Table of contents > Chapter Seven: Advocacy


< Back to Chapter 6

In this chapter: 

  1. What is Advocacy? 
  2. Building an Effective Partnership with the School 
  3. Becoming Part of your School Community 
  4. Advocacy Tips
    a. Documenting
    b. Learn About the System
    c. Seek Clarity, and Be Clear
    d. Identify Key Decision Makers
  5. Practical Communication Tips
    a. Writing a Letter or Email
    b. Four Parts of a Message 
  6. Preparing for and Participating in Meetings 
    a. Before the Meeting
    b. During the Meeting
    c. After the Meeting 
  7. Resolving Issues within the School System
    a. Understand the School System Structure
    b. Steps in Resolving an Issue
         i. Step 1 – Meet with the teacher
        ii. Step 2 — Meet with the principal
       iii. Step 3 — Meet with the district director of inclusive education or equivalent
       iv. Step 4 — Meet with the superintendent or assistant superintendent
        v. Step 5 — Request a school district appeal (Section 11 Appeal):
            Preparing a school district appeal  
  8. Independent Schools
  9. Getting Support When Needed 
  10. Knowing When to Take a Break 
  11. Information Resources: Advocacy 
  12. Organization Resources: Advocacy 
  13. Resolving Issues Beyond the School District


Advocacy. To change what is to what should be


1. What is Advocacy?

When you speak up to ensure that your child’s rights be met, you’re advocating on their behalf. Learning and refining advocacy skills enable you to access the supports and services your children need. It means speaking out on issues that concern you and taking an active role in your child’s life and your child’s education. 

Advocacy is also a fine balancing act. It is not a fight, it’s an ongoing process to find win-win outcomes in difficult situations. Using a collaborative, student-centred approach it is possible to achieve positive outcomes. Good communication skills, being well informed and prepared, being assertive and clear are all elements that will help you be the best advocate you can be for your child and their education. And if it feels overwhelming and you feel you need help, there are several groups and organizations you can reach out. You are not alone. 


2. Building an Effective Partnership with the School

As a parent you’re an equal partner in your child’s education. The knowledge and experience you bring to planning for your child’s education are as important as professional expertise. Both you and professionals, working together, are essential to making your child’s educational plan successful. This section outlines how to make your first contact with the school as positive as possible, and how to build relationships with school personnel. 


3. Becoming Part of your School Community

Being present at the school will give you a chance to get to know the staff, and it will give them opportunities to get to know you. Parents’ contributions of time and/or caring can sometimes give teachers the boost they need to take on new challenges. Attend IEP meetings so that you can share ideas, make suggestions, and help develop an appropriate program for your child. Options for volunteering could be attending the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meetings, become part of the PAC Executive, offer to help with a school event, or go to fieldtrips with your child’s class.  

If you can’t volunteer at the school, make yourself known to key people and students.  

  • Phone, or ask to be phoned, with concerns, and write notes.  
  • Discuss with the teacher other ways to get feedback, such as a communication book that can go back and forth between home and school.  
  • Let school personnel know that you’re approachable and available for consultation about your child.  
  • Take opportunities or create opportunities to share information.  
  • Take the time to share your hopes and dreams for your child and family. This can help other people understand how they can contribute to that future. 


4. Advocacy Tips

You have the first knowledge about your child, other people know them in different ways and will complement your knowledge. You know what your child needs to be successful. This is why you’re the most important advocate for your child and you can have many allies to support you. Below is an outline of some of the most effective advocacy skills.  

a. Documenting

Whether you’re using paper notebooks, organizational online tools, voice memos, binders, or all of the above, we’ve found some basic tips to be effective in staying organized and documenting: 

  •  Start a folder or binder to organize all your documents – it can be in paper or electronically. 
  • Gather all relevant information about your child (their needs, strengths, attributes, etc.) and use them as the basis for any of your requests. 
  • Keep copies of all correspondence – both emails you send and emails and reports you receive.  
  • Keep a journal or log of phone calls about your child – it can be a dedicated notebook or electronic notes. 
b. Learn About the System
  • Know your reference to other chapter iconrights and your child’s rights (Chapter 3).  
  • Be familiar with laws, rules, policies, structure, and processes of the school and school district. Every district has its own policies and administrative procedures. Look for them on your district’s website or you can ask for them to the principal or district staff. These are public documents and should be easy to get. And every school district has its own reference to other chapter iconstructure and names for the roles (Chapter 3) (teacher, resource teacher, principal, district principals, etc). When you are not sure, you can always ask for clarification. 
c. Seek Clarity, and Be Clear

Clarity is an important principle of effective advocacy. Be clear on what you want before you start so you’ll end up where you want to be. If you’re not 100% sure about what you want, brainstorm by organizing your ideas. See thereference to other chapter icon planning section (Chapter 6) for more information about setting goals and planning.  

