08/09/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Teaching Child Advocacy in the Community: A Brigade of Education Outreach Workers

Some of you got back to me when I wrote about special needs orphans and at-risk children around the world and one response described the blog as a "very tall order." Likely that is true, but that doesn't change the necessity for a plan to help teach advocacy for children and their need to be successful in school. What drives the ability to advocate is the deep understanding on how children think and behave during the elementary, middle, and high school years when they are under our care. Whether children live in homes, in orphanages, or on the street, we need to create a powerful force in the community that takes responsibility for observing its children, finding them challenged and then knowing that there are resources available for those children to help them be the best learners they can be.

Let's think about how many minority communities in the U.S. rose up and joined Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs) in the last 50 years, becoming members of school boards and vociferously taking the reigns of their lives. Many parents who joined such organizations and boards were uneducated themselves, but they were fiercely committed to the welfare of their children. What they wanted most was to make sure that the next generation was well-educated. This may be a tall order, but without building the capacity of parents in even the poorest community, there will be no systemic change. We, the 'know-it all's, cannot continue to come and give and not teach. I believe that anyone can learn to advocate with instruction, mentoring, and encouragement. Just think about how emancipating this new role of educational advocate could be for a very poor grandmother who works at day labor to feed her grandchildren and can then claim that she knows how her kids are doing in school!

What I propose is a simple strategy to bring parents/family members/caretakers from our communities into schools to teach advocacy. This would consist of modules of early childhood development and behavior lessons from birth to 18 years old. WWO has such modules as part of our Youth Connecting To Children (Y2C) program in Haiti. We teach Haitian youth about development and behavior and they teach these topics to other youth and then to women/parents in the community.

We already have parent meetings at our academy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Now we need to reach out to the parents in the community and figure out creative ways to bring them together. The school can become a community center where meetings can be held and snacks can be shared... musical, dance, and theatrical performances by the children could set the scene for such meetings. Parents can then share their pride in their children and learn about development.

We likely need to be doing more home visits to become part of the daily fabric of life in the community. A brigade of education outreach workers could be trained to be in the community at first. We already do home visits to check on nutrition and health for kids and adults living with HIV and Tuberculosis. Why not just add the education piece to these checklists? We can enter orphanages, as well, and ensure that caretakers are part of the web of advocacy. Who said we can't ask orphanage caretakers and parents in the developing world to fill out a Conners scale? I just did one for one of my children. This can easily be taught! This scale helps to teach observation of behavior and could be a template for future modules.

Charter schools in the U.S. contend that the magic piece for success of kids with achievement gaps has been the parent engagement component. Why can't we do the same in the developing world? Just like we teach the need for rehydration for dehydration and the administration of vaccines or the hanging of mosquito nets, we can teach people to observe their children and become part of an integrated effort to provide special needs kids with the best practices at school and at home. Without the involvement of the caretakers whether in homes or in orphanages, for that matter, there is no final success for kids with special needs. It is a holistic process with many pathways and many people working hard to surround the at-risk child and build a scaffold of support.

More on how to fund this grand scheme in the coming months.

Dr. Jane Aronson