At the start of 4th grade, I knew it might be a difficult transition for my son since he’d been remote learning at home since the pandemic started at the end of 2nd grade. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much he would struggle and how much stress I would be going through. Looking back now, I’m glad I took on the task of advocating for my son.

Things Were Happening At School 

Thank God he was succeeding academically and right on target or advanced in certain areas. That was certainly a sigh of relief. But he was struggling with keeping his emotions in check and managing his behavior, with how he responded to peers and stressful situations, and with tasks like writing assignments in his planner or bringing his planner home. I started getting emails from his teacher stating he had a “bad” or “rough” day and had to get taken out of the classroom for his behavior. Saying he destroyed someone’s stuff or was out of control. I’d even get occasional texts from his best friend’s mom asking if “he was okay” because she heard he had a bad day from her daughter. 

It was so frustrating! Every day, I tried to help him set the tone for his day with positive reinforcement. We talked about him keeping himself in the “green zone” (Zones of Regulation), and we talked about strategies he would use if he felt himself getting closer to the “red zone.” He earns rewards like books or small toys when he does good at school. When I got an email about how he had destroyed someone’s property because he was mad, he had consequences at home. He wasn’t allowed to play with his favorite toys or earn those rewards.

My son deserves the best care at home and at school. As his advocate, I am responsible for making sure he gets that. Vanessa Garcia shares her story.

I Was My Son’s Only Advocate At School

As much as his teacher was in communication with me about his behavior, she was also very “old school” and continued to insist that 4th grade was the critical grade where students needed to be responsible for themselves and prepare for the rigor and responsibility of middle school. They needed to “be responsible for their work and assignments.” When I would email them regarding an assignment he was missing or had a low grade on, I was met with reluctance and hesitation.

On top of this, my son started telling me he was being bullied by this particular kid and his friends at school. He was repeatedly telling me about incident after incident. It was literally every day and getting worse. I was constantly emailing his teacher, counselor, and principal. 

I started stressing out so much for so many reasons. 

Advocating For My Son In Real Time

My son had attended this school since we moved to Arizona, and he started 1st grade there. I knew the staff supported him, and some loved him and always ensured he was good. He’s had an IEP since starting at the school (for Academic ADHD) and has always had the best support team/staff, who have always been there when needed. His IEP had breaks built into his day for him and small groups for different social-related skills, extra time to complete assignments, and staff that would assist him if his teacher needed support. But this year was just wow! 

I know my son is a great kid. He’s smart, kind, loving, and tries hard to do what’s right. I didn’t know how to help him not struggle so much. I was worried about his teachers, staff, and peers labeling him as a bad or troubled kid at school. With the kind of work I’ve done professionally, I also worried about how this could play out as he got older and into middle school or high school. Would his behavior start to involve school or city police? Most of all, I worried about how he would begin to see himself. I didn’t want him to think he was a bad kid because I knew how that would affect him. Self-talk is powerful and stays with someone forever, especially negative self-talk. 

Something had to change because this wasn’t it. 

Advocating for my son meant making some hard decisions about school for him.

Having My Son Further Evaluated 

Since his IEP review was coming up due in October, his team and I agreed to have a complete evaluation which would include evaluating him for Autism as well as ADHD. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and Sensory Disorder as a preschooler when I had him assessed due to behaviors coming out in preschool. They mainly focused on behavior therapy/management then and subsequently on his IEPs for school. I wanted the Autism evaluation added because some of the sensory things I saw weren’t changing or improving as he got older. There were definitely things I noticed about him that made me feel deep down that there was “something” more going on. For the complete evaluation, his teacher, myself, and his support team had to complete different assessments individually. My son also went through a series of diagnostic tests.

The Results 

When we met to review the reports, it was enlightening, to say the least. My son did amazing on some of the diagnostic tests. He scored academically at grade level and above grade level, even scoring at high school grade levels in reading categories. Reading is life, and I was very proud of him. However, what was eye-opening was how his classroom teacher and I had rated him almost the same. The exception was she rated him higher for negative behaviors and how low his support teacher had rated him on the same evaluations. She saw fewer negative behaviors or challenges on his part because he excelled in the small group environment.

Two things that stuck out to me in particular from all of the testing were how negative he was rated in the larger group setting versus the smaller group setting and that I was not the only one seeing some of the behaviors and challenges that were Autism related. 

The evaluation report determined that he was eligible for Special Ed services for being diagnosed with ADHD (OHI) and Autism. There would be some additional services and support put in place to help him succeed in the classroom but deep down, I felt it wouldn’t be enough. Not with everything that had already been going on since the start of the school year, not with him being bullied and that situation being turned around where they said he was the instigator, and not with a teacher who insisted that he didn’t need specific accommodations because “he was capable of doing x,y,z he’s done it before” but was also the one calling for him to be taken out of the classroom (which his support staff said “she was just being overdramatic about it” because he was usually okay.) 

