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How to advocate for your kid at school

Learn ways to advocate for your child at school while maintaining a good relationship with their teachers.

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If you think your child is struggling at school, what’s the best way to make sure they’re getting the support they need? Who should you talk to first? Should you call a meeting, send an email, or do something else?

In this episode of In It, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek welcome Julian Saavedra. Julian is an assistant principal in Philadelphia and the host of another Understood podcast, The Opportunity Gap. 

Julian shares tips and strategies about what to do if your child needs more — or different — support in the classroom. He also provides a road map of where to start advocating for your child, plus how to work as a team with your child’s teachers and school.

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Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely in it. Today, we're talking about how to advocate for your kid with learning and thinking differences at school.

Gretchen: Who should you turn to when it seems like they're not getting the support they need? And what can and should we expect from our kids' teachers, whose experiences with IEPs and 504s can range from extensive to very little?

Rachel: Helping us to figure this all out today is Julian Saavedra. Julian is an assistant principal at a big high school in Philadelphia and a father of two kids, and he's been an educator for 20 years.

Gretchen: Julian hosts "The Opportunity Gap," a fantastic show from the Understood Podcast Network, that's all about advocating for kids of color who have learning and thinking differences.

Rachel: He's been on "In It" before, and we're so happy to have him here again.

Gretchen: All right, Julian, welcome back to the podcast. Woohoo! 

Julian: Hey, Gretchen. Hey, Rachel. Thank you so much for having me.

Gretchen: Hello. We are so happy to talk with you today. And we're really happy to dig into this topic of communicating with the school about your child. And we thought you'd be the perfect guest, because you are now an assistant principal in a high school. And you're host of "The Opportunity Gap" podcast here at Understood.

Julian: I am.

Gretchen: And you know a lot about supporting kids with learning and thinking differences.

Julian: I know a little bit.

Gretchen: You know, a little bit, right?

Julian: I know a little bit.

Gretchen: So, I want to go back to the time when you started off teaching. Because I have a feeling maybe like, like me, when I started, I was a regular ed teacher at a middle school, and I know now that I knew very little about supporting kids with learning and thinking differences in my very first couple of years of teaching. So, when you think back to your training to become a social studies teacher, right? How much training did you actually get in learning disabilities or special education?

Julian: I took one class that was labeled special education. And it really just kind of glossed over the bigger laws. We didn't really nail down into all the different things. Like, I didn't learn about the 13 different ways that you can be categorized. I didn't learn about what an IEP was. I didn't learn about what the general education teacher's responsibility was. And I didn't really learn that until I was teaching and I was invited into an IEP meeting. And I was like, well, what is that? What do we have to do here? And so that was really — I had to learn on the fly.

Even today, there's a nontraditional path to teaching that has been increasing. So we're getting a lot of people that are changing careers, or they're getting an alternate certificate to teaching. And so the traditional quote unquote route, it's not even as prevalent as it was back when I was going in the profession. And so any — that little bit of information I got, that's not even close to what people are getting now, which is almost bare minimum.

And it's been left to schools to really educate teachers as they come in. And so that's a really big lift. Right? If you're having people that have never been formally trained and yet they have to execute legal documents, right? Because an IEP, it's a legal document, right? And it's a really important thing in servicing kids.

And so trying to train people on the fly has been a giant lift for so many schools across the country. And so for me, I didn't receive a lot of training before I got in. Now again, this is 20 years ago, so there's definitely a lot more since I've gone back for my masters. And then I got a second master's degree for my education administration degree. And so when I did that, I really got a lot more training. Because as an administrator, like, we have to know. Like we have to know the laws. We have to know how it impacts things.

Rachel: So, can you explain the relationship between special education teachers and general ed teachers, like at a school like yours? So what kind of communication is there between the teachers — or in theory? And when, you know, if you have a kid who's coming into the classroom with an IEP or a 504, or need some other kind of accommodation, what is the kind of like communication that's happening?

Julian: Yeah. You know, there's what should be and there's what is. So, the general education teachers should have conversation with the special education teacher that's servicing the students in their classroom as much as possible, right? Like there there should be a planning meeting at least once a week where the general education teacher is showing what are their lesson plans for the upcoming week. How can we work together to provide these services? Right?