  • When communicating with school staff, seek clarity to avoid assumptions. This will help you identify a problem, should it arise.  
  • Once you’ve identified the problem, identify a solution and look for ways to remove barriers to the solution.  
  • Enlist staff at the school to help you problem solve.  
  • When seeking a solution, set your priorities and know your bottom line.  
d. Identify Key Decision Makers

It’s important to know who’s making the decisions that affect services. Depending on the problem and solution you’ve identified, you may need to advocate to different people. Being informed about reference to other chapter iconroles and responsibilities (Chapter 3) will help you understand who can best resolve a problem. Knowing the protocol and the system’s structure will help you know who to approach first. Proceed one step at a time within authority structures. 

For example, when your child isn’t getting a service because there’s a lack of funding, you may have to advocate at several levels.  

While advocating in the school for your child’s right to supports, you may want to turn your efforts to the decision makers who allocate funding. This may mean approaching the district school board or even the Ministry of Education to advocate for systemic reform. There are organizations such as Inclusion BC who advocate at a systems level for these changes. Connect with us about joining a campaign or let us know your story so we can influence decision makers. 


5. Practical Communication Tips

a. Writing a Letter or Email

It’s a good idea to put all your requests in writing. Keep your communication clear and concise, asking then answering the following questions: 

  • Why am I writing? 
  • What are my specific concerns? 
  • What are my questions? 
  • What would I like the person to do about this situation? 
  • What sort of response do I want: letter, meeting, phone call or something else.  
  • When do I want that response? 

Effective advocacy emails follow the same principles as effective business emails. It’s a valuable skill but it can be difficult to achieve when strong emotions are involved. Practicing Non-Violent Communication (NVC) will put you in a better position to write effective letters. Effective letters follow reference to external resource iconthe seven C’s of communication 

  1. Clear 
  2. Correct 
  3. Complete 
  4. Concrete 
  5. Concise 
  6. Courteous
  7. Coherent 


b. Four Parts of a Message

Inclusion BC advocates have found the work by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent Communication (NVC) as a helpful approach to communication. NVC is based on a fundamental principle:  

“Underlying all human actions are needs that people are seeking to meet, and understanding and acknowledging these needs can create a shared basis for connection, cooperation, and more globally – peace.” Basics of Non-Violent Communication 

So, what does this mean in practice? A big part of NVC is expressing how a person’s actions make you feel. You can’t fully know what another person is thinking or their intentions, but you do know you, and how something is making you feel. When you separate what you observe from your judgements on the situation, you’re better able to come to a solution.   


The four parts of a communication include: 

  • Observation – what are the facts of the situation, for example: my child was not allowed to participate in the activity or fieldtrip. 
  • Feelings – choose a couple of words that can help you express your feelings. Examples of feelings: scared, confused, curious, frustrated, excited. Using the NVC Feelings List could be helpful. 
  • Needs – identifying what you need helps you to build up your request. Examples of needs: clarity, empathy, hope, trust, collaboration. NVC has a Needs List to help you put words to your needs. 
  • Request – this is the section to make a specific ask, like a meeting, an assessment, an increase in hours of support, a review of the IEP, etc. 

We have found that connecting your request with what you would like to see happen has better results. For example, request a support plan for a child to stay engaged and learning in the classroom, or adult and peer support for a child to feel safer on the playground, or a meeting to review the progress of the IEP goals and to adjust strategies. 

“Anger tells us, in other words, that a need of ours isn’t getting met, but our thinking doesn’t connect with that need. Our connection goes to judging the other person who was the stimulus for our anger.” (Marshall Rosenberg).  

Here is an example of a message using NVC’s four parts.  

 Observation Feelings Needs Request

Dear Principal Claus: 

On Friday, Bobby did not have his regular EA and the teacher was away sick. Bobby became dysregulated quickly, and the school team was not able to help him regulate himself; in fact, what they did triggered him more. Bobby does not do well when people speak to him with what he considers baby talk or soft talk.  Bobby came home, and it took so much time for him to feel safe again and calm down. 

