The role of an advocate is to support, speak on behalf of, promote, protect, and champion. Children, even if they are nearing legal age, require a champion in their corner (and the more the merrier). This is especially true when a mental health struggle is present. For military children, given their unique experience, a caregiver who takes on the role of champion plays an important part in promoting the overall well-being of a child, including their mental health.
What does being an advocate look like? There are four key steps to successful advocacy: Prepare, Communicate, Document, and Follow-up. The New Brunswick Association for Community Living offers an excellent framework to become an effective advocate for your child. Let’s put these steps together with an example of how each step might play out.
Sharon and Diego’s 15-year-old daughter Raven has been struggling more than usual the last several months, both at home and at school, since moving to a new PCS. Raven had felt down and depressed at her previous school in the fall, and at one point was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts and plans to hurt herself. With therapy and medication, Raven finished her freshman year successfully and improved academically, socially, and emotionally. Since the recent move and new signs of trouble, Sharon established therapy sessions for Raven with a provider at their new installation. Raven has made some improvements; however, she struggles at school to use the tools she is learning in therapy.
- First, find information about the specific concerns your child is experiencing (e.g. bullying, change in behavior since a parent deployed, increased anxiety). Be sure to carefully review the sources of information you are reading, to make sure it’s reputable. Along with this website, you may find helpful information at:
- Military Child Education Coalition
- Military One Source
- American Academy of Pediatrics and their partner website org
- Identify additional people who may be able to help you and join your child’s support team. This may be a school counselor, teacher, mental health provider, speech therapist, or trusted religious leader/military chaplain.
- Work to clearly identify specific problems and brainstorm possible solutions in this preparation stage. When presenting a problem to an outside party, it’s helpful to come prepared with possible solutions.
- While seeking information from books, articles, and videos is helpful, remember to communicate with your child. Your child is the expert on their lived experience. Ask questions of your child and seek to better understand both their current challenges and their strengths.
- If your child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan in place, or you are seeking to have one established, become familiar with both the process and the plan itself.
Sharon, Raven’s mom, has asked the mental health provider if she would be willing to write a letter to the school outlining specific skills that Raven is learning in therapy and how they could help her better focus, perform, and engage in the classroom. Sharon also went online to familiarize herself with the state policies concerning IEPs and 504 plans, as there could be important differences compared to their previous duty station. Sharon and Diego also talked to Raven, learning from her what parts of the school day create the most challenges, and how those challenges distract her from her school work. With this information, they made an outline of Raven’s challenges (overwhelmed by her feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and being bullied), the impact on her school experience (being distracted the period before lunch due to anxiety, difficulty calming herself down, becoming restless in her seat), and possible solutions (a designated safe space in the school where she could go to work on calming herself down for 10 minutes, finding an adult in the school who she can trust to talk to when she is being bullied).
- Arrange for opportunities to communicate with the people on the support team. This can take the form of emails, phone calls, and meetings.
- Stay calm and collected when engaging with team members. Remember, you are trying to build a solid team with the goal of supporting your child’s success.
- Ask questions and listen thoughtfully and carefully to the input of others. Remember that your child, just like all of us, behaves differently at school than at home, at church or in a social setting.
Sharon and Diego requested to first have a meeting with Raven’s 4th-period teacher (the class before lunch), since this is when Raven’s challenges begin to arise. The parents shared their concerns with the teacher, and asked about his observations and suggestions. Together they identified some reasonable accommodations for this class period, and agreed to give those a try before requesting a more formal IEP meeting.
- Request that agreements, such as special services and/or accommodations, are in writing and that you have a copy.
- Maintain a record of your meetings and interactions with the key stakeholders. For example, keep notes in your planner of the dates and times of conferences at your child’s school and list who was in attendance.
- Save emails, text messages and any paper documentation that you are provided.
Diego took notes on the meeting, and then sent an email summary to the teacher, requesting that he look it over and confirm that Diego documented the meeting and action items correctly. Once the teacher responded, Diego saved the email for future reference.
- Follow up with team members if your child’s needs have not yet been met. Continue to champion your child’s best interest and their ability to succeed.
- Understand that at times you may need to elevate your concerns to the next level of authority within an organization/system. Start at the bottom, or close to where the challenge is presenting itself, before taking your concerns to higher levels of authority. In other words, first discuss your concerns with your child’s therapist before taking them to the clinic’s director.
- Maximize time with important stakeholders when it naturally presents itself (ex. parent-teacher conferences, well-child checkups and annual physicals, parent consultation time during therapy appointments).
As part of their plan with the 4th-period teacher, Sharon and Diego would email the teacher at the end of each week and ask for his feedback on Raven’s performance, behavior, and mood in the classroom. Some improvements were made, which provided everyone with hope. However, Raven was still having challenges at lunch that were spilling into the rest of her day, both in school and at home. Sharon and Diego spoke with the 4th-period teacher and he supported their plan to speak with the school counselor. Sharon also did regular check-ins with Raven’s mental health provider at each appointment and kept herself up to date on Raven’s progress and the tools she was learning.
As you can see, advocating for your child will be an ongoing process. For example, preparation is something that you will continue to do and incorporate. Through championing your child, your child has a better chance of experiencing success despite their challenges and will hopefully learn that you have their best interest at heart. When children experience a warm, positive relationship with their parents, they tend to do better at home and at school, exhibiting higher self-worth and making more positive choices.