School Has Started. Here’s How to Advocate for Your Sensitive Child.

a highly sensitive child

We all want our young children to mature into independent, self-sufficient teenagers, but while they’re young, they need us to give them a voice. They need us to stand up for them and communicate their needs. They need us to be their greatest advocate.

This is never more true than it is with a sensitive child — one who might be creative, thoughtful and caring but can also easily become overstimulated or have strong emotions.

Roughly 1 in 5 children are born as highly sensitive people (HSPs), which means they process everything in their environment very deeply. This trait can be a gift, making them extremely empathetic, intuitive, and creative, but it can also be overwhelming at times. It means they are more profoundly affected by their school environment than other children — including how teachers treat them.

Wondering if your child is highly sensitive? Here’s how to tell. 

Here’s what sensitive children need from parents and teachers, and seven tips to help you advocate for your highly sensitive child.

Why Your Highly Sensitive Child Needs You to Speak for Them

In many cases, your highly sensitive child will not show their true emotions in the classroom. They will wait until they get home and then melt down. A teacher can therefore be oblivious to the issues that your HSP child faces. It may take a long time for your child to build up the trust with a teacher that allows them to show their real selves — if ever.

All young children need a parent to help them communicate with other adults. They need help to feel listened to. They need us to help them put how they feel into language that others will act upon. But a sensitive child’s needs are even less obvious without an advocate.

Therefore, your voice speaking for them is vital if they are to flourish in any setting outside the home.

At the end of the day, you know your child better than any other person on the planet, and if you don’t advocate for them, who will?

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7 Tips to Advocate for Your Highly Sensitive Child

1. Be a messenger.

Really sit and listen to your child. If you’re going to speak for them, make sure it’s their message you are sharing. It’s easy as parents to fill in the gaps and make assumptions or jump to conclusions about why your child feels a certain way.

This goes both ways. Try to see the world through your child’s eyes, ensure that you translate those experiences for them. A sensitive child may take a flippant comment from a classmate to heart and tell you they are being bullied. Probe deeper before you charge into school and start an emotional dialogue with a teacher.

Help your child to see a situation through different eyes but, when necessary, advocate for them with their view of the world in mind.

2. Know how to work within the system.

If your child needs support in school, then you need to know where to go and how to get that assistance. Know what rights your child has to an evaluation or support services.

If your child is not eligible for support in the classroom, then your efforts can be better directed elsewhere, for your sake and your child’s. Fight for your child, but don’t drive yourself mad knocking your head against a brick wall. Remember: Being highly sensitive is not a disorder, and your school or district may focus resources on children with diagnosed conditions. 

Red tape is a fact of life, and resources in the education system are limited.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge.

Being informed helps you advocate for your child. Ask the questions you need to ask in order to feel confident that you understand the situation your child is in. Prepare yourself for meeting with school heads or teachers, or with external support services.

Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions. Being highly sensitive often overlaps with being gifted, but HSP children are often misread and misrepresented.

A great example is scoring low marks in a subject in school. As a parent you know your child is capable of more challenging work, but the teacher insists that your child needs to up their grades before that challenging work is given. (Ask me how I came up with this example!)

Sometimes you need to go above and beyond to get your point across for your child — and you sometimes have to be THAT parent.

4. Build partnerships with others — especially the teacher.

The best way to advocate for your child is to build partnerships with those who are involved in the care of your child. Partnership means offering them support and help where needed, and keeping an open line of communication.

A school usually wants the same outcome as you — but a teacher likely has responsibility for more students than they would like. The more you partner, the better you inform a teacher, the easier it is for a teacher to understand your child and their needs.

Not sure how to start? This will help. 

5. Learn to be comfortable outside your comfort zone.

If you are highly sensitive yourself — or an introvert — you may find the role of advocate a weighty one. Being the advocate for your highly sensitive child may mean you need to step well outside the confines of your comfort zone.

You may need to respond on the spot, without processing and thinking about your answer. You may have to challenge and stand in the spotlight. You may have to fight your way through a maze of processes and people to get the outcome your child needs.

In other words: You need to get comfortable outside your comfort zone.

6. Offer solutions.

When you sit down at parent/teacher conferences, or sit in meetings with external support services, come armed with potential solutions — not just a list of problems.

This means doing your homework. Talk to your highly sensitive child and work out together what they need.

Even if you’re not sure how to implement those solutions, just coming to meetings with potential ideas means you’re halfway there. 

7. Educate others.

You may find yourself advocating for your child with teachers, coaches, child care providers, even family. They may misinterpret your highly sensitive child’s behavior, leaving you and your child upset and exasperated. Not everyone knows what a highly sensitive person is, or understands how a sensitive child feels and experiences the world.

And not every teacher has had experience with the idea of “highly sensitive.”

If you are lucky, the people around you will be open to learning more. These two books are excellent resources to help you on your mission to educate others about high sensitivity:

  1. Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child (which has an excellent section for teachers!).
  2. James Williams’ Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child: Seeing an Overwhelming World through Their Eyes. This book is a brilliant read for extended family or teachers who don’t quite understand your sensitive child. It’s written to help them gain a view through the child’s eyes. If they don’t get it after reading this, then quite frankly, they never will!

Parents, have you had to advocate for your highly sensitive child? What worked and what didn’t? And, to the teachers reading this: What is the most effective way for parents to advocate (without being a nuisance)? 

A version of this article originally appeared at Happy Sensitive Kids

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