Being a parent- period- is a huge job, but being a parent-advocate for a child with special needs, can feel like a monumental task. The goal of My Educational Solutions is to make the job of parent advocacy a bit simpler, a bit easier and a whole lot more accessible to your average parent. It is my hope that what I have learned over the course of many years in this arena, will benefit both you and your child. TO my core, I hope the information and strategies I share with you in this article will save you lots of time, arguments and heartache.
Parent Participation and involvement is a major safe keeping parents are guaranteed through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA provides a strong foundation and mandate for parent involvement. IDEA states:
“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home.”
Your participation in educational decisions for YOUR child is critically important- this importance is backed by research that cites the benefit AND a federal law that acknowledges the benefit and both ensures and protects your participation. However, there might be times when you are not treated as you should be- which is an EQUAL MEMBER of your child’s IEP Team. You might experience a time where you feel that your input wasn’t fully captured or recorded as you said it. There might be times where you feel left out all together, or uncounted.
The required IEP team members are a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a representative of the public agency (could be principal, district representative, staffing specialist), an individual who can determine the instructional implications of evaluation results, and the student when appropriate. If your child is under 18, you have the ultimate authority whether or not they attend the meeting, though schools will strongly encourage the students participation from 14 years of age and older.
The team can also include other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding your child. You, as well as the school system, can invite anyone that has knowledge or special expertise about your child, such as an outside therapist, advocate, friend or grandparent. The district might invite an Assistive Technology Specialist, a Behavior Specialist, someone they have contracted for a specific purpose related to your child or someone from the compliance office. Also let’s insert section 7 after the intro. And see how that looks., YOU are an equal member of your child’s IEP team. No members input is “more important” than another.
IDEA states specific entitlements to parents to ensure parents are given a fair opportunity to participate in decisions that impact how their child will receive special education services. Without these protections it would be impossible for parents to effectively advocate.
Understanding the major principles of IDEA will help guide your understanding of IEP’s, one cannot exist separate from the other. IDEA is what regulates what must be in the IEP and what schools must do, from the time they have notice or a suspicion that a student has a disability through graduation.
What is Effective Parent Advocacy?
Effective Parent Advocates DO NOT assert rights that they do not have and they are able to focus on the BIG issues that need to be addressed and advocate effectively within the framework of what their child’s entitlements are, which truly are plentiful.
Each states regulations and rules must be in accordance with Federal Law IDEA and individual districts policies and procedures are only approved by the state Department of Education if the language used reflects what IDEA mandates and in no uncertain terms. Therefore, if you move from one state or district to another with an IEP, your child is entitled to comparable services.
There are other bodies of law that protect students with disabilities in public programs and in some private programs- all students with disabilities are protected by anti discrimination law Section 504 and civil right law the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Parent Input Section
The IEP Team will ask the parent to provide their input at some point in every IEP Team Meeting. There is an actual designated section for this in every IEP. The Parent Input Section is critically important, it is your chance to document your voice in the IEP Document. But parent must understand that there participation extends beyond the Parent Input section, and that they are equal IEP team members. Parents can and should participate in all parts of the IEP document, not just the parent input section.
AS you go through each of the 5 IEP Domains and reflect on your child’s strengths, weakness, and the impact of their disability- it’s essential that where you have input – that you contribute that input within the Present Levels of Performance section of each Domain. Please give input that relates directly to the domain in question and it’s most helpful to share observations about your child that you have seen across settings- not only in your relationship with your child.
YOU! Yes, You are A Parent Advocate!
YOU are a parent advocate. Successful parent advocates are armed with information and know how to navigate IEP meetings with strength and class. When a parent advocate enters an IEP meeting they are tasked with the great responsibility of advocating for their child- their baby (and yes that’s your baby whether she is 2 or 20)- and they have the emotions involved that no other team member brings to the IEP table.
You are at a disadvantage in some regards- you are not in the school observing your son like the rest of the participants have been, you are not in the classroom teaching your child everyday. You also didn’t get to have conversations with the team prior to the meeting. You are in a meeting where professionals are presenting to you about your child- the one that you know the most about and feel the most for. And they are sometimes presenting in a matter of fact way,
“according to the data…”, “and in this area your child is in the second percentile” “he is not able to…” “she cannot focus on an academic ask for more than 5m” etc …. it can feel very cut and dry but this is the way that many teams have been trained to dissipate information in IEP meetings.
Parent advocates have the chance to come into meetings and bring a balance to it all and bring some human-ness back into the IEP meeting and simultaneously call for data collection and data driven goals and all other assurances.
I want you to know that when you go into the meeting, yes you are a PARENT but I want you to also think of yourself as a professional advocate – A Parent Advocate- and behave in a professional manner as if you were representing a client that hired you to go to the meeting. If you were hired to represent a parent at a meeting where you were paid to attend,
You would probably do a few things
- You would come to the meeting prepared- knowing your goals and what your state administrative code has to say in relation to the goals you have set AND
- You would behave in a firm, friendly and professional manner
- You would also know what to do when the team disagrees with you and you disagree with the teams decision- you wouldn’t argue more or spend hours writing emails that get no response- you would take action as a professional
Myself and other highly effective advocates that get results at meetings in cases where parents were not able to get results prior to hiring us, distinguish ourselves in a few key ways AND as a Parent Advocate, I want you to do that too.
To be an effective parent advocate, it’s not how loud you scream, how many emails you send on behalf of your child, or how many compelling arguments you are able to make about why the schools should embrace your proposed action or idea.
Effective advocacy instead is,
- Knowing your rights- what you are entitled to and what you are not entitled to,
- Setting clear goals for your meetings and having a strategy in getting there
- And a plan of what you will do if the team members say “NO”
In summation, the difference between a parent attending an IEP meeting and a Parent Advocate is a level of knowledge, professionalism, and the demeanor that comes with being taken seriously in a meeting.