Right now, I am very frustrated and distressed about what happened, and that people that know Bobby well were not there to support him, he could have been injured badly. Our whole family needs clarity, hope and consistency.   

Can my husband, Bobby’s BI, and I meet with the school team to develop a better plan for supporting Bobby?  Can more people at the school be trained on how to work with Bobby so he feels safe with more people?    


Four boxes with arrows pointing between them in a circular process. There is a title in the centre that reads: nonviolent communication structure. First box reads: Observe. What I notice. Second reads: Feelings. Makes me feel. Third reads: Needs. Because my needs. Fourth reads: Request. Are you willing to.

Image from

6. Preparing for and Participating in Meetings

Meetings may be called by parents, school staff, district personnel, or other professionals involved in your child’s education. Meetings may be called to plan your child’s educational program, discuss a transition to a new class or school, or resolve an issue.  

Whatever the purpose, meetings can sometimes be confusing or intimidating. This section provides some tips that can help you achieve your goal(s) for the meetings. 

a. Before the Meeting
  • Be clear on the purpose of the meeting.  
  • Know your reference to other chapter iconrights and your child’s rights (Chapter 3). 
  • Prepare and distribute an agenda if you called the meeting.  
  • Ask for an agenda if someone else has called the meeting.  
  • Clarify what, if any, decisions will be made at the meeting.  
  • Decide what materials to bring. 
  • Prepare your own presentation, questions, or concerns.  
  • Be realistic about what can be covered in one meeting.  
  • Ask who will be attending and what their roles will be.  
  • Invite support people who are familiar with you and your child (such as therapists) or other support people you may need (such as translators). Seek help from the school to arrange this if necessary.  
  • If you invite support people: notify the person who called the meeting that others will be attending, prepare supporters with copies of relevant materials, and let supporters know the meeting’s purpose. 
b. During the Meeting
  • Listen actively. 
  • Ask everyone there to introduce themselves and explain their role. 
  • Be accurate. 
  • Ask questions and express your opinion. 
  • Seek facts and clarification, if necessary.  
  • Be open to ideas.  
  • Use good and effective communication skills. Begin statements with “I”. 
  • Take careful notes or have someone else take them for you. 
  • Make sure that information presented by professionals is understood.  
  • Bring a photo of the student if the student isn’t attending.  
  • Summarize the discussion and review the decisions made.  
  • Don’t agree on a decision or sign anything if you aren’t comfortable with it.  
  • Remember that you have the right to think about requests before making a decision. School staff also have this right.  
  • Ask for a copy of minutes taken by others.  
  • Identify the next steps and identify who’s responsible for carrying them out and set reasonable timelines. 
  • Set follow-up meetings if necessary.  
c. After the Meeting
  • Review your minutes and add anything you missed.  
  • Compare your notes with minutes taken by others.  
  • Respond in writing to the person who chaired the meeting (or the principal), thank them for their time or meeting, acknowledge if the meeting was different or the fact that it went well or a solution was found. Outline your understanding of major points covered or decisions made. Indicate whether or not you’re in agreement. Also note dates set for completing tasks, describe your future role or responsibilities, and include positive feedback. 


7. Resolving Issues within the School System

Resolving an issue sometimes requires lots of organization, time, and effort. Many parents of children with additional support needs have experienced frustration. But it’s important to remember that those who work within the system may be as frustrated with it as you are. It helps to separate your frustration with the system from the individuals who work in it.  

Establishing good communication with a school can often prevent problems from arising or keep them from escalating. Often the result of poor communication, most problems occur at the classroom or school level and should be resolved at that level.  

Write out your concerns and discuss them with the classroom teacher toward a resolution. If the school has resources for problem-solving, use them. Keep in mind that people within the system often support your advocacy goals. Educators and administrators also want what’s best for students. Some school districts even offer advocacy support. When authority for decisions isn’t in the teacher’s hands, ask the principal to help identify who to contact to resolve the issue. 

a. Understand the School System Structure

With its established levels of authority, the local school fits within a broader district-level structure. To get the best results, it is important to know the levels of authority and work with the established structure.  

Knowing the levels of authority will help you identify who to speak to next. In most cases the district structure looks like the diagram below. When an issue arises, you should approach the teacher first and work your way up the structure until the issue is resolved. It’s also important to plan your strategies so that they’re appropriate to the circumstances. Never use a cannon where a pea shooter will do. Proceed cautiously. 

