As soon as we left her office after my son’s 18-month checkup, our pediatrician had called Early Intervention so that we could start receiving services needed to help my son with his developmental delays. We stayed in that system until he was three years old. After that he aged out of Early Intervention and into our local school system, who, by law, was to provide similar services starting at age three. Soon, our school year was not only bus routes and supply lists, but also IEP meetings and the struggle to understand exactly how all of the pieces fit together to create the best education my son could get.
If you are in the same boat, regardless of your child’s age, an advocate may be the person you need to help you navigate this complex and, at times, overwhelming system of acronyms, laws, and questions. An advocate is a person who is knowledgeable about special education laws in your state. They can help you understand your and your child’s rights as well as what the school system you are in needs to do in order to meet your child’s needs. If I knew then what I know now about educating my son, I would have met with an advocate before he transitioned from Early Intervention to our local school system.
What Can a Special Needs Advocate Do?
According to Carol Woodard, a local special education advocate, an advocate can make all the difference when working to develop a plan for your child’s education. “Schools have limited resources and do not have the same knowledge and expertise as you do with your child,” Woodard says. “An advocate can give you the confidence to work on behalf of your child to determine an appropriate program.”
Because someone like Carol is knowledgeable about the rules and regulations governing special education, they can work with you before you meet with the school system to understand what your options are and how to negotiate with educators to meet your child’s needs while working within the law and the system’s resources.
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When Should You Bring in an Advocate?
At the earliest, Woodard advises, you can bring in an advocate as you anticipate entering the school system and developing that first IEP or 504 for your child. However, if at any time you feel that your child is not making progress or some need is not being met, you can have an advocate advise you on how to mitigate the situation.
Does your child need a new schedule? More time for taking tests? The process of fixing any issues might seem intimidating to you, especially if you are new to the dilemma. An advocate can not only advise you on the how, but also accompany you to meetings to help you work with the school system to negotiate the best outcome for everyone.
Why Bring in an Advocate?
Any parent will tell you that having a child in school, special needs or not, can be a complicated experience. From gathering school supplies to creating a routine to figuring out homework, the school year has a myriad of challenges for any family.
But if your child needs extra help, that adds a layer of complexity that you may not have anticipated when you brought that baby home from the hospital. Having a special needs child can be enough of a challenge, as any parent of one can attest. Throw in the need to understand special education law and the difference between an IEP and a 504, or what Least Restricted Environment (LRE) means, and the challenge might become overwhelming for even the most patient parents. Whether your child is finishing high school or is just starting kindergarten, an advocate can help you make sure that you are covering all of your bases.
If nothing else, helpers like Ms. Woodard and other local advocates can give you peace of mind that you and the school system are working together to give your child the best chance at a good education and the best start to their futures.
One Last Thing…
As a parent who advocated for her son while he was in a local school system, Ms. Woodard has some advice for parents with special needs children currently in school or about to enter the school system:
- Keep good records and save all communications, including emails, letters, and conversations.
- Take advantage of available training opportunities.
- Trust but verify to ensure that people are adhering to the IEP or 504.
- Ask questions in writing to have a record of your communications with educators.
- Research your child’s disability and recommended treatment options.
- Learn all you can. Other parents are GREAT resources.
- The only difference between your child and others is “the way they learn.” All children have challenges, but no two challenges are the same.
- Your child is always worth it!
My thanks to Carol Woodard of Hope2Joy Advocacy for her time and information about advocacy for special education.
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