Thursday, January 13, 2011

Being an Effective Advocate

As a parent, your role in advocating for your child is second to none.  You are the only person who knows your child as intimately as is needed to retain the educational services that will most benefit your child.  As the parent of a special needs child, I know how challenging advocating for your child can be.  There are legal challenges, emotional challenges, and mental challenges that usually manifest themselves in understanding the disability itself.  You need a foundation of knowledge from which your advocacy can extend.

Your primary goal in the advocacy process is to obtain quality special education services for your child.  In striving to reach this goal, negotiating skills and maintaining a healthy relationship with your child's school are required (Wright's Law, All About IEPs, 2009).

Obstacles that often preclude progress toward the goal are common mistakes that must be recognized and avoided.  The first mistake I have observed is the lack of control a parent can experience regarding their emotions when it comes to the IEP process, a disagreement of services, a lack of understanding of legal issues, or a multitude of other things.  This is a mistake because it can cause issues with trust or out-of-control emotions can lead to a disrespect between service providers and parents which can then be transferred to the student.  Out of control emotions simply do not help you help your child. 

Another mistake that parents can make is not having a solid grasp on the child's disability.  You must be educated about the special need of your child.  A lack of understanding means you must give the school authority to make decisions regarding your child's education.  While I do not believe schools purposefully keep parents out of the loop when it comes to serving special needs children, I also do not believe total authority for making decisions for your child should be left to the school.  Assuming the school's decisions are always best or right is very shortsighted and naive.

A third mistake parents can make is often regarding the organization of paperwork that is a part of having a child with special needs.  There is just so much to document.  The key is having one place where all information is kept.  Keep it organized by school year or a method which allows quick retrieval of information.  Keep communications, written or notes regarding verbals, in this record.  Always take notes at meetings.  It is best to write down things when they happen.  The basic premise I've read and been told over and over is that if it is not written down it didn't happen.

Finally, remember to focus on your child's needs in the present time but don't neglect to have a long term plan.  As painful as it may be to consider the options, looking ahead to young adult or adult life is critical.  It is the long term plan that can help guide services in the PK-12 setting. 

Wright's a legal corporation specializing in information regarding special needs children.  They have numerous publications that are helpful in guiding parents through the advocacy process.  While this article is a reflection of my own experience and education over the past 12 years, the content focus of this article was obtained after reading the first chapter of their book All About IEPs.  If you have a special needs child, I strongly encourage you to become familiar with this organization.  You can visit them at

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