How to Be Your Child’s First Advocate

Emily Ebaben (second to left) is pictured with other parents during a meeting with their Congressman, Rep. Kevin Yoder, at his office in Washington DC in 2015.

As parents, we wear a lot of hats: chauffeur, accountant, janitor, personal chef, referee, nurse and many more. However, our most important role (and probably the one that’s most often overlooked), is being our child’s first advocate during those critical developmental years from birth to age five.

As the parents of children in Head Start and other early education programs, we can make a huge difference in improving the education experience. There are many ways that you can get involved in advocacy efforts or become more involved in your child’s early education center, even if you feel you have very little time to spare. Ultimately, any time you are able to invest in the development of your child you will see returned to you as a parent, and sometimes the results can be a welcomed surprise.

Last year, Head Start parent Emily Ebaben of Olathe, Kan., applied to the First Advocates Pilot Project, a parent advocacy training program offered by the National Head Start Association. She began the program as a shy parent who was unemployed but very involved in her step-daughter Kayla’s education. After less than six months in the advocacy training program, she felt enough confidence to apply for a job and carry out a successful interview. She credits the First Advocates Project with helping her secure employment as a project manager and returning to school to finish her Associate’s degree!

While Emily’s intention was to learn how to become an effective advocate for her child and for high-quality early education in her state, she also gained a set of skills that have propelled her family to greater success. It’s important to note that her experience is more the norm than the exception to the rule when it comes to parents deciding to engage in advocacy efforts that directly impact their children.

Do you want to gain the same set of skills Emily did? Here are six simple steps that you can take to get involved in early learning advocacy in your state or at your child’s early learning program:

  1. Speak with the director of your child’s program or classroom teacher and see if they offer any opportunities for parent advocacy training, such as NHSA’s First Advocates Project. You might be surprised to learn that many Head Start State Associations and even local programs offer advocacy training sessions free of charge to parents.
  2. If you’re a Head Start parent, join the policy council or parent committee. Head Start has been committed to parent engagement through its two-generation approach for five decades, enabling parents to have a real say in how their child’s program is run, the curriculum, staff and even what is served for snack and lunch. Find out how to get involved at your local program by asking your program director.
  3. Become a volunteer in your child’s classroom. Head Start and many other early education programs encourage parent volunteers as integral components to the classroom. If you can carve out even one hour a week to do this, you’ll find that your time with your child at home will be more purposeful, as you become more knowledgeable about what is being taught and how you can reinforce it. Simply ask your child’s teacher how you can become a parent volunteer.
  4. Ensure you and other parents in your community exercise your democratic rights by organizing a voter registration drive at your local program. Head Start is currently facilitating voter registration events at local centers in partnership with the NAACP.
  5. Make your voice heard by supporting early education programs through signing petitions or joining letter-writing campaigns. Your early childhood education program may know of state organizations who need your support, or simply sign on to the National Head Start Association’s current letter to President Obama in support of continued parent engagement.
  6. Invite your local elected officials and members of Congress to visit your early childhood education center and show them what a difference the program is making in your community. Here are some helpful tips on how to do so.

Olivia Burlingame Goumbri is director of alumni & grassroots advocacy at the National Head Start Association, where she oversees the First Advocates parent advocacy training program to engage parents to become skilled advocates for high-quality early education. She can be reached at

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