The carefree days of summer are officially over in these parts. Yesterday was the first day of school for my children. And it wasn’t just the basic first-day-meet-your-teacher. It was their first day of school in California. We moved 2100 miles across the country at the beginning of the summer, so we were a looooong way from Indiana.
Now, this is not the first time that we’ve started a new school with Superkid. We did it in preschool, kindergarten, and again in first grade, when the school that she went to for kindergarten in permanently closed. So I’ve been around the block a time or two when it comes to educating teachers and administration about Superkid and her potential risks adn needs. That’s why I was extremely pro-active about getting the word out to our new school about Superkid long before we arrived in California. It was back in April, when we secured our rental property, that I began a chain of emails to inform the principal and school nurse about the new student they’d be meeting, and offer them the education and training required to keep Superkid safe and healthy at their school.
That meant is was particularly frustrating that, as of yesterday morning when I walked Superkid to the door of her classroom, I had not been able to secure a meeting with ANYONE at her school. I handed Superkid’s teacher an 8 page packet of information that detailed her medical history, how that medical history affected her time at school, symptoms her caregivers should watch for, emergency contact information, and specific information to give paramedics if they had to be called. I had two minutes to show the teacher the emergency contact information and say, “We really need to spend some time together so that I can offer you more education and training on my child’s medical issues. Good luck!” I spent the rest of the day at home feeling sick about leaving my medically fragile child with people who didn’t have a clue, and making all sorts of phone calls to get her the attention her conditions warrant from the school district.
There are a lot of details I could go into about the situation, but I won’t. The outcome was positive: by the end of the school day, I had a teacher and principal who were very eager to meet with me, ask more questions, and set up a time for me to educate and train school staff about Superkid’s unique needs. Getting to that point wasn’t easy, but I’ve had some practice advocating for my child in the past. As I mentioned, I’m happy so far with outcome of all of my efforts to advocate for her yesterday. Knowing that some of you who are reading this are new to the journey of parenting a child with extraordinary needs, I’m going to share a couple tips on the art of advocation.
Tip #1: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick
The little proverb attributed to Theodore Roosevelt basically means, “be kind and diplomatic, but if that doesn’t work, have a great military backing you up.” I’m in no way condoning the use of violence when it comes to advocating for your child. But I do highly recommend being able to speak in the calmest, most diplomatic, and sweetest of tones, even when you have to haul out the big guns with phrases like, “equal opportunity education” and “my attorney has advised me.”
As parents, we’ve all shared the experience of having one of our children demand something from us. More than likely, we’ve dealt with our share of full-out tantrums thrown by children who want their demands met right then. And there’s no question about it: kicking, screaming, and tears certainly get our attention. And if we’re not careful, they also get our defenses down enough that we’ll meet those demands. But how do you feel after you give in to make a tantrum stop? Are you exhausted? Are you resentful? Are you defensive? Absolutely!
Well, the majority of the time when you are sorting through the various administrative assistants and receptionists along the chain of names you have to call upon to make anything happen for your child, you are speaking to people who are simply gatekeepers. They can’t really do much to help you other than open the gate to let you into the inner sanctum of the people who have the power to take action. The trick is knowing not just how to get the attention of the gatekeeper, but how to get the gatekeeper to let you in. Plenty of people offer the “mamma bear” analogy when they talk about defending their children. I’d like to suggest that when it comes to defending your child’s rights and getting them the help they need, it’s more effective to use the analogy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Here’s where speaking softly goes a looooong way. If you must call places like school offices, state funded programs, or the clinic scheduler, you are going to be speaking to someone who speaks to a lot of upset adults. On a daily basis. In fact, that person on the other end of the line probably gets yelled at everyday and really should be paid more to do what she does. So, if you want to get her attention, you need to make yourself stand out from the crowd. And you do that by being as kind and nice to her as you would your sweet little grandmama. You chat with her for a moment, you explain your reason for calling in the most honeyed tone of voice, and you use plenty of pleases and thank yous. And if per chance she doesn’t open the gate for you, you don’t lose your cool, burst into tears, and scream, “I DEMAND TO TALK TO YOUR SUPERVISOR! I DEMAND AN AUDIENCE WITH THE HIGHEST POWERS THAT BE AT THIS OFFICE! YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT!!!”
Oh no, that is not what you say! Take a deep breath, and try saying in the serenest voice just dripping with molasses something like, “Oh, I really appreciate your willingness to try and help. I guess I’ll have to ask someone else, but maybe you know the name of someone else that could get involved. Do you think that if I spoke to the school district’s legal office, they’d have a better understanding of the liability issues at stake, here? Would you mind redirecting my call?”
Well, no one wants to get flack from the legal advisory office for not solving a simple problem that fell within their office’s jurisdiction. So the person you were just perfectly lovely to is going to jump from her desk and interrupt her boss’s meeting to find out if maybe, just maybe, they can help the nice lady on line two. As opposed to leaving a sticky note on said boss’s desk that says, “Some crazy lady called about her kid.”
Which brings us to Tip #2: Know Your Enemy
That little nugget of wisdom comes from a book on ancient Chinese military tactics, The Art of War. The point being, you can’t just run in and conquer a country without knowing what you’re in for: the landscape, the culture, the people, the language. You might get in with your army, but will you come out alive and successful in your campaign if you’ve ignored the geography and culture in your planning?
This military strategy is a particularly good application for dealing with schools and government organizations that you need to work with to get help for your child. It’s important to know the layout of the land before you go in with guns blazing. Educate yourself beforehand. What is the legislation that created this organization or governs it’s services? What are some of the current issues at stake within the organization? What types of services are they legally required to offer? What rights does your child have to receive those services? Who decides which children get those services and who gives them? Learn a few key phrases of the lingo, so that you can insert them into conversation as necessary.
Knowing more about the people you are speaking with than “they have something I want” is key to being able to work with them in a way that will benefit your child. Utilize Google. You’ll be surprised what you can learn and use to your advantage. And I don’t just mean photos of the organization’s director frolicking on the beach in Bermuda with underage drinkers–I don’t condone blackmail. But it sure doesn’t hurt to throw in a direct quote from that director’s speech on equal opportunity education at the most recent professional conference he attended to let him or her know you mean business!
And being able to toss out gems like that in the sweetest tone of voice possible is highly effective strategy. Trust me. Also trust me that memorizing key phrases from the Equal Opportunity Act never hurts, either. Learning the lingo of the folks you are working with can get you well past the gatekeeper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to speak with people simply because their secretaries thought I was a medical professional, not a hysteric mother. And it’s not that I’ve said anything dishonest to give them that impression. I’ve simply rattled off a few key phrases in a completely confident and professional manner that they might hear from one of their colleagues. Impression given: this lady knows her stuff, she must be one of us. Action taken: escort her to the inner sanctum.
The bottom line? It takes a little time and research and even some experience to get results fast in a world that is restricted at every turn by red tape and legalities. There’s a learning curve. But with practice, you can learn how to work the system to be a good advocate for your child.
Best wishes to all of you as you advocate for your own children!