If there's a student who has ADHD, which is pretty common, maybe an accommodation might be we're going to make sure that the student has a structured break, like every 10 minutes or 15 minutes or whatever we determine. So in the lesson plan, the general education teacher is going to plan out, all right. This kid's going to have this break 10 minutes into this lesson. And they're going to have this break on Thursdays with this particular teacher. So it's something that — it's a conversation. It just doesn't happen out of nowhere.

Also, as a case manager — special education teachers traditionally are a case manager. They're the ones that manage the special education services for a student. They want to make sure they're getting information or data collection on that student. And so they have to talk to general education teachers as much as possible.

In my school, we have something called PLCs, or professional learning communities, where the teachers from a particular grade level and content area, they meet together once a week. They discuss what they're noticing or what they're seeing. And at that meeting, we earmark some time for special education teachers to connect with general education teachers. And that's where they talk about, well, here's what I'm seeing. Here's what I'm seeing. Let's try this strategy. Let's try that strategy.

And so, you know, I know at, at the best schools, it's a day-by-day, period-by-period conversation that's constantly going back and forth. Like in my school, I have a couple of general education and special education teachers. Like they're besties, and they're just bouncing ideas off of each other all the time. They're texting each other constantly. It's like a symbiotic relationship.

And to be honest, that's when it's going to work the best, because you got to be on the same page. And you got to be making sure that the changes or the supports that you're putting in place for a student with special education, it's being done with fidelity. Right? Like the general education teacher, they're going to have to be the one to implement it. And so the special education teacher is the one that kind of helps make sure that that happens.

Now, is that to say that that always happens? No, not necessarily. And in a school like mine where, you know, we have 700 students, we have over 250 students with individual education plans. And we don't have enough special education teachers. I have anywhere between 10 and 12 vacancies.

Gretchen: Oh, currently?

Julian: Currently.

Gretchen: Oh, boy.

Julian: So, our special education teachers, you know, they're strapped. And so they might not have as much time to meet with their students and their teachers and all the general education teachers. Because in high school you're taking all subject matters. And so it's a really big lift for it to actually happen. But in an ideal world, it's happening all the time.

Rachel: OK, so let's bring parents and caregivers into the picture.

Julian: OK.

Rachel: Let's say, hypothetically speaking — but I'm the parent of a student who needs some sort of accommodation in a particular class. And my sense is that my kid is not getting that in. Who do I go to first? And like, you know, I know a lot of people whose kids have a 504s. So, you know, if we can like kind of include that in the mix of the answer to that question. Because I think a lot of people really aren't sure where to start.

Julian: Yeah, it's state by state. Every state, every district. Unfortunately, it's not a uniform experience. And so it really depends on where you are. But in Philadelphia, I can explain what happens in Philly. I would first go to your child — like that's the first person, because, you know, they're the person that really knows, no matter what age they are, whether they're in kindergarten or whether they're a senior in high school, they're going to be the ones that you want to really get a good sense of what's happening in the classroom.

So, you know, making sure that there's trust built between the two of you to have that conversation. And, you know, we talk a lot about that on our podcast, that that conversation is the starting point.

Once you've done that and you have a better sense of, like, what they're seeing or what they're not seeing or what they need help with, then I would advocate to go to a trusted adult at the school. Hopefully that trusted person is — if your student already has an IEP — that would be the special education case manager. Like that's your first point of contact.

Like whoever is managing the IEP, that's the person that you should be having a conversation with. And that conversation should be happening consistently. Like there should be a running email, or there should be some sort of running interaction with you, so that you don't just talk once a year. Right? Like the IEP meeting should not be the first time you meet each other.

So, and if that — you're not getting the answers from that person, then I would go to a classroom teacher. And then if you're still not getting answers, then I would go to an administrator. Like, those would be my my order. For students with 504s, for students with 504s, depending on what the 504 is for, and in many cases, students with ADHD, the 504 would fall under the purview of the school counselor or potentially the school psychologist.

