Advocacy and Parent-School Connections | Organization for Autism Research

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Parental involvement is critical to children’s success in school especially among children on the spectrum who require individualized learning. Parent-school relationships are so crucial to working as an effective team and ensuring that the child is given every opportunity within the school to reach his or her full potential.

However, parent-school relationships are often less than perfect and often leave parents feeling that their voice is not heard and the child’s needs are not being met. So, what is the secret to a good parent-school relationship? What are the factors that differentiate between satisfied parents vs unsatisfied parents? While there is not a lot of research on this important subject, there are a few studies with some interesting findings that I wanted to share.


Satisfied parents on average communicated more with their teachers, volunteered at the school, served on committees, got involved in extracurricular programs. Obviously not everybody, or even most, have that kind of time, but there are other ways to be involved! Satisfied parents reported that they stopped by classrooms for progress reports when they had an opportunity. In addition, they had more informal conversations with teachers, rather than only negative, formal conversations about issues. This gave school staff a little insight into these parents’ lives and therefore tended to be more empathetic towards these parents and see things from their side.

From personal experience, I can tell you that little things that parents do can mean a lot to teachers and staff. A nice note from a parent in the communication book, stopping in to say hi when picking kiddos up early from school, etc.

An interesting survey from one study showed that often parents think they have nothing to contribute. Some parents refrained from being involved because they felt the teacher had a negative attitude toward them. These tended to be parents with less education on average and who reported feeling that the teacher would not value their input because they were not “educated”. The interesting thing is that surveys of teachers showed that some of the less educated parents were among the most valued contributors and volunteers at the school!


We all know that advocacy is huge, and that parents who advocate more are generally more happy with the outcome of their child’s learning plan. What is less clear sometimes is how to go about advocating in the most effective way. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t really matter how you advocate, just that you are doing it! One research study showed that there are three main advocacy styles:

  1. High profile. Parents with this style are well-known in the school for being persistent, sometimes seen as demanding and know how to fight for their child’s needs. These parents would use strategies such as going to multiple people until they got what they wanted, hiring lawyers, seeking support from disability rights organizations, and using fear and intimidation
  2. These parents were also persistent but would use knowledge and information more so than demands or threats. Strategic parents pick their battles and compromise. They are well-informed about their child’s rights and use clever out-of-the-box strategies. For example, one woman had her husband dress like a lawyer to come to an IEP meeting.
  3. Grateful Gratifier. These parents appeal to the educator’s good will and desire to help children. They are often seen as more realistic and reasonable when making requests. The way these parents get what they want is by building personal relationships so that the school staff will want to meet their needs.

These are very distinctive styles, but the great news is that each of them is effective! One is not better than another, it is just a matter of personality and situational fit.

Multiple Strategies

Having a good relationship and overcoming those barriers might mean getting creative and maybe reaching out to other parents for ideas. It might mean going to different people until you are heard and understood. It could mean trying different advocacy strategies. It might mean switching up your strategy at IEP meetings. is a great free resource for advice and food for thought about IEP meetings. One thing that stood out to me in this book was the concept of putting together a portfolio for the child including information and pictures or videos of the child at home. I thought that was such a cool idea, especially for kiddos on the spectrum who may have many related service providers, behavioral support aides, paraprofessionals, etc. working with them.

About the Author
rachel marsden headshotRachel is a student, young professional, and volunteer interested in research that can help individuals with autism and their families. She has worked as a one on one behavioral support staff, respite care provider, and currently works in special education. Her goal is to help spread awareness and help keep individuals and families informed about interventions and strategies that can improve lives.


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