Heading reads: The school system structure. From top to bottom, each item reads: 1. School District/board of trustees. 2. Superintendent. 3. Assistant superintendent. 4. Director of Inclusive Education (District Director of Learning Services, District Vice Principal, or other title). 5. Principal. 6. Vice Principal. 7. Resource room/Learning assistance teacher, teacher, and teacher's assistant.


b. Steps in Resolving an Issue

This section outlines the appropriate steps for resolving issues at various levels of authority. It’s important to move through each level before going on to the next one. If an issue isn’t being resolved in a timely manner, consult with school staff and your supporters about how to make faster progress.  

Approaching higher levels of authority prematurely can make it difficult to find a permanent solution. Proceed through each step and exhaust all possibilities before going to the next level. 

 At any time in this process, you can get advice and/or support from Inclusion BC, the Family Support Institute, or a local organization that supports families, like an association for community living in your area.  


Step 1 Meet with the teacher 

Set up a meeting at a mutually convenient time. Follow the guidelines for meetings described earlier in this chapter. Present your reasons for calling the meeting, listen carefully, be open to ideas, take notes, and summarize. Use the experience and knowledge of the people in the meeting; invite everyone to work as a team to support your child’s learning. If you feel you aren’t making progress, let the teacher know that. Set up a second meeting and offer to invite the principal, or ask the teacher to suggest someone who can help, such as a resource teacher, learning assistance teacher, or counsellor. If the teacher has a concern or shares your concern, they can ask the school-based team for help.  


Step 2 — Meet with the principal  

When meeting with the principal, or the principal’s designate, you may bring a support person. A support person can be a friend, family member, or person of your trust that can be there for you. They can be your note taker, witness or cheerleader. At the meeting, state your concerns. List the steps you’ve already taken, and say what you want to see happen. As always, take notes of the discussion and record the actions that are agreed upon. After the meeting, send a letter to confirm what you believe was agreed to and keep a copy.  

If the issue isn’t resolved to your satisfaction, the principal can refer you to the next person in the structure. The principal may suggest involving the school-based team before seeking assistance from school district personnel. However, once the school’s resources are exhausted, you’ll be referred to or you can reach out to someone at the school district office.  

At this point it’s especially important to maintain good records. Follow up after meetings with written correspondence and indicate that you expect a written response. Indicate what your next intended steps are and provide a timeline for a response. Always follow up by phone or email to ensure that correspondence has been received and offer to resend if necessary. You may also want to send copies of your correspondence to the people you’ll be meeting with next to ensure that they’re aware of the situation.  

Sending copies to your supporters and advocates is also a good idea. This strategy should be used consistently as you proceed with your efforts to resolve the issue. 


Step 3 — Meet with the Director of Inclusive Education 

The next person in the chain of command may be the director of inclusive education (or equivalent in the district) or their designate. Meeting with district personnel often involves larger meetings with unfamiliar people. Follow the same procedure as you would for other meetings, but consider including other support people to strengthen your case. These support people may include therapists, child care workers, or advocates. The director of inclusive education may also be called the director of instruction, director of learning services, director of student support services, district principal, or district vice-principal. You can find the districts’ contacts at reference to external resource icon  


Step 4 — Meet with the superintendent or assistant superintendent  

If the issue hasn’t been resolved after meeting with the director of inclusive education, the last individual to hear your case is usually the superintendent of schools. When meeting with the superintendent of schools, follow the above meeting procedure. If you can’t reach an agreement, you have the right to appeal the superintendent’s decision to the school board. 


Step 5 — Request a school district appeal (Section 11 Appeal): 

Section 11 of the School Act requires each school district to have an appeal process that enables a parent or student to appeal a decision (or non-decision) of a school board employee.  

Under section 11(2), parents can challenge a decision of an employee of a Board which “significantly affects the education, health or safety of a student”. The Board is required to establish an appeal process through by-law (section 11(3)). The appeal must be brought within a reasonable time from the date that the parent or student was informed of the decision. The Board is obliged to render a decision within 45 days (Section 11(6)).  

An appeal provides you with an opportunity to present your concerns about a decision. However, there are time limits for starting an appeal, so it’s important to act quickly and check your school district’s appeal policy. Get the policy from your school board office or search their website. The policy should include information about how to request an appeal, any timelines that must be followed, and how the appeal will proceed.  

