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How to advocate for your child’s mental health needs at school

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If you’re a parent struggling to get your child the mental health services they need — you’re not alone. 

The mental health system is complicated. For many people, finding and affording care is hard to do. But things get even more complicated for parents of school-age children, who have to navigate both the mental health and school systems for their children. 

If your child has ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, or any other mental health condition that impacts their learning, their school has a duty to provide support. These supports can include behavior plans, therapies, and accommodations like extended time on tests and special seating arrangements.

However, schools don’t always make it clear to parents that these supports are available. And parents sometimes face challenges when trying to get their children this help.

To help parents learn how to become better advocates for their children at school, we spoke to Christine Dufresne, Special Needs Clinic Learning Center Director at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. For over 15 years, Dufresne has helped parents fight for their children and navigate the public school system, giving her a deep understanding of what effective parent advocacy looks like.

“As a parent, it’s your job to stand up for your kid and say, ‘This is what they need,’” Dufresne said. “You cannot be intimidated by the fact that others are experts in a field. You are the expert on your child.” 

Here’s Dufresne’s advice for how you as a parent can ensure your child gets the care they need.

Document everything

For parents navigating the educational system, fewer things are more important than a paper trail.

School systems are complicated. It’s easy for conversations to be forgotten or lost in the day-to-day bureaucracy of the system. For this reason, Dufresne recommends that parents become obsessive record keepers. When you speak to or meet with a teacher or school administrator, write down all the details of the conversations, including who you spoke with, the date and time it happened, and what was discussed.

“If you want to advocate for your child, you always need to have documentation,” said Dufresne. “You can have all the conversations in the world, but if nothing was put in writing, then, as far as the system is concerned, it never happened.”

You should also keep track of all important documents and paperwork, including your child’s report cards, written communication with their school, and 504 Plan and Individualized Education Program (IEP) paperwork.

Don’t be afraid to request an evaluation

Evaluations at school can reveal what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, and what kind of school services they need to perform at grade level. Parents are often afraid to request evaluations for their children because they’re worried that evaluations must always result in their child getting services.

That’s not the case, however, said Dufresne. If you’re concerned about your child’s development and needs, there’s never any harm in requesting more information. Even if an evaluation results in a recommendation that your child receive special education services, you aren’t obligated to take them. In other words, consenting to an evaluation is not consenting to services.

“An evaluation is just information,” Dufresne said, “I’m always pro-information, and it’s never harmful to have more information about what’s best for your child.”

Be a good communicator

The better you communicate with your child’s school, the better the outcome for your child.

As a parent, it’s extremely important that you have open communication with the school staff, especially if you’re concerned about anything happening at school and with your child. As a former teacher, Dufresne always started the school year by telling parents that she was there to listen to them anytime they had concerns about what was going on inside the classroom.

It’s also helpful to learn how to speak to your children. Instead of asking open-ended questions (“What did you learn today?”) focus on questions that are more specific and concrete (“What was one thing that you learned today?”). This approach will help you learn where your child might be struggling, which is an important first step in learning where they might need extra help.

Know your rights as a parent

As the parent of a public school student, you have more power than you may think. 

To be an effective advocate for your child, you have to have a deep understanding of the rights available to you as a parent. For example, many New York City parents may not realize that, if they request an evaluation for their child, no official can deny it. 

The NYC Department of Education, for example, lists this and other important parental rights on its website. You can also find similar information through organizations such as Advocates for Children of New York, which publishes detailed factsheets divided by grade.

“Parents are very powerful in the public school system,” said Dufresne. “It’s important that they know that.”

If you’re looking for support for your child outside of school, explore Therapy4thePeople’s directory of free and low-cost mental health services. Our directory explains the full cost of services and whether they are designed to help someone with your identity or background. This can help you find support that fits your budget and unique needs.

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