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Advocating for your child at school

Woman and child seated next to each other at a table talking and counting on their fingers.

Melissa Sadin puts her personal and professional experience to work helping school districts respond to the needs of children with attachment trauma.

In a decades-long year career, Melissa has worked as a special education and gifted education teacher, a principal, department leader, and a school board member. She has a doctorate in education, is the author of five books on attachment trauma, and is an in-demand speaker for national conferences. She’s also an adoptive parent.

This article is based on a presentation at the 2021 North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) conference, during which Melissa shared strategies for family members as they advocate for their children. We thank Melissa for granting us permission to share some of her insights about how parents can advocate for children.

Adopting a son, becoming an advocate

All children in foster care have experienced trauma, because of separation from biological families. This form of trauma is known as attachment trauma, since it involves the child’s bond with a primary caregiver. Scientific studies show that early childhood trauma changes how the brain handles stress—including the stress of school.

When she adopted her son Theo, Melissa learned that he had a tough time soothing himself, because of early trauma. Once Theo began school, Melissa became his advocate. She helped teachers and administrators understand how his early experiences influenced his behavior.

With persistence, Theo and Melissa built supportive relationships within his schools. When he graduated from high school, Theo gave his mom a list of 20 things that schools should know about children and trauma. Theo’s list became a book and continues to shape Melissa’s work with districts and families.

Melissa’s advice to other parents

Find your people!

“If you formed your family through adoption, find out if your agency has a family support group,” Melissa said. “That’s how I found my trauma mama tribe, and I relied on their advice.” 

Families can build a tribe at school too, beginning by talking with the child’s teacher. “Get to know others who can become allies, such as the school’s special education teacher, learning specialists, and the principal,” Melissa said.

Educate the educators!

The science of trauma and the brain is nothing new. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study in the mid 1990s. Continuing research shows that traumatic childhood experiences are widespread, with more than half of adults across 25 states reporting at least one adverse childhood experience.

Although research proves the connection between trauma and behavior, not all teachers are familiar with these findings. Teachers may be frustrated when a child acts out or responds differently than peers.

By sharing resources on trauma with the child’s school, parents can help educators understand their child better. We share a few of these resources at the end of this article.

Access available support, including an IEP

A child may need more support with learning than their classroom teacher can provide. A federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that each student who receives special education has an IEP. The law applies to students in public and charter schools. IDEA doesn’t apply to private schools, but some give learning support to students.

An IEP documents a child’s current level of achievement in school and sets goals from improvement, then says how the school will support the child. An IEP helps a child access more resources in school, such as help from learning specialists. IEPs also specify when and how a student receives accommodations such as extra time on tests or changes to the school schedule.

Steps to obtaining an IEP and working the plan:

  1. Obtain a referral and diagnosis. “If you’re going to request an IEP from school, consider meeting with a therapist who understands childhood trauma,” Melissa suggests. “Ask your foster care agency for a referral.” The therapist can make a diagnosis and prepare a letter stating that the child should receive learning support from the school.
  2. Request services. Once you have the referral, include the therapist’s letter with a signed note requesting special education services. “Every public school has a support team that’s responsible for developing IEPs, and they will be required to meet with you within 15 days,” Melissa says.
  3. Document, document, document! Take notes during meetings and save every email or other communication you receive from the school. “You may want to bring a family member or friend with you to the meeting to take notes,” Melissa advises. “Meetings can get emotional, and your friend can keep a cool head.”
  4. Conclude with a plan: Asking questions at the end of the meeting helps keep everyone accountable, including questions like:
    • Who is going to do what by when?
    • When will we get back together again?

Request homework adjustments, if necessary

If homework is affecting a child’s well-being, Melissa recommends communicating with the school about what’s happening at home. See the resources below for how to make a case for reduced homework or a homework holiday.

Practice self-care

Parenting and advocacy take work. “Remember to take time for yourself by listening to music, going on a walk, or even taking a micro-break to clear your mind for 30 seconds,” Melissa says.

The presence of caring adults is the strongest antidote to early childhood trauma, and advocacy is part of caring. Parents can make a difference, not only for their child, but for every child at the school.

Resources on trauma

  • The ACES Too High website reports on news about the impact of early childhood experiences
  • Paper Tigers is a 2015 documentary that follows six high school students and their school community, showing how a school responds to childhood trauma.
  • Wrightslaw, a website created by attorney and disabilities advocate Peter Wright, includes sample letters families can use to request an IEP, along with other documents.
  • “The Homework Myth,” a book by Alfie Kohn, helps parents make a case for changes in homework.