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10 Tips for Special Education Advocates
by Pat Howey, Advocate

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Remember, your goal is to assist parents in achieving an appropriate education for their child.

Meeting good advocates1. Good advocates facilitate the IEP process.

Advocates must set an example for the entire IEP Team. They must be a role model of behavior for the parent. Challenging school experts, demeaning school staff, or being inconsiderate or impolite, will not advance the child’s cause. Your goal is to get better school services for the child. Good advocates ask questions and make valuable suggestions to advocate for a child. It is okay to disagree. It is not okay to put down or verbally attack someone.

2. Good advocates know the child and understand the disability.

Do your homework before you attempt to advocate for the child. Research the child’s disability. Be ready with ideas about instructional methods that are research-based and peer-reviewed. Meet the child and the family in the home environment. Put off making recommendations until you fully understand how the child’s disability affects his or her life and education.

3. Good advocates try to reduce existing barriers between the parent and the school.

Your goal is to bring the school and the parent closer to agreement. Good advocates explain to parents that negotiation is part of the IEP Team process – and a part of life! Pouring gasoline on a fire ensures that everyone gets burned and does not improve the child’s lot.

4. Good advocates are willing to admit mistakes and to apologize.

No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. Good advocates are not afraid to say they are sorry when they make a mistake. They may even write a note to everyone involved, apologizing and asking for forgiveness.

5. Good advocates hone their listening skills to a fine edge.

You must learn to listen to everything that others say. Sometimes, what others do not say is most important. If you are not listening, you may not hear what others say and what they do not say. Good advocates repeat and paraphrase what they have heard to avoid misunderstandings. They ask others to verify that they understood correctly. Good advocates ask follow-up questions. They do not interrupt even when they are faced with rudeness and discourtesy.

6. Good advocates learn the art of negotiation.

Remember the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar?” Learning to negotiate is not a sign of weakness or that the parent’s position is not valid. Negotiation is an art that good advocates polish to a fine finish.  Successful negotiations allow everyone to come out of the IEP Team Meeting feeling like winners. Brice Palmer, noted advocate from Vermont, says it best: “Good advocates learn to develop a language of persuasion rather than a language of positional combat."

7. Good advocates understand special and general education law and the interrelationship between these and other laws.

The law is not a static entity. It changes every day through court decisions and other types of clarifications. Good advocates review special education law often. They know that answers to frequently asked special education questions may be found in other unrelated laws. For example, Department of Agriculture regulations address special dietary requirements for children. A State’s Department of Health regulations may address classroom size, lighting, and window light. General education law may provide insight into class size and case load issues. The U.S. Justice Department provides guidance on bullying and harassment. Good advocates understand that school policies often omit the special needs of students with disabilities. School emergency plans may not address the needs of children in wheelchairs or children who are deaf or blind. Good advocates learn to research many different laws.

8. Good advocates know that understanding the law is different from quoting the law.

Good advocates know the law but they understand that it is often ineffective and counterproductive to quote it. Pete Wright once said,  “[A] parent should never quote law, even if they are an atty, it simply polarizes relationships, instead seek "help" in better understanding something best left to rocket scientists and lawyers. -- Pete Wright Deltaville, VA USA - Tuesday, March 02, 1999 at 20:55:35 (EST).

9. Good advocates understand the importance of ethical behavior in their practice.

There is no Code of Ethics or Professional Responsibility for special education advocates. Advocates have nothing to look to for guidance and there is no governing body to oversee their practice. There are no penalties for advocates who act unprofessionally or unethically. This does not suggest that advocates should disregard ethics and engage in irresponsible behavior. Good advocates understand that the professional respect of the IEP Team is a key to successfully assisting parents achieve an appropriate education for their child.

10. Good advocates treat others the way they would like to be treated.

No one likes surprises. Members of IEP Teams do not respect or trust advocates who drop bombshells. Taking the team by surprise is likely to backfire, especially if the team “captain” is a gatekeeper or is determined to be the one who runs the show. Making the IEP Team Meeting a war of wits does not benefit the child nor does it facilitate the process for the parents.

More Tips

10 Tips about Placement

10 Tips for a Successful School Year

10 Tips for Schools on Avoiding Confrontation with Parents

10 Tips: How to Use IDEA 2004 to Improve Your Child's Special Education

14 Tips for Reviewing Your Child's Educational Record

18 Tips on Filing Complaints

IEP Tips: Taping Meetings

IEP Tips: What to Do at an IEP Meeting

 More Advocacy Resources

Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy has a companion website at Fetaweb.com.

Getting Started

Part 1 of the book is Getting Started. Go to Getting Started for articles about the basic skills of parent advocacy.

Advocating for Your Child - Getting Started. Good special education services are intensive and expensive. Resources are limited. If you have a child with special needs, you may wind up battling the school district for the services your child needs. To prevail, you need information, skills, and tools.

Assertiveness and Effective Parent Advocacy. Short article by parent and advocate Marie Sherrett describes joys and challenges of parent advocacy.

Planning and Preparation: Keys to Successful Advocacy. Learn why planning and preparation are important; learn about the parent's role as special education project manager.

Advocacy 101

The second section of Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy is Advocacy 101.

In Advocacy 101, you learn about gatekeepers, special education teams, and one-size-fits-all (OSFA) programs. When you learn the rules of the game, you will be a more effective advocate and negotiator for your child. (Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, page 21). Here are a few articles from Advocacy 101:

Learning the Rules of the Game - