5 Ways to Advocate Successfully for Your Child's Special Education
Children with learning differences or other special education needs have a great advantage in meeting their educational goals if we parents understand just how much we can do to make a meaningful difference. How can you be the best advocate when it comes to getting the educational services your child needs? Here are five essentials every parent should know:
1. Know Your Power: You Are Your Child's Best Advocate
Most parents find approaching school teachers and administrators to be nerve-wracking, if not downright intimidating. But parents, because they care so passionately, are always their children's best advocates. Parents know their children best and are often the first to know that a challenge won't go away on its own without intervention.
Bring your concerns about your child to the team that plans your child's special education goals and program. A parent's perspective is invaluable and something only you can bring to the table. So don't be intimidated. Fake it if you must. Find a source of strength to be that confident parent at the school meeting table. Under the law, and practically speaking, parents have the most power to influence their child's school program.
2. Build a Relationship with the School
The old saying that you catch more flies with honey applies. Getting school services for your child is a long-term negotiation. You need to build a good working relationship with the school because children's needs change (and you as the parent know this best). The school team will need to work with you over time to revise your child's special education program to continue to ensure that it is appropriate to address your child's needs.
Set emotions aside — not easy, of course — and approach your meetings with the school almost like a business negotiation. Keep a professional tone. Adopt an approach of cooperative problem-solving. Work around any naysayers.
3. Learn Your Rights
Most parents don't realize that the law entitles their children to special education to address more than simply academics. Under the law, social, emotional, behavioral, and other challenges – including activities of daily living – are appropriate subjects for schools to address with specific goals and programming. Remember that the purpose of special education is to prepare our children for post-secondary education, employment, and independent living. Parents are right to be asking what their child still needs to learn in order to further those goals.
Knowing your rights enables you to advocate for your child with confidence. A common misconception among parents concerns how to initiate the evaluation process for their child. Parents often don't know that in order to start the process of having their child evaluated for special education and related services, they just need to write a letter to the Director of Special Services in their school district, asking for an evaluation for their child.
4. Stay Involved
Go into school to deliver those chicken nuggets. Remaining a presence tells the school you care about their efforts to help your child. Also, encouraging communication about matters big or small helps you be part of resolving small issues before they snowball. Keep a communication log. And be sure to place all agreements in writing.
5. Know That You Are Not Alone
When you are starting out as a parent, you will likely feel nervous about walking into special education parent meetings. To get some backup, find out where your district's parent special education committee meets. These meetings are required to occur in each district under the law. They provide a wonderful opportunity for parents to learn from each other and belong to a powerful community.
Most of all, know that our children are great kids who will do great things. Time and time again, we see that when children are in the right environment, they thrive.
Greer Gurland Esq., a Harvard Law School graduate and a mother of children with special needs, is the author of the 2016 multiple award winning How To Advocate Successfully for Your Child: What Every Parent Should Know About Special Education Law, available in English and Spanish. The book is a quick read packed with Ms. Gurland's personal and professional expertise delivered without legalese. It is designed to answer the questions many parents would ask a special education attorney if they could, and contains answers to these questions, as well as model forms and letters for parents to use. Parents describe reading the book as like getting engrossed in a conversation with a good friend (who happens to be a special education attorney)—the kind that goes out of her way to help you out. Ms. Gurland also received a 2017 “Best Lawyers for Families” Award from Family Magazine. (Photo: Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler)