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Choose Your Advocates Wisely – Getting the Best For Your Child With Special Needs
Imagine. After months of waiting and anticipation, the moment has finally arrived! Your beautiful baby is entering the world and life is the fullest it’s ever been! As the nurse gently places the newborn in your arms, she places a book in your hands. “This is a handbook for your child,” she explains, “read it as soon as possible.
Crazy scenario, I know. But sometimes I wish I had the manual! Navigating the parenting role is difficult at the best of times, but finding your way around a child who has special needs is even more challenging and difficult. This is a journey that family and friends may not have traveled. Loneliness, disappointment, frustration and a sense of failure can make the journey bitter. The challenges can become overwhelming once your child reaches school age. It is at that time that you enter the whole world of professionals who will have your precious child 6 hours a day! It is a world that is a culture unto itself with its own language and its own set of rules. You may feel like an outsider. You may feel that you need help. You may need someone to act as an interpreter in this new country.
You start your investigation… check the internet and the Yellow Pages… can anyone help me do the best for my child at school? Before choosing a person to be your child’s guide and advocate, you need to do some homework; for your child’s sake and your own sanity. There are many people who call themselves advocates. However, it is up to you, the parent, to make an informed decision as to whether that person is truly qualified to advocate for a student with special needs and whether that person is a “fit” with you, your child, and your goals. Take the time to research; the decision you make can literally affect your life and your child’s life in ways you never dreamed possible. The person you choose will affect your relationship with the school staff, your spouse, your child, and your family members. A lawyer will have a direct impact on your marriage, your personal relationships and your family. You invite someone to enter your world. Be very careful who you give this precious gift to.
What role can a lawyer play?
o Help parents find support and resources that are available
o Model effective relationship building and problem solving skills
o Listen to all parties in a genuine and non-judgmental way;
o Clarification of problems
o Suggest options and possible solutions
o Document meetings or help parents understand documents and assessments
o Search and provide information
o Speak for the parent/child when they cannot speak for themselves
o Assist the family with written correspondence, documentation or phone calls
o Attend meetings
o Monitoring decisions taken and measures taken
Below are some points to consider before deciding who to choose:
Advocates should be qualified to speak with integrity and knowledge about exceptionalities in education. A high level of skill brings a level of respect to the table. People are much more likely to listen to someone who has ‘walked in their shoes’ and has experience in education and special needs. It is probably safe to say that very few people are willing to modify their own expertise and professional methods based on the ideas and opinions of someone with little or no experience and credit in the field. As an educator, sitting in meetings with someone who has no special teaching qualifications and having them point out your shortcomings is a waste of time and money. Any parent who has experienced being lectured on the best methods of child rearing by someone who does not have children knows how frustrating it can be. Teachers are more likely to be open to the opinions and suggestions of someone who is at least qualified to make such statements. It makes sense that if you want to give your child the best education possible, you would expect an attorney who had special education credentials and experience to enhance your role as a parent. Maintaining professional development by attending conferences, keeping up-to-date with current policy documents and procedures are important qualifications. Special education is a constantly evolving science, and its advocates must be up-to-date. A solid knowledge of local resources, service providers, and community programs makes problem solving easier. It is equally important that the advocate you choose has the interpersonal skills necessary to work with others to create solutions. As a parent, expect the person you hire to be qualified to help you work with the school.
Advocates should know your child.
The people who are chosen to represent your child need to read assessments, report cards, interact with and spend time with the child to really know who they are working for. Then the role of advocacy is authentic and it is not a fight for a cause or to boost the ego. When an advocate knows the parents and the child well, they can help uncover the common ground between school and home. An advocate should be able to explain how your child’s disability may affect their learning and then work with you to help prioritize your child’s needs. A wise advocate is someone who will look for solutions and not blame. Advocates should see the child in the context of their classroom. A children’s program on paper can never tell the whole story. There is no way a teacher can put into words all the supports, plans, visuals, tools, and strategies that are used to help a child succeed. A child’s world tells much more than any documentation could ever describe. It is important to note that entering the classroom opens a “sacred trust”. Just as you wouldn’t let someone you don’t trust into your home, teachers need to be careful who they open their classrooms to. If someone comes into the room to “observe” and then report to the parents all the things they think are being done wrong and “instigate a lawsuit” against the school, the relationship has been destroyed. Would you want someone to come to your house to “watch and criticize” you as you go about your day-to-day parenting duties?
