, presume best intentions: “Let’s assume the teacher wants to help you. Let’s figure out what’s going on and how to explain to her that you don’t think you’re getting the help you need.”

Step 2: Consider different strategies.

The second step is to help your child think about what he can request from the teacher that would be most helpful:

  • One-on-one help after school?
  • A chance to be the first one helped during the next class period, if possible?
  • Answers to a few specific math questions by email?

Step 3: Let your teen take the lead.

The third step is to encourage your child to reach out to their teacher. Rather than having your child speak to the teacher in person when you can’t be there to observe and sort out your child’s perception of the situation, ask your child to draft an email to the teacher, explaining the situation, and to copy you on the email.

Use this opportunity to teach your child how to best to communicate with their teacher by using appropriate tone and grammar. What teens send to a teacher, professor, or employer should not sound like their texts to friends. As an educator, I have received too many emails that go something like this: “hey miss I need u to check my homework & let me know if I need anything else & get back to me asap!!!”

Having your teen copy you on the email (“Cc”) enables you to bear witness to both your child’s communication and the teacher’s response without insinuating yourself into the conversation directly. If a situation does arise where you feel you need to intervene, you can use the email as evidence of prior efforts to communicate.

These self-advocacy skills are at least as important to learn as the quadratic equation or trigonometric functions. Our adolescent children need to figure out how to navigate communicating with adults in preparation for college, the workplace, and adult relationships. If we’re always intervening on their behalf, they never get the opportunities to practice.

Nevertheless, there are times when it is appropriate for a parent to intervene directly.

When to Intervene:

1. If a teacher does not respond at all or responds without empathy or understanding

If the teacher’s response doesn’t resolve the issue, it would be appropriate to request an appointment to sit down together and perhaps have a school administrator join you.

2. If a situation is more than just instructional

If, for example, a teacher repeatedly uses offensive language in the classroom or makes your child feel unsafe in some way, then by all means schedule an appointment to meet and ask for an administrator to be present.

3. If your child continues to struggle

If your teen’s efforts to advocate for themselves have not solved the problem and their frustration is becoming an obstacle, it may be time to step in as well.

If you choose to intervene, it is important for your child to use their voice. In a meeting, even if you are there, your child can describe the situation, explain how it makes them feel, and ask for specific changes that would help them feel safe and able to learn. You are there if your child needs you, and your presence tells both your teen and the teacher that their education is important to you.

Meredith Gavrin has been an educator for more than 25 years—first as a middle and high school teacher and then as the co-founder of a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. She is also the mother of three children.

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