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Why All Parents Need to Advocate for Their Child in the Classroom

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 -- Hugh O'Donovan

The other morning, I was standing in my kitchen making my son’s lunch when I spotted a white envelope sticking out of his backpack. Curiosity got the best of me, and I pulled out the envelope. Looking down, I found staring back at me a collection of four pictures of my son, who was dressed in a blue cap and gown, clutching a rolled-up paper in his hands, with the greatest smile beaming from his face. These were his graduation pictures—his kindergarten graduation pictures. 

Now, emotions aside, I have always found the idea of a kindergarten graduation a silly spectacle, topped only by his graduation from daycare the year before. However, in that moment, I could not have felt more pride in my son. Later, when I told him I saw the pictures, his response was, “Pretty, cute huh?” Yep, he was right—they were pretty cute.

And, aside from the great smile, the pictures made me realize that by graduating kindergarten, my son really had accomplished something wonderful. At the same time, they also made me reflect on my own role in his first year in the classroom and how I had almost failed to provide him the support necessary to achieve success by overlooking the importance of advocacy. 

Since he was born, our son’s education has been top of mind for both my wife and me. We have made sure that every single night we read to him. As he’s grown older, we’ve worked hard to limit screen time, provide lots of learning opportunities, and ensure that we sent him to a daycare that follows a strong pre-K curriculum. By the time he started kindergarten, he had a huge vocabulary, and he could count to 30 and read most sight words. He was so excited to be going to school, and I was completely confident he would be a star student.

I was wrong.

Like many others, my son’s school uses a color chart to let parents know what kind of day their child had: “Green” for a great day, “yellow” if a warning or caution had to be given, and “red” if there had been a significant issue. In his first few weeks, my son managed to rack up an impressive collection of yellow and red  days, to the point that I was wondering if his teacher had lost her green pen. And when I would ask him about his day and why he received a red, my son’s answer was usually about something silly, like talking in line or running at lunch. I didn’t see where a real problem existed, and it almost got to the point where I simply dismissed the colors altogether. Until, that is, the day my son told me he felt like he was being targeted by his teacher and she didn’t like him.

My wife and I quickly scheduled a meeting with our son’s teacher where we discovered that, as expected, there were behavioral issues any rambunctious five-year-old boy is likely to have, but there were also academic concerns we had never expected. The primary issue was that our son struggled to write. At the halfway point of the school year, while other students were writing multiple sentences, our son was struggling to get down one or two simple sentences on paper. His teacher had real concerns that my son might not be able to advance to 1st grade. My wife and I were shocked and devastated. I had allowed my personal feelings with the color system blind me to the academic frustrations my son was experiencing. 

At Edmentum, I work every day to create products that support teachers and students in the classroom. and My wife is an educator herself, and we believe very strongly in classroom teachers; we had been hesitant to interfere with what was happening in the classroom. We had forgotten that, as much as we respected his teacher, ultimately, we are our son’s main advocates. We needed to pay attention to clues from what he told us at home, spot his challenges, and speak up for him because he could not; we had failed to do our part. We had forgotten that educating our son really was a partnership between us and his teacher. We needed to be more involved, and from that moment on, we were, holding multiple meetings with his teacher, consistently working with our son on writing, and even talking to our pediatrician for suggestions.

With guidance from our pediatrician, we sought out an occupational therapist to help our son specifically with his handwriting and also to work on strategies to manage and maintain his focus when in the classroom. We identified a need for a specific type of pencil grip that helped him, as well as various activities to help improve his motor skills. With support from this therapist, we also approached our son’s teacher to find an alternative solution to punishment for poor behavior. Previously, his teacher would often address poor behavior by taking away our son’s access to recess. We suggested that, rather than revoke recess privileges altogether, our son could be asked to walk or run laps at recess time. With this approach, he still was being “punished,” but he was no longer sitting around letting all that energy build up. We also asked to have our son move away from the “red”, “yellow”, and “green” scoring system to a sticker system. We knew that our son worked very hard for positive feedback and that this new approach would motivate him by providing more of that. Once there was improvement, his teacher suggested moving back to the old system, but we argued our case for maintaining the sticker system, and she agreed. Together, we had found something that worked for our son, and we did not want to move away from it.

So, as I stood there, looking at those graduation pictures, reflecting on what it had taken to reach this point, I realized how important it had been that we had requested that initial meeting with his teacher. It was important that, even though I assumed as a father that my son is the brightest and best student in the world (he is the best son, so it just made sense to me), he still needed me to do my part, to pay close attention, and to be his advocate. I needed to be involved as a father because his teacher, as hard as she tried—and my son, as hard as he tried—both needed me to be involved as well.

And he is right; he sure looks cute in that cap and gown, holding that diploma, even if it is just a kindergarten graduation.

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