Just this past year, I began a yearlong training program to become a Certified Special Education Advocate. If you’ve spent any time in a hospital, or with the elderly or the mentally ill, you know there are patient advocates, elderly advocates and mental illness advocates. An advocate, by definition is a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc. Of course, until a few years ago, I had no need to know about special education advocates. But now that I am immersed in the ‘special needs culture’ and talking with lots of other special needs parents, I am surprised at the number of parents who do not know that we exist.
- Does your child have some issue that prevents them from accessing their education, and is that issue being effectively addressed in your opinion? Do you feel that the school is realistic and challenging enough in what it expects from your child? Have you addressed these concerns, using the appropriate chain of command, and are your concerns addressed and taken seriously? How is your child’s performance? And I don’t just mean grades, I mean everything. Their social skills, ability to make & keep friends, making excuses to avoid school or social events, physical health—the whole picture. How are they doing? You can excel in school and fail in life. If your child’s performance isn’t as good as you think it can be, have you addressed it and what were the results?
- When looking for an advocate, choose one that has a relationship with a special education attorney. While we all hope it never comes to that, and a good advocate does everything to avoid it, you need an attorney/advocate relationship. You also want to find one that has a good network of all kinds of specialists—and knows when they are in over their head. If an advocate says that they are not right for your family, and suggests someone else, this is a good thing!
- Look for an advocate that wants to get to know your child and is focused on what is best for your child. If the advocate has an axe to grind with a certain school district or has that “let’s get ‘em!” mentality, choose someone else. It’s about the child and what the child needs, period.
- Recognize that an advocate is not a miracle worker. The good ones will ask the right questions, maintain and foster relationships amongst the parties involved, and speak for what your child needs. At the end of the day, you may have presented the best case possible to support what services your child needs, and the school district may still say “No.” Keeping that in mind, when you are thinking of what your child needs, it still can be a game of give and take. Prioritize what you think your child needs and work on the higher priorities first.
- Advocates speak on your behalf. Any special needs parent will tell you, we’re too emotionally involved in this to speak for our children. A good advocate can love your child and want the best for your child, without taking it all personally, like we moms do. I don’t advocate for my own child—at least not in IEP meetings. I have a tendency to ‘go all Mama Bear’ and it’s not pretty. And the tears! We have every right to cry, but it’s not helpful for pleading our child’s case. You need someone to be your “rock” so to speak, and keep you anchored.
All children, by law, are entitled to a “free and appropriate” education. It’s the appropriate word that is the gray area. What you think is appropriate for your child, the school district may not agree. If you think your district is not meeting your child’s needs, consider bringing an advocate on to your team. You can contact your local Arc, Easter Seals or other social service agency to get started. Many do work on a free or on sliding-fee pay service. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, contact us. We’ve been networking with some of the best in the area.