Being an advocate: what does it mean?
Advocacy is promoting and defending another person’s rights, needs and interests.
Many people can speak up for their own rights, needs and interests. But some people need support from an advocate to do this.
An advocate is someone who speaks up for others. An advocate might find information, go along to meetings as a support person, or write letters for another person.
You can be an advocate for your child.
Advocating for your child
If you think your child is at risk of harm, isn’t having her needs met, or is being denied her rights, you might need to advocate for her.
You know and understand your child better than anyone else. If people are making decisions for and about your child, your voice and point of view, and your child’s point of view, help to make sure these decisions are in your child’s best interests.
How to advocate for your child: steps
Step 1: understand the issue
Make sure you have a clear understanding of the issue your child is facing. For example, your child’s school might be having difficulty managing your child’s behaviour. So the school has decided that your child can’t take part in the learn to swim program.
Step 2: think about what you want for your child
Thinking about your child’s needs will help you decide what you want for your child. It’s important to keep an open mind because there might be solutions that you haven’t thought of. Try to get lots of information so that you can make an informed decision about what to do. You could ask other people what they think.
For example, you might want your child to take part in the learn to swim program. Or you might want extra supervision while your child is at the program.
Step 3: present a solution
Presenting a solution is more effective than complaining. For example, you might say, ‘If my child’s behaviour continues to be a problem, I could come to the learn to swim program to help supervise’.
It’s also important to consider whether your solution might have negative consequences for your child. For example, if you went to the program to supervise, would your child be embarrassed?
And you could think about timing. For example, is the issue urgent? Would a delay make the situation worse or better? In this example, could your child take part in the learn to swim program next term instead?
Advocating for your child: tips
Know your child’s rights
You’ll be more effective as an advocate if you know your child’s rights and the rules of the system you’re advocating in – for example, your state’s education laws and the school’s policies, or the medical support your child is entitled to.
It’ll also help to find out who’s responsible for what in your child’s school or other services your child uses. This way you’ll know who to talk to and what you can expect.
If you have time, it can also help to get familiar with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which applies in Australia.
If you stay calm and polite, people will be more open to your point of view. It’s often best to ask questions and make suggestions rather than demand things. For example, you could make a demand like ‘Give my daughter a place on the school cricket team’. But a suggestion might be more persuasive: ‘If my daughter gets a place on the cricket team, it’ll be great for the school’s reputation for treating boys and girls equally’.
If you’re struggling to stay calm, ask for a moment so you can calm down and gather your thoughts. If this doesn’t work, you could ask for a short break, or stop the meeting and arrange another appointment.
Prepare for meetings and take a list of points and questions to meetings. It also helps to keep written records of meetings, emails and phone calls. Include the date and time, who you spoke with or met, and what you discussed. You can also keep relevant information and reports that support your case.
You could keep all these documents on your computer, in a folder, or both.
Speaking to other parents who’ve had similar experiences or joining a support group can help you with useful information and emotional support. You can also get support from a volunteer or paid advocate, who can explain the law and your child’s rights. This person can go to meetings with you too.
You can find advocacy services in your area by contacting your local community centre, local council, library or neighbourhood house.
Helping children advocate for themselves
From an early age, children can advocate for themselves by saying no or making simple choices.
But self-advocating might be hard if your child doesn’t understand the situation, the processes or his rights, or doesn’t feel confident to speak up. These situations might come up when your child starts school or goes to the GP, for example.
Here are some ways to help children advocate for themselves.
Build your child’s confidence
You can build your child’s confidence by giving her responsibilities and letting her do age-appropriate things on her own – for example, going to the local shop to buy some milk, or walking the dog.
You can also encourage your child to feel confident to speak up if he feels something isn’t right. One way to do this is by reading stories with your child about characters who stand up for themselves and others.
Listen to your child
Actively listening to your child shows her that you care and are interested in what she has to say.
You can show your child that you’ve heard and understood by summarising what he has said. For example, ‘Have I got this right? You feel angry because children in your class throw balls of paper at you when the teacher isn’t looking’.
If you don’t understand what your child is saying, ask questions and talk about it until you do.
Support your child to speak up
You can support your child by preparing her to express her point of view and ask for what she needs. For example, you could help your child write down what she wants to say to the teacher about the other children’s behaviour. Or you could do a role play of this situation with your child. As part of the role play you could show your child how to be calm and polite.
You can also help your child work out who he needs to talk to about an issue. You could explain why this is the best person to talk to and what your child might expect the person to do or say.
If your child has any negative consequences from being an advocate for herself, it’s important to back her up. For example, if a teacher is annoyed with your child for mentioning that other children throw balls of paper, you could ask the teacher for an appointment to discuss the issue.