Education, Special Needs

How to Be Your Child’s Advocate – and Feel Confident in Doing So

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We know as parents or caregivers that we need to stick up for our kids, teach them, support them, and help them grow into the amazing little beings they’re destined to be. But when a child needs individualized support at school, it can be easy to get lost in a sea of “what-ifs” and “hows.” How do I get my child the support she needs? How do I learn to become my child’s advocate?

Navigating the waters of advocacy can sometimes seem like you’re stuck in a typhoon with no way out. But as a parent who advocates for special education for my own child, I can tell you that there’s nothing on earth that’s more rewarding. You are your child’s best advocate. You just need to trust in your abilities.

parent advocacy

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Becoming Your Child’s Advocate: How Can Parents Advocate for Their Child?

Parent advocacy isn’t easy. I would never lie and say that it is. Regardless of how outspoken you are, you’ll find that advocating for children takes a whole new level of guts. But it’s also an incredibly necessary step toward making sure your child has everything she needs to succeed. As a parent advocate for school services, it’s your job to:

  • Communicate with teachers, special services directors, therapists, and everyone else on your child’s individualized education program (IEP) team
  • Organize paperwork that could assist you in advocating for your child
  • Attend IEP and other planning meetings
  • Track your child’s progress to ensure that there is progress happening
  • Involve your child in decisions (when age-appropriate)
  • Advocate for her schools, too, when there might be discrepancies between the school and district or other agencies

…And the list goes on.

As your child’s advocate, there is a lot of stuff that falls on your shoulders. It can be a lot to adjust to. I’m a soft-spoken person by nature. I hate confrontation. I don’t even love talking in front of people I don’t know well. Needless to say, it was a big adjustment for me to learn how to advocate for education for my son. But after several years of IEP advocacy and involving myself in everything that goes along with it, I’ve come a long way. I can now walk into the meeting room confidently, paperwork in hand and armed with questions, concerns, and suggestions.

All because I know my little man is counting on me to be his school advocate and get him the support he needs and deserves, just like every other child in the building.

I promise – you can do it, too.

10 Ways to Be an Effective Advocate for Your Child

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“How can I start advocating for my child?” is a question I hear often in groups I’m in filled with other parents of children with special needs. Special education parent advocacy can be scary when you’re thrown into it and don’t get much guidance along the way (raising my hand over here – I was that mom, too!). Fortunately, I have learned so much over the years about ways to advocate in school. It’s my hope that sharing them with you can help you grow the confidence to blossom into your child’s advocate:

1. Keep the lines of communication open with your child.

It might seem like a strange suggestion to talk about advocacy with a preschool child who hasn’t even entered kindergarten yet. But it’s never too early to open those lines of communication. Your child has every right to know what’s being done to help him. And he has every right to voice his opinion. A young child won’t understand what being an effective advocate means for you or everything that happens during the process. But she will know that she plays a role, and that’s important.

For example, I’d connect with my son every week or so once he started kindergarten. I’d ask questions that he could respond to, like “Has anything been tough for you this week?” He’d tell me when certain things were too loud in the classroom or when he had trouble hearing something. I could use the information he gave to guide me when it came time to discuss his IEP.

This is also the beginning step toward self-advocacy, which is definitely what we want our kiddos to reach eventually.

2. Keep documentation of everything.

Paperwork piles up fast when you have a kiddo on an IEP. I keep copies of everything having to do with my son, whether it’s from the school, his pediatrician, or his medical team. I’m talking about progress reports, report cards, appointment visit summaries, etc. If it has anything to do with his abilities and progress, it’s getting documented.

Keeping track of everything - every meeting, every progress report, etc. - on paper can make getting through your child's IEP meetings much easier. Be prepared! #specialeducation #childadvocacy Click To Tweet

Personally, I use an expanding file folder to keep everything organized. Each category of papers (like IEPs and therapy reports) goes in a separate section to make it simple to find what I need to reference.

3. Never be afraid to ask questions.

To advocate for your child, you need to be informed. That means never being afraid to ask questions! There are no dumb questions when it comes to your child and her needs.

I keep a running list of questions I want to ask my son’s teacher, specialists, etc., in a note on my phone. When it’s time for meetings, I can quickly reference it if there’s anything I forget to ask. And don’t forget to bring a notebook with you to jot down answers to your questions.

4. Find your voice and stand your ground as your child’s advocate.

This was the toughest for me to get a grasp on, but a few years into the journey, and I’m finally – and confidently – there. Unfortunately, no one can teach you how to stand your ground when you feel like your voice isn’t being heard for your kiddo’s sake. But I want to stress its importance.

