Becoming involved with special education advocacy is something I never expected. It is far from many roles I have had in my life, but here I am. I was just living my normal life and slowly over time it evolved and led me here as a student advocate, with the passion and drive to help families and children fight for better educational experiences.
Why Special Education Advocacy?
People ask me why I advocate. Let's just say it's because I needed to! Like many special education advocates, I was led here by my own child's situation. When first presented with the idea that my child had a disability by the school, I was shocked and concerned. I was overwhelmed and really didn't have a clue about all the many things they were discussing...interventions, 504's, IEP's and more. It was like speaking a different language and I felt lost.
Good and Bad Experiences
Over the past eleven years, my son has been in several schools. I have seen a wide range of IEP teams and the way they approached the special education process. Some are better than others. Some were simply awful, and others were amazing. I can tell you that regardless, the 504 and IEP process is complex. There are so many moving parts and things that need to be considered. It can be overwhelming for parents and educators. Regardless, the student's needs and best interests need to be the focus. Just because the child's circumstances may be challenging or not understood doesn't mean giving up. We need to strive for good and shouldn't settle for bad, ever.
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Looking back on all that happened since I started this journey, I reflect. I learned many lessons in this process, unfortunately most were learned the hard way. If you are reading this, hopefully it will reduce some of the heartache and frustration I experienced. By sharing all my lessons learned, your journey may be a bit smoother, and your child will thrive. Here we go!
10 Things I Learned About Special Education Advocacy the Hard Way:
- Educate Yourself: There are many online resources that can help you get started. Knowledge is power! If you know your child's rights and some of the laws protecting them, you can better advocate for your child. Many states have advocacy groups where you can get guidance and help.
- Get Help Early On: You may not need an advocate for the whole process, but working with one to help guide you can help make the process so much easier and more effective! Some people retain education advocacy for the whole process, while others prefer consulting, guidance and coaching from an advocate. Regardless if you know what you are dealing with and which direction to go in, you will make the process much better.
- Advocates Can Save Money: Did you know an education lawyer can cost 3-4 times what an advocate costs? Many parts of the process can be handled using an advocate and don't require a lawyer. Getting help early on can help avoid getting to a point where you require a lawyer. There is sticker shock when the lawyer asks for a $3000 retainer fee just to get started.
- Your Opinion Matters: Parents are a part of the IEP Team. Your concerns and ideas should be heard and considered in the process. Understanding your rights can make a difference. Knowing how to address the IEP Team in meetings and what to present can make all the difference.
- Get It In Writing: If it isn't in writing, it didn't happen! It takes a lot of time and energy to document everything, but it is so important! Schools will deny anything that is not in writing. Always clarify and document every conversation had. Sending follow up emails reiterating the discussion is worth it.
- Take Emotions Out of It: This is a tough one! Once you get emotional, it's hard to pull it back in. Remember you are there to negotiate for your child and if you are upset, angry or crying you can't do that effectively. If this is hard for you, it may be worth having an advocate handle certain meeting, so they are more effective.
- Be A Team Player: Don't go into the meeting thinking "it's me against them" even though it may feel that way. Keep reminding the team that you all have the same goal, to do what is best for your child based on his/her circumstances. If you work together, you are more likely to get agreement and assistance. Once you act in an adversarial way, things can go badly very quickly.
- Don't Go Alone: It's a great idea to bring someone with you to school meetings. This person may not have to contribute a whole lot, but it's helpful to have someone there to take notes and document everything that happens. Often you are very involved in the meeting participating, making it difficult to write details down.
- Ask Questions: There is usually a lot of educational jargon and terminology flowing freely in school meetings which often sounds like another language. Ask questions if you don't understand things. Make them explain what is being discussed so that you can have meaningful participation in the process.
- Prepare In Advance: Once a meeting is scheduled, find out what will be addressed at the meeting and do your homework. You should always go with your own checklist of things you want to discuss, your parent concerns and any questions you have. Don't assume the team will automatically address everything you want to discuss.
It's hard not to look back and think about all the mistakes I made along the way over the past 9 years. Sometimes I feel like I failed my son. I think to myself "you should have known better" or "you should have tried harder". I have beat myself up enough and know I can't change the past. I did realize that I can change the future though, not only for my son but for other parents and children fighting the same battle.
I have come to realize that I did what I knew at the time. I did the best I could and made my decisions based on love for my son. If I had known more, I could have done better. Now I know more about special education advocacy.
Your Education Advocacy Path
- If you are just starting this journey, I hope you learn earlier than I did about how to navigate the complex world of special education. What actions are you going to take today to be better prepared?
- If you are already in this journey, chances are you too have made a mistake or two. Which mistake do you regret the most? Please share so I know I am not alone!
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