So those would be the people you'd want to connect with first. If the 504 is for something related to medical, then you're connecting with the nurse. The school nurse would be that point of contact.

And I would always advocate, families, anything that you do, make sure you put it in writing. Even if it's a text message, like having it in writing, whatever your request is. Or if you're reaching out to somebody even who's trusted, having an email trail or having something in writing, even taking a picture of a note that you might write, just having a record of that, it's just a good practice. Because it's important to have documentation for everything.

Rachel: Yeah. And sometimes there's really long phone calls where stuff like that gets figured out, but I usually do like — I'll do an email afterward just to recap. But then I've got it down.

Julian: Yep.

Gretchen: I really like that you gave us the order of who to go to. And that you said start with your child first. I love that. I want to get to maybe in this order, either you've talked to a trusted adult about maybe your kid's not getting something, or you've talked to the classroom teacher.

But before talking to them, you might worry that you're going to sound as if you know better what to do — and you probably you do in a way, right? You know your child and you know a lot. You have a lot to share. But at the same time, you don't want to offend the teacher or make it seem like you're telling them how to do their job.

You know, can you do have any watch-outs for parents as to how they might approach that to make sure they're not kind of putting teachers on the defensive?

Julian: Yeah. I mean, I'd like to think that anybody who chooses to be an educator, like that they're choosing to work with children. And they're choosing to have the best interests of kids in mind. And so I would hope that they'd be able to put their ego aside and, you know, focus on what's best for the child.

And so that might mean getting some feedback that is not positive feedback. And you know that that's very — it's very common. And it's also very common for teachers to feel really personal about what they do. Right? And so when you're hearing from a parent that you're not doing what you think is happening, that could be really hard to hear, right? That could be tough.

So, you know, the families, you know, it's all about how you deliver the message. Not necessarily what the message is, but it's how you say it. And so I go back to that word of trust, like, if this is the first time that you're interacting with the teacher and you're telling them something that's not good, that's not so great. Like that's problematic in and of itself. So I would say make sure that the teacher and you as the parent, you're trying your best to build a relationship with those teachers from the beginning. They're working really hard, like teaching in 2024, it's a really hard job. Like, it's a really, really hard gig.

So, you know, giving as much as you can to just build that relationship first. So when the time comes and you might have to have this difficult conversation, you already have a relationship built. And so it's a little bit different. But then if you do have to have this conversation, like you do have to share something that's a little tough with the teacher, you know, really focus in on actions and not feelings.

And what I mean by that is what are the actionable steps that you're seeking, instead of how you feel about this. And so how you verbalize that might be, I notice that my son is coming home and he's not feeling like he can finish the work. Or he's not understanding how to do the work. Or he said that he's getting in trouble for not staying in his seat.

"This makes me upset" is not the right way to go about it. It's "I notice these things" — give a very specific notice. "Can we try X, Y, and Z? How can I support you in this? I'm going to try this at home. Can you try this at school?" Like so, really thinking about a very specific action step and inviting the teacher to provide their own observation, while also providing a couple of suggestions that you have so that both of you can kind of work together.

And I think that really — it changes the trajectory of the conversation. Because now you're not being accusatory, you're more being inviting. How can we invite this collaboration together? And that's what we want, right? Like we're trying to work together.

It's like a three-legged stool, right? You have the teacher, the student, the family. If one of those legs is uneven or imbalanced, the whole chair has fallen down. All right, so we all got to be on the same page together. And so this kind of invites them in, as opposed to accusing them of wrong.

Rachel: So we know teachers have tough jobs and especially at big schools where they may be teaching — our estimate was 150 students a day. But maybe it's higher based on some of the numbers you've mentioned.

Julian: Yeah, definitely is.

Rachel: So, is it unreasonable to expect them to be able to keep track of students' different accommodations? And if so, what can parents do to support the teacher, again, without seeming like they're telling them what to do? But like that is just that's so much to have to keep track of.

Julian: Yeah. I mean, it's not unreasonable, because every one of those 150 children are supposed to get what they deserve, right? And so, you know, it's difficult. Yes, definitely. But at the same time, you know, we have to be selfish about our kids, right? And so I like that you're asking how can the parents support. 

I think the one thing I hear a lot from teachers is, you know, just clarifying exactly what you're looking for, right? Like simplifying. Like, sometimes, especially for students who have IEPs — an IEP is a really large document, right? It sometimes can be 25, 30, 40 pages long. And so if you have 35 kids on a caseload across your day, it is really tough to keep all of that in your head.

If you're asking the case manager to work together and to kind of spotlight at a glance: What are the highlights of this that I really want to hone in on? Right? If I know that my child, he gets off the wall at 1:00, like, I know that like. Beyond everything else, I know just that 1:00 time hits, he's off the wall. I'm going to really just ask the teacher, can you to really, like, do one specific thing? Let's just focus on this one thing.

And nine times out of 10, a teacher's just really going to appreciate having that laser focus on this one bite-sized chunk of accommodation that they know they can accomplish. That's going to help a lot. And then also, positive feedback. Right?

And I say that because, again, we've mentioned a bunch of times, like teaching is really hard right now. And it goes such a long way to write a quick note, or send an email, or send a text or shout out. Whatever way you can just to recognize the hard work that that teacher's putting in with your child. Right? And so those little things like that really — we all want a little bit of a boost, right, from doing the work that we do.

So I think families can really just share some of that positive energy sometimes. That can go a long way. But having that very specific ask is going to be really helpful. Because there's so much, like you said, there's so many things to manage that it gets hard to figure out sometimes.

Gretchen: I think that's a really helpful tip. I remember working with my co-teacher, who was a special education teacher. She would hand me the IEPs and have a front sheet she would make with like highlighted. Like out of all the things in here, these are like your three main points. And it was super helpful.

Julian: And honestly like for middle and high school students and even younger kids, I would also say, you know, review it with your children. Like review the IEP documentation with your kids so that they know, like, what should be happening in the classroom. Right?

Like if they're in a classroom and they're not getting the accommodation that they should be, it doesn't hurt for them to raise their hand and speak up and say, hey, I'm supposed to have preferential seating. Or hey, can you make sure that the words are a little bit bigger on the test? Right? So making sure that you prep your child to go into a classroom and advocate for themselves, that's also a really helpful tip. Because then that saves the teacher time from remembering all of it themselves.

Gretchen: Are there good resources out there? So, if there's a teacher listening to this, not a parent, what are some resources out there that teachers can use, besides Understood of course, for help with, you know, learning how to support all their students, including students who learn and think differently.

Julian: You know, you remember those, those like Hair Club for Men commercials. Like, I'm not only the founder, but I'm also a client. So, that's how I feel about Understood. Like, I don't only work for them, I also see I'm a client.

Rachel: True.

Julian: Honestly, like, I can't tell you how much I use Understood's material. Like in my own work, like I have, you know, we have 100-something educators in my school. And we constantly share articles and resources and links from Understood with families. I pull up your podcasts, or sometimes my podcasts, in an IEP meeting. Like, hey, check this out. We talked about this. Check it out. So Understood is really like the preeminent resource that I know I use a lot. The Wunder app is also a great resource. I know a lot of families use that just to get like that in-the-moment information.

Gretchen: And that's Understood app.

Julian: Yes. Understood's app, Wunder. Yep. But I'm gonna be honest with the, you know, word of mouth is, is the biggest thing. Like finding other people that have children that have gone through things similar to what we're going through. And specifically teachers, finding other educators in your district, or asking your principal or asking your administrators, like, can you connect me with other schools or connect me with other teachers? That really goes a long way to finding the information you need.

Gretchen: Yeah. It's so true.

Rachel: Yeah. Those are great resources and suggestions.

Gretchen: And we love that you're the representative for, you know, Understood. Like Hair Club for Men. It's amazing, Julian, this has been such a great conversation.

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Julian: No, I appreciate it. You guys are great. I love your show.

Rachel: Thank you. For more excellent advice and insight from Julian, be sure to check out his podcast, "The Opportunity Gap."

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin with help from Cody Nelson. Ilana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "In It" with us.



  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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