School district appeals can be important for resolving an issue that may affect many others. Appeal decisions are formally recorded so that issues affecting other students throughout the province can be identified. The next section describes how to prepare for an appeal. 


Preparing a School District Appeal  

An appeal is the final opportunity to seek a favourable decision before going outside the school system. Parents should exhaust all options with local school and school district staff before proceeding with a school district appeal.  

At an appeal hearing, school staff may present their point of view about a decision. The board can ask questions of you and any other presenters. The school board will make its decision in a closed meeting. You’ll receive the school board’s decision, which is final, in writing.  

Parents sometimes ask if they need a lawyer for an appeal. The school board may have legal representation at an appeal hearing. Check with your school board for information about local procedures and ask if they’ll have legal representation at the appeal hearing.  


8. Independent Schools

Independent schools have to be created and certified according to B.C.’s Independent School Act and must follow the Regulations, Minister’s Orders and Inspector’s Orders made under the Act. They receive partial grants from the government. 

The advocacy suggestions in this chapter also apply for independent schools, except for the school district appeal. Independent schools can have a very different structure and is important to ask what the levels of their structure are to direct your advocacy efforts. All independent schools should have a multi-step appeal process and should consider an external ombudsperson as a final step in their appeals process.  

The B.C. Ombudsperson does not deal with concerns related to independent schools.  

The Federation of Independent School Associations in consultation with the Inspector of Independent Schools developed the reference to external resource iconProcedural Fairness Best Practice Guidelines for Independent Schools. These can be helpful if the appeal process is not as clear in the independent school.  

The reference to external resource iconIndependent School Information for Administrators contains guidance of school-specific policies independents schools should develop; including an Special Education (Disabilities/Diverse Abilities) Policy. 


9. reference to external resource iconGetting Support When Needed

Advocating and following procedures within defined structures can be intimidating. There are groups and organizations to support you. You don’t have to do this alone. Several organizations offer formal and informal family and/or advocacy support. Contact Inclusion BC, the Family Support Institute or other local organizations in your area.  

Connecting with other parents/caregivers via informal online or community groups can be helpful and an important reminder that you’re not alone.  

*Note: Views and opinions expressed in online forums reflect the unique experiences of the authors and should not be a substitute for professional advice. 

See the community partners and resources section for a comprehensive list of different organizations or people who can be your allies and other community and provincial resources. 

Inclusion BC advocates with the person and our advocacy is person-centered, rights-based, collaborative, and solution-focused to build a world where everybody belongs. 


10. Knowing When to Take a Break

As important as it is to be attentive and vigilant that your child is receiving the education they deserve, it is also important to take care of yourself and know when to take a pause. Sometimes taking a small (or long) pause from actively advocating is the best next step.  

This pause can give you the time to recalibrate and put things in perspective. You will renew your energy to take the next steps and build those partnerships that will ensure that your child can access the education they deserve, have a positive experience at school, and achieve their educational goals.  

Reach out and talk about it with people you trust. 


11. reference to external resource iconInformation Resources: Advocacy


12. reference to external resource iconCommunity Organizations: Advocacy

Family Support Institute of B.C. 

The Family Support Institute of B.C is a provincial organization that provides peer-to-peer support for families who have a loved one with a disability. Read more about their model and how an FSI resource parent may be able to help you.   

BCEdAccess Society 

BCEdAccess is a volunteer-run organization that provides information, support and advocacy for families of students with disabilities and complex learners. 

Disability Alliance BC  

This site is a place of support, information and advocacy for people with all disabilities. DABC may be especially helpful as your child transitions out of high school, as the organization helps people apply for disability benefits, file taxes, claim tax credits and start a Registered Disability Savings Plan. 


13. reference to external resource iconResolving Issues Beyond the School District

BC Human Rights Tribunal  

This is an independent, quasi-judicial body created by the Human Rights Code. The Tribunal is responsible for accepting, screening, mediating, and adjudicating human rights complaints. The Tribunal offers the parties to a complaint the opportunity to resolve the complaint through mediation. If the parties don’t resolve the complaint, the Tribunal holds a hearing. 

Office of the Ombudsperson 

The Ombudsperson investigates complaints about the unfairness of administrative decisions or actions of a public agency. The website also includes a helpful complaint checker which can show you where to go to resolve a complaint 



< Back to Chapter 6        Chapter 8 coming soon

Skip to content