Never feel like you’re being pushy or overbearing. You’re not. Saying and doing what you believe is best for your child to get what she needs is not wrong. I think the biggest hoop for us to jump through it the one that makes us feel like we’re overstepping our boundaries.

But our kids need us to break the boundaries. As a child’s advocate, we need to push obstacles out of the way for them to thrive. So, in whatever way it makes sense for you, find your voice.

Our kids need us to break the boundaries. As a child's advocate, we need to push obstacles out of the way for them to thrive. So, in whatever way it makes sense for you, find your voice. #specialeducation #parentadvocacy Click To Tweet

5. Physically attend all meetings.

In addition to IEP meetings, you may have an opportunity to attend planning meetings. If it’s not offered to you, ask for it! These meetings are for asking questions and discussing your concerns or ideas before the team writes up the IEP. It helps to make sure everyone is on the same page.

You’ll usually have the option of not being present for a meeting or attending via a phone call. I highly suggest not doing either one of these. It really is best for you to be a presence in the room to establish your place as your child’s advocate.

Depending on where you live, you might also have the opportunity to attend informational meetings about special education in general. I recently attended a meeting explaining IEPs at my local library. Even though I’ve been through the process already, the seminar still held a lot of helpful information for me. I walked away feeling even more confident than before. If you’re lucky enough to have stuff like this in your area, take advantage of it. A good place to check with about upcoming events is your state or county’s department or division of developmental disabilities.

Being an advocate for your child with special needs is tough, but necessary. Here's how to gain the confidence you need.

6. Understand your and your child’s rights.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects anyone with a disability from unlawful discrimination. This act protects your child in school, too, to ensure that she gets the services she needs without discrimination. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) focuses on special education and getting children with disabilities a fair education. Understanding these laws can be your best defense against unfair treatment.

You should receive a copy of IDEA from your child’s IEP team. I also turn to Wrightslaw to help me navigate a lot of the legalese and complex stuff behind these laws. It has tons of resources to help parents understand their rights and their child’s rights when it comes to their education.

7. Keep a folder of ideas.

As your child makes her way through the school year, consider her strengths and struggles. Think about ways she might be able to better achieve academic success at school. Sometimes, it could be as simple as a seat change closer to the teacher or extra one-on-one reading time. Whatever ideas you have that you can mention to her IEP team, jot them down and put them in a folder dedicated to suggestions. You might also print off articles you find about children with similar needs and tweaks that worked for them to add to your folder.

Remember that the IEP is fluid, meaning that you can add to it or modify it as the year goes on. Your child’s needs will change, which is why fluidity is a must. Whenever you want to implement a modification, call the IEP coordinator or set up a meeting.

Your child's IEP is fluid. The IEP you signed at the beginning of the year can be modified to adapt to your child's needs as the school year progresses. #IEP #specialeducation #parentadvocacy Click To Tweet

8. Remember that you’re an equal.

You’re an equal on your child’s IEP team. Nobody holds more importance than you, and vice versa. Each person on the team – the teacher, the principal, the district coordinator, etc. – is there for a reason. You each know your child but in very different ways. Together, you become a group that understands your child as a whole. Don’t allow confusing terminology or superiority complexes from others make you feel less than.

advocating for special education

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

9. Don’t feel like you need to heed everyone else’s advice.

When you have a child with special needs, you’re likely to get a lot of advice you never asked for from well-intentioned friends and family. If you’re in social media groups, unsolicited advice is going to be at its worst. However, you know your child best, and you are your child’s best advocate. No one else can tell you what’s best for your child, not even the IEP team. You, as a group, come together to decide that.

It’s easy to feel pressured when eyes are pointing at you and telling you things that sound good. But if, in your gut, you don’t agree, then listen to your inner voice.

10. Teach your child to advocate, too.

As your child gets older, she can begin to advocate for herself. Even non-verbal children can learn to communicate with gestures or communication devices. This is when you know you’ve truly been successful in your job as a parent advocate. That’s why I say it’s so necessary to keep the lines of communication open with your child, even at a young age.

I taught my son to never feel afraid to tell his teacher if he couldn’t hear or something was too loud at school before he began kindergarten. Now, he tells his teacher, “I think I should move away from my friends for a little while because the noise is getting too distracting.” He’s only in second grade, but his progress amazes me. I know that one day, he’ll feel total confidence in explaining his needs.

Find the Confidence to Become Your Child’s Advocate

Is there anything that you think is holding you back right now from feeling confident as your child’s advocate? I’d love for you to leave your thoughts in a comment, connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or even send me an email. I’d love to help in any way I can to set you and your child on the path to a successful education.

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