Advocates should be objective and seek solutions
When speaking with an attorney, listen carefully for language that encourages resolution rather than revenge. An attorney’s personal experience with a school district, board, or prior personal history has no place in the discussion. This is YOUR child. An advocate can use knowledge of people and resources to facilitate a workable plan for your child. To ensure a positive proactive response from the people who are in a relationship with your child, it is best for the advocate to be respectful, polite, considerate and open. This of course applies to every team member.
Can an advocate help your child access the best possible education without unnecessarily straining the resources and staff involved? Sometimes, in hopes of helping parents, promises are made that are overly demanding on a personal or financial level…the school must educate all students, not just yours. Parents may disagree and say that it is really their child that they care about. While this is absolutely true, schools cannot operate on this assumption. Educational institutions have an obligation to care for the collective while ensuring that each individual gets what they need. It is not fair to believe that school staff should remove one child to care for another. Imagine someone suggesting that a parent take funds away from one of their children in order to give them to another. There are solutions that can work for everyone. We have to look for them as a team.
Lawyers should be facilitators, not dictators.
Listen carefully and follow the lawyer. Are they talking about going to battle? Using words like “they” and “we?” Watch out for the ego your child uses to feed himself! Egos look out for egos, not children. Red flags should be flying wildly when an advocate sees only negatives in a child’s education or when there are promises of specific results for your child. An attorney who speaks with an “I’ll show them” attitude will not effectively negotiate a plan that gets everyone to do their part. Problems are not solved that way. The kids don’t win in these scenarios.
People need to be rewarded for the effort they invest; we need to feel supported and respected. We are more open to solutions when we are not feeling defensive. No person, educator or parent, should leave the discussion feeling ignored, dismissed, or discounted if they were truly promoting the child’s needs and not their own. When dissent is reduced to the level of behavior like children demanding that everyone play by their rules, the child with special needs is no longer the focus of the discussion. An advocate is worth their weight in gold when they can objectively look at a situation without emotional charge and create solutions that work for the child.
Each member of the team has a perspective on how best to help the child: the principal, community agency member, speech therapist, teacher, and parent have ideas based on their training and experience. An experienced advocate is able to listen to each member’s ideas and see solutions that draw on the strengths of everyone at the table.
Ultimatums, threats, and accusations drive a wedge between parent and teacher that is extremely damaging to the child because the parent sends the message that they trust that person more than the teacher.
End of the road
As a parent, it can be very frustrating to feel like your child’s system is failing you. Sometimes the anger and resentment can be too much. It is easy to fall into the trap of vengeance and revenge. Going to the press or calling a lawyer should never be done without serious thought to the consequences. These actions should never be born out of an emotional reaction. The price will be high. Before taking any action, the question should be at the forefront: “How will this benefit the child? How could it harm the child?” It’s all too easy to get caught up in the feeling of retribution. When we feel powerless, it’s almost intoxicating to feel empowered. We must be honest with ourselves about what drives our actions. Before taking such steps, consider that your child may still have many years of school ahead of him. Your child’s siblings may have many years in the education system. The damage caused by legal action and/or public humiliation cannot affect your relationships with the very people you rely on to provide the best for your children. I’m talking about the deep-seated hurt, mistrust, and fear that sinks into the soul of anyone affected by lawsuits and bad press. Public humiliation and bad press may make the school system cave to your demands, but it does nothing to bring out the best in any human being or relationship.
That doesn’t mean legal action isn’t necessary at times. However, it is a LAST option. Advocates may or may not be affiliated with a lawyer, but they are not lawyers and should not provide legal advice.
Hiring a lawyer does not relieve parents of their role in decision-making. Advocates understand documents, technical language, and educational jargon. They can explain special program options or requirements, attend meetings, and ask clarifying questions, but as your child’s parent, you make the decisions. Your child needs YOU to be in charge; your role is long term!
Educators need to listen, really listen to what parents are asking. We may have to sort through the layers of hurt, anger, resentment, and fear to see authentic concern for their child. I believe that most of the time we can accommodate the parent’s demands on some level. Look for common ground.
The relationship between parent and school can be difficult because the child’s life is at stake and emotions are charged. But with hard work, respectful dialogue, and child-centered problem-solving, it is possible to work as a team to get the most out of your child’s education. It is up to the adults to make it work for the sake of the children.
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