Schools in Australia aspire to promote equity and excellence so all young Australians can become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. As parents, there is great excitement, hope and a degree of trepidation that our child’s schooling will result in this aspiration. But what if your child encounters learning difficulties?
Many parents or carers notice that their child is struggling at school but are unsure about the steps they should take or how best to support their child. Learning difficulties is a term used to describe a wide variety of learning problems. They can be caused by external factors such as experiences, opportunities, family, communities, or internal factors such as medical, physical and neurological. It’s important to remember though that this is an umbrella term and learning difficulties present differently from one child to another.
How Can You help?
Keep things in perspective. Learning difficulties are not the defining characteristic of your child and everyone faces challenges. It will be important to highlight their many strengths and unique gifts. Nurture your child’s gifts and talents, and make plenty of time for them.
Discuss the learning difficulties openly. Speak with your child’s teacher to understand the concerns. See your GP and consider referrals to other health professionals and specialists who may be able to better assist e.g. a paediatrician, psychologist, speech pathologist, audiologist etc.
Reflect on your own view of disability and difference. A medical model of disability views the problem being within the individual, focusing on what’s “wrong” rather than what the individual needs. A social model of disability sees the barriers as being within the environment and how these disable individuals. This view assists us to identify barriers and proactively address them, so individuals have more independence, choice and control.
Foster resilience towards challenges. Model how to approach learning challenges with optimism, hard work and a sense of humour. Your child will follow your lead and see challenges as speed bumps instead of roadblocks.
Trust you are an expert for your child. There may be many experts – teachers, therapists, doctors etc, weighing in on the learning difficulties observed. Learn from these people but also don’t lose sight of your unique parent perspective. The insights of parents on their child’s learning, individual interests, strengths and personalities are invaluable in planning for adjustments in the classroom and school.
Learn about policies, standards and legislation regarding inclusive education. It helps to know your rights. Seek out experienced advocates or parent advocacy groups to assist with developing your knowledge and advocacy skills.
Take care of yourself. This is a challenging part of parenting and it’s easy to get caught up in what your child needs. However looking after yourself is important to avoid burning out from neglecting your own needs. Tending to your emotional and physical needs means you can be in a healthy place to help and support your child.
How to Advocate for Your Child with Their School
Establish a good relationship with the teacher. Speak enthusiastically and acknowledge the positives of what is happening for your child at school. Be respectful about booking meeting times by asking how (i.e. phone, email, video-conference or face to face) and when (i.e. before or after school) they prefer to communicate.
Commit to collaboration. Collaboration means working with others to pursue a common goal, such as ensuring your child’s learning difficulties are understood, supported, progressed and monitored over time. There are benefits to bringing together a group of people on a regular basis who can work collaboratively to support a student. Teachers are required to consult with parents prior to providing adjustments in the classroom and families can invite associates to engage in collaboration.
Clarify the plan or steps forward. Communicate openly and ask how your child’s learning difficulties are being supported. Your child may be progressing with adjustments in the classroom instruction or there may be more targeted and intensive instruction or intervention being planned. Ask questions and engage in proactive conversations to understand the support available in the classroom and within the school.
Make generous assumptions about teachers and school staff. Schools are complex systems that are constantly changing. School staff are there to help all students be successful and are doing their best. Sometimes this means letting little issues go. Don’t get caught up in micromanaging the school.
Tips for Effective School Meetings
- Know who will be in attendance and their role and purpose for being there.
- Ask for a proposed agenda or the goal of the meeting, to support staying focused on this.
- Bring an associate or support person with you to the meeting if you need this.
- Present a calm, friendly and confident demeanour. Acknowledge positives and find opportunities to praise the teacher and the school.
- Avoid language indicating blame (i.e. instead of “you” use “I” and “we”).
- Focus on solutions and next steps. Being collaborative about problem solving rather than expecting your solutions are the only options.
- Prepare for uncomfortable conversation topics with scripted answers.
- Be curious rather than defensive in the face of a proposal you disagree with. Ask questions and seek to understand. Remain calm and if needed ask the topic be revisited at another time.
- Summarise what you understood as the plan or decisions moving forward. Emailing notes or the summary of outcomes/actions after the meeting can assist with record keeping.