What Makes a Good Parent Advocate?
After years of advocating for/with families for their children with special needs, I have seen a lot. I have seen a lot of parents at the very end of their respective ropes. Parents who have fought and fought for their children and feel that they have exhausted every option for their child to experience success.
I have seen parents sit at the IEP team table and sob while I navigate the system on their and their child’s behalf. I have provided “back-up” for parents who want to try to advocate, but wanted me there just in case. I have helped some parents who, by the end of our planning meeting, feel that they can be successful advocating on their own and call me when the deed is done. I am perfectly comfortable in any of these situations, just glad to be able to help parents help their children! I think that every parent should have the opportunity to feel like their place at the table is meaningful and that their voice is heard and counted!
What makes a good parent advocate?
1. Know your rights!
Knowing your rights as a parent of a student with a disability can be tricky. I have witnessed schools passing off ‘fake news’, or just straight lies, to parents by uttering phrases such as, “We don’t offer that service here.” or “We can’t do that at this school.” Call their bullshit!
I have found that the most effective way to get the school to recognize that you aren’t going to be steam-rolled is to very politely push my notebook across the table and sweetly ask, “Can you please put that in writing? I’d like to look into this further once I get home.”
A school that is behaving in an above-board manner will absolutely write down the topic of discussion! More often than not, though, they backpedal and try to offer what you are requesting.
2. Come prepared
Ask for a draft copy of the IEP a week before the meeting. This will allow you to read over the school’s proposal of the IEP. Remember that this is simply a draft - a jumping off point! If something doesn’t seem right to you, don’t accept it just because it is written on the draft. Your IEP meeting is your time to voice concerns and make changes!
3. Avoid the blame game
Ultimately, we are all on the same team - the child’s! I know that it can feel like everyone is fighting from their own corners, but a little bit of grace and acknowledgement that we are all here for the child can go a long way toward smoothing the path of IEP meeting success.
4. Leave with Action Items for everyone on the team
I’ve been to so many meetings where things are left undone. Whether it be a child’s Individual Healthcare Plan (IHP), a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), paperwork from a physician, etc., but getting all of these loose ends tied up is important! Before leaving the meeting, make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of the action items that need to be done and the person responsible for making them happen!
5. Talk to your kid about their IEP
This might be the most overlooked step in advocacy! Every child’s understanding of their IEP/IAP will be different, but what a difference it can make when our children know their rights and what support they are supposed to receive! When I taught middle school, this was part of the culture in my special education classroom. All of my students knew their accommodations and what they should expect teachers to provide. Now that I have a child of my own who has an IAP, she knows her accommodations! She is the first line of advocacy for herself!
6. Don’t be afraid to bring in an advocate!
I’ve had parents who have told me that they don’t know how I do what I do and that they could never advocate without me! My usual response is to ask what they do for a living and assure them that I could not do their job! I definitely once told a respiratory therapist that if we switched jobs, someone might die on my watch. I wasn’t being flippant! Advocates speak up, know the laws, and understand the rights of students with special needs! It’s my job and I love it!
As always, I am your friendly neighborhood special education advocate!