Being my son's advocate is a 365 day a year job.

The Hard Decisions To Move To A New School

I started looking for other schools that specialized in students with Autism and special needs. It would be an endeavor on my part as his advocate and on my son’s part if he had to switch schools. I knew that I would have to make difficult decisions that were in his best interest like I had so many other times. It wasn’t easy for me to decide because he had been at this school since 1st grade. He had really good friends and a support team that loved him there and knew how to work with him.

I knew it would be a hard and huge transition for him because he’s predisposed to not working with change well. But ultimately, I decided to pursue other options for him because the reports showed he did better in smaller group settings, had the least behavior issues, and was the most successful. I have a degree in education, so I get the “Full Inclusion Least Restrictive Environment” push.

But first and foremost, I’m a mom, and while some parents want their child in a “regular” school setting, I also know a regular classroom or school is not the best fit for every child. Every child is unique; to me, there’s no point in trying to make a circle peg fit into a square hole. My child is unique and deserves to be in the best environment for him. One that brings out the best in him and encourages and supports him to be the very best version of himself. This is my duty as my sons’ mom and his advocate. 

Touring A New School

I set up a tour at a school I found online. My older daughter went with me to give a second opinion about the school through her eyes. I was ready with my notebook, asked many questions, and answered their questions about what I wanted for my son. I liked how I felt when I was there. It was definitely not a “traditional” school by any means. The school sits on about 4.5 acres of land. It is made up of residential houses that have been converted into classroom buildings. They have a huge playground, basketball courts, a garden, and a courtyard. They even have a chicken coop. I said, “He will not mess with those chickens in that chicken coop. He’s going to be like, nah.” 

After my tour, I set up a shadow visit for him, which the school requires before accepting a new student. The student gets a feel for the school, and the teachers can get a feel for how they fit in with their group. He was set to shadow during Veteran’s Day break. 

He shadowed the whole two days to get a feel for what his day would look like there. Mondays through Thursdays, they have core classes, and Fridays, they have elective courses, so he had a chance to see a regular and fun day. On both days, he came home and said he liked it. 

I decided to go through the application and enrollment. I was able to apply for state funding to cover most of the cost of tuition. It’s a private school with a $28,000/year price tag. 

A New Beginning

He started his new school on November 15th, which hasn’t been without some challenges. It was hard for him to leave his old school and friends. The idea of a new school was hard too. I also have to transport him to school every day, which was new for both of us. I would be late to work in the morning, and he has to stay at after-school care every day until I get off work. But it has been so worth it, and I’m happy I decided to advocate for him in this way. 

He’s now in a class of 7 students with similar needs taught by special education teachers in every subject. He is okay with the amount of work he’s being assigned or with homework. Every evening on our way home, he tells me about his day, what he learned in each class that day, and things he’s excited about.

He’s Excited About The Chickens

Lately, it’s been the baby chicks he gets to visit every day after they finally hatched right before Christmas. That chicken coop I thought he wouldn’t mess with has been one of his favorite things at his new school. Go figure! They had a Christmas concert where he actually sang the opening of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a solo. I would never have guessed he would do a solo. My second favorite part of his concert was how he sat next to his classmate, who was anxious about his solo. He encouraged him before and during his performance. Because that was my kind kid shining through! The kid I know him to be. The kid I want the world to know and him always to feel he is. 

My Son’s Progress 

It hasn’t been perfect since he switched schools. It helps tremendously knowing that all the staff where he is now know how to work with kids with special needs. They help him be successful in all spaces. I considered several things in making this. Both as his mom and as an educator myself. I considered the academics, curriculum, and future. But ultimately, what’s most important to me is my son being okay with himself. Not feeling like something’s wrong with him or being treated like, or thinking he’s a bad kid. 

Sidenote: The school is accredited for K-12. They have students in high school that complete internships and move on to college or enter the workforce after graduation.

I plan on him attending the school until he graduates. I know in my heart it’s the perfect place for him and students like him. And I’ve been pleased with what he has been learning so far. He has been challenged academically and is staying energized with the content. I know he’s also learning life and social skills, so for me, it’s been a win-win. 

Advocating For My Son Has Been Worth It

The one thing my son repeatedly tells me is that he likes his new school because his teachers haven’t had to call the office for help. Or to take him out to calm down. He also tells me that the school’s motto is “a place to be yourself.” Then he says, “I like it because I get to be myself there.” 

And this has made it all worth it. I will be the voice for my son whenever he needs me. Advocating for my son is a full-time job but I will do it again and again just to hear these words. 

Have you ever had to advocate for your child at school?

Vanessa’s story is a part of our Mom Story collection we share so other moms don’t feel alone.