Child Advocacy

All young people need to know that there are adults in their lives who will take a stand for them and advocate for them when needed. Unfortunately this is not always the case and many factors – both personal and systemic – can impede a parent’s or caregiver’s ability to play this role. (See Understanding Parents and Caregivers.)

Teachers may become aware that a parent or caregiver does not believe that their child is being bullied or thinks she or he is exaggerating the problem or its impact. Some parents or caregivers may have difficulty accepting an empowerment-based, problem-solving approach to working with a child or teen who has bullied. They may react with extreme anger, harshness or negativity toward their child, exhorting us to “Go ahead and do whatever you have to do to her/him.” Parents or caregivers who punish their child at home when she or he has already experienced a natural consequence at school can undo the power of the positive message that we are attempting to convey: “We believe in you. We believe you can learn new behaviours and change.”

In some cases, when students who are in some way perceived as “different” or marginalized are bullied, their parent or caregiver may not be sure they are acceptable. They may harbour their own doubts and questions that prevent them from supporting their child, for example:

  • a male student who wants to wear a dress;
  • a student with a learning disability.

In all of these situations, teachers can adopt the role of advocate for their students, which can often be accomplished by educating and informing the parent or guardian. As in most interactions with parents and guardians, however difficult and challenging, it can be most effective to begin by listening, seeking to understand what beliefs and values underlie the attitudes and behaviours you are witnessing, and connecting to our empathy. (See Empowerment Listening.)

Saying it
  • “I can see that you’re very upset with your child because he is gay. I’m not sure if I fully understand what this means to you. Can you tell me more?”
  • “It sounds as though you’ve been worried about this for a while and that you’re feeling very alone. It may help you to know that you’re not the only parents/caregivers who are struggling with this.”

Once we perceive that the parent or caregiver feels understood and heard, we can move on to information-sharing and problem-solving. During this phase, we can weave in information about our own and the school’s values and positions.

Saying it
  • “I’ve worked with your child for a few months now. She’s/he's got a lot of energy, she/he loves working with other students and she’s/he's very curious. I really believe she/he can reflect on her/his behaviour and change. Our school’s policies and procedures are set up to give students that opportunity.”
  • “I know you’ve got a lot of doubts about how your child is expressing her/his gender identity. I need to let you know that my own and our school’s position is to respect students’ differences whatever they are. Your child has a place in our school and we will do whatever it takes so that she/he feels safe to be herself/himself here. Are there ways we can work together and involve your daughter/son to meet that goal?”

Sometimes we may be called upon to have a discussion about beliefs or attitudes that conflict with our own and our school’s values and approach. As allies for equity and inclusive education, and as professionals seeking to facilitate our students’ learning and empowerment, part of our role as advocates may be educating their parents or caregivers. This can include education about respect for children’s and teens’ rights, and for differences based on learning styles, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation and gender identity, and equity for girls and women.

Conversations about values are very difficult and delicate, as all of us are emotionally and intellectually attached to our values. We can acknowledge parents’ and caregivers’ values and the ways they differ from our own and our school. We can discuss these differences neutrally, focusing on the impact on the student. In such a discussion, we are not trying to change the parent or caregiver. Our goal is to find ways of working with them to avoid confusing or creating difficulties for students.

Saying it

“From what you’re saying, you believe your child will learn to stop bullying because she/he doesn't want to be grounded. Have I got that right? It sounds as though we have the same goal – we all want the bullying to stop. I’m wondering how – at home – you can support the consequences we’ve identified for your child as a result of her/his bullying behaviour? That way she/he will hear the same basic message in both places.”

Conversations about differences in values with the goal of advocating for our students are different from interrupting inequity and hatred. When parents or caregivers express viewpoints or attitudes that are hateful toward certain social groups, it is important to explicitly counter such attitudes by naming and challenging them. (See Interrupting Inequity.) And when parents’ or caregivers’ attitudes and values manifest in behaviour or actions that put our students’ safety and wellbeing at risk, then we have a legal duty to report this to the child welfare authorities.