Advocates are an important part of every child's education. A child with special needs is going to need someone to organize and pull together his or her education plan to make sure he or she gets the best structured education that will meet his or her individual learning needs in the least restrictive learning environment.

A good candidate for a special education student's advocate is the child's own parent. Parents know their child's personality, learning style and needs best and typically have the greatest insight and understanding of what types of services or accommodations should be included in their child's learning plan. That being said, getting started can feel very overwhelming.

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With a little research, guidance and going on your own instincts, you can be a strong parent advocate for your child. Advocating is an important process and it entails learning a whole new environment and, to some extent, a whole new language. Understanding the meaning of all the acronyms and lingo is a tough hurdle to climb over. However, it isn't impossible, and once you've got the jargon down, you're off to a good start. The first term to learn is the "IEP", which stands for "individualized education program" in the United States. In Canada and the United Kingdom, this is referred to as the "individual education plan".

If the IEP is a new process for you, it can be frustrating, intimidating and confusing. Navigating the special education process is a definitive learning curve and it does usually take some effort to learn how to work in the system. Bureaucracy is often difficult to navigate and learning your legal rights is another aspect to learn. Here is a rundown of the basics in the special education process:

Annual Review

The annual review is when the Committee of Special Education meets as a group to review, assess and determine a child's special education needs. This is an important meeting because the classification decided will impact your child's education.

As a part of this process, an IEP is developed and this will determine the education plan for the following school year. Adjustments, additions, and deletions are made from the previous year's plan after assessments and discussions occur. Sometimes new needs develop, or benchmarks have been met and changes in the plan are made as the child grows.

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Related Services

Related services are any needs that help facilitate learning. Some children have occupational, physical, speech or cognitive therapy needs that will assist with learning, and without these services a child may have difficulty keeping up.

Other services may be physical accommodations or counseling. There are many different kinds of related services which may be considered. During the IEP meetings it is determined if and any kinds of services are deemed necessary to a child's special education needs. Once this is discussed, the kinds of services which will be included in the plan are decided.

Legal Rights

Your child has rights under state and federal law. It is a good idea to become familiarized with these so you understand how to best pursue an educational plan that is appropriate and most beneficial to your child's learning. In the United States, public schools are obligated to deliver this information to you in the form of a booklet or packet, but you can also seek information out through your state's education department.

Parental Involvement

Parental involvement is vital. Many parents often assume school administrators or teachers will be the child's advocate and, as a result, some parents don't get very involved in the special education process.

This is a mistake because administrators by the nature of their job pay mind to budgetary constraints and many of their inputs are based from a business perspective, which is not necessarily always aligned with the best interests of the child. While teachers almost always instinctively know what is best for the child, their role in a child's education is very different from the advocate's role, and it is shouldn't be expected a teacher serve in both the educator and advocate roles.

The special education process can be frustrating, and most of the results rest upon on the school district and the child's advocate. It is important to advocate for your child or, if you are unable to do this, find someone who is willing and can effectively do a good job. Bureaucracy is difficult to navigate and if you don't fight the system when things don't feel right, chances are the correct decisions won't be made for your child.

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A child's parent is a good choice to serve as advocate, but if this isn't possible for some reason, schools routinely maintain a list of volunteer parent advocates who help other parents navigate the special education system and accompany the parent to any necessary meetings. Parents lacking confidence in their abilities or knowledge may want to consider finding a parent advocate or other person to help who understand the process and are able to offer their time and expertise.

Whether or not you serve as your child's advocate, it is a good idea to try to be an active partner with your child's school. Through teamwork everyone involved can work together to come up with the best plan possible. Another consideration is to carefully choose your battles. Assertiveness is almost always better than aggression. If things aren't working to your liking or your gut instinct tells you something isn't right, discuss the situation first. Often a simple conversation can resolve a conflict.

Special education process is difficult to navigate, but once the basics are down, the rest tends to fall into place. This doesn't mean there aren't bumps in the road, but it does get easier to work with the system. The first year is often the toughest to get through, but subsequent planning processes usually go smoother once a basic educational plan is in place.