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Tips for grandparents raising grandkids on advocating for them in school settings

Published July 23, 2012
Laughing grandmother and grandson

URBANA  - Grandparents raising grandchildren find many aspects of their new role stressful, but their top concern—voiced by 90 percent of those interviewed–is helping their grandkids succeed in school and advocating for them with their teachers in the face of school policy, said a University of Illinois Extension family life educator.

 “Many grandparents said that helping the children with their homework, understanding generational differences, and communicating with the kids’ parents—their own adult children—and agency professionals were difficult for them,” said Cheri Burcham.

 Burcham said that 5.4 million children nationwide under the age of 18 are being raised by their grandparents—almost 102,000 of them in Illinois alone. The reasons include teen pregnancies in which parents step in to help raise their grandchildren, parental alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and/or abuse, a parent’s incarceration, divorce, death or illness, and unemployment.

 “The stress of caring for these children can be very overwhelming, especially if the grandparent is older, is dealing with personal health problems, and has limited income,” she said.

Effective communication skills are helpful in any situation but will go a long way in raising a grandparent’s effectiveness in advocating for their grandchild with teachers and school administrators, she said.

Here are some tips for speaking clearly and listening carefully:

  • Know what you want to say. Then stop when you’ve said it. Don’t continue to rehash your points and make the listener defensive and angry. Stick to the goal of your conversation and don’t go off on tangents or bring up old issues.
  • Pay attention to what the other person is saying and notice what they are feeling. Try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Doing this helps establish mutual respect.
  • Resist the urge to attack with words or actions. This escalates everyone’s emotions and makes the other person believe that it’s unsafe to talk openly and honestly. Get a glass of water, leave the room, or take deep breaths if you feel yourself losing control. Avoid using sarcasm and put-downs.
  • Use “I” messages – communicate what you are thinking and feeling.
  • Be an active listener. Don’t interrupt but maintain eye contact and give the person your full attention with no distractions. Let them know you are listening by changing expressions, nodding your head, asking questions when you don’t understand, and making brief comments.
  • Give constructive criticism – focus on the behavior and not on the person. Receive criticism with an open mind – strain out the emotion and stick with the facts.
  • Summarize in your own words what you think you heard from the speaker so that you understand them correctly.
  • Acknowledge what the other person has said, even if you don’t agree with them. Let them know that you appreciate them talking with you and tell them you know it wasn’t easy.
  • Communication with family members or about family members can be emotional so be prepared for this ahead of time.

“Practicing these communication skills can make a huge difference in the outcome of any critical conversations, and grandparents raising grandchildren will find them especially helpful,” she said.

Burcham recommends U of I Extension’s website, “Parenting Again,” at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/grandparents/ Grandparents who go to this site and click on “newsletter archive” will find lots of information designed to help persons who are parenting the second time around. Topics such as communication, discipline, nutrition, age-appropriate activities, and helping a child in school are covered in the 31 newsletter issues that are available to anyone raising a child.