A parent instinctively knows what is best for his or her child. Parents who are directly involved with their child's education will know they are getting the right structure and best education to fit their son or daughter's individual needs.

When it comes to a child with special needs, what better person to act as an advocate for a child than his or her parent?

When you discover your child has educational needs that go beyond the scope of a general education structure, it may feel overwhelming and very intimidating because you are not only dealing with bureaucracy, but also trying to come to terms with your child's needs, this is not always easy. Don't worry, you can do this, and there are a few principles you can follow that will help prepare you to grow into the very important role of acting as your child's advocate.

Kids using iPads
Credit: Lexie Flickinger (Brad Flickinger on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Become Educated and Informed

Becoming an advocate can seem daunting at first.  It is vital to become educated and informed about several factors when dealing with the special education system. You'll need to learn the federal and state laws, any "lingo" associated with your child's classification, and how to participate in the inevitable IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. This includes familiarizing yourself with other policies too. Schools and state education departments offer a wealth of information in brochures and pamphlets - this is often a great starting point. Contact them and ask for information, make sure you know you and your child's rights.

Your child's physician can probably also point you in the right direction for some good resources as well. Talk to your son or daughter's medical doctors and learn all you can about your child's condition.  Believe it or not schools are not necessarily knowledgeable about every disability or learning issue and the special needs associated with each condition (I quickly learned this about traumatic brain injury. Today there is more awareness of TBI, but it wasn't always this way. The experts were learning right along with me in many respects).

That being said, occasionally a situation is not only a learning curve for the parent, but for the school too. Most schools have firm knowledge of disabilities, but do not always understand or have experience with every single classification.

Volunteer meets with Philippine children at a Special Education Center for gifted children
Credit: US Navy/Public Domain

Take Notes and Keep Copies of All the Paperwork

Always take notes during meetings and conversations that relate to your child's educational plan and even classroom experiences. Also, be sure to keep copies of all documents and records, both medical and educational. This includes the actual IEP document, minutes of meetings, progress reports and any other forms of written communication. There will undoubtedly come a time when you will need it to review, refresh your memory or use as reinforcement.

If you get overwhelmed in the process, there are other parent advocates that will usually accompany you to meetings and/or "teach you the ropes." If you find you do need help during any part of the process, don't be afraid to ask for it. Your child's school is often happy to provide you with a list of other parent advocates who have volunteered their services in order to assist other parents.

Attend All Meetings and Conferences

To be effective, it's essential to be continually involved in each step of the process. A strong advocate has a constant presence and provides input during the decision-making process. It's always a good idea to maintain regular contact with teachers, service providers (if any are involved), and administrators; take an active part in the IEP process. Also, take the time to get to know your child's team and the committee members well and keep a strong line of communication open.

Don't Be Timid in Speaking Up...

If something is wrong and you aren't comfortable or in agreement with a decision that is about to be made, speak up immediately. Do this before it is too late.  Often conflicts can be resolved or prevented if you voice your concerns about any details or tentative plans for your child early on. If you hesitate due to being timid or afraid of "making waves", it makes it difficult later on for your child. You don't have to be aggressive, but definitely share your point of view. You may bring something to the table the special education team hadn't considered. Or sometimes they may not agree. Either way, it's important to have the discussion.

...But Choose Your 'Battles' Wisely

It is likely that at some point along the journey, there will be disagreements in the decision making process of your child's education. Sometimes there will be an underlying budget issue and there may be resistance from administrators, or other times your child will have outgrown a particular need and the committee is recommending discontinuance or to try something new.

Whatever the reason of the disagreement(s), choose your battles wisely. Put more emphasis on the services you feel are most important in addressing your child's needs and don't sweat the small stuff because in end you want to have the best educational structure possible for your son or daughter. Picking battles carefully will bring better results in the long-term. It's far more effective to be an assertive parent, rather than a combative one.

Be a Partner With Your Child's School

Work with your child's school, not against them. Volunteer and offer to aid teachers in the classroom. Schools frequently welcome any parent volunteers to help in or out of the classroom with various tasks. Taking an active part in the school environment not only helps your child, it gives you a chance to network and develop relationships within the school community. Plus you can see firsthand what goes on in or around the classroom.

Credit: "Handshake (Workshop Cologne '06)" by Tobias Wolter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

To be an effective advocate is to be an involved one, and what better person to take on this important role than you? You know your child better than anyone else and can provide the most support in getting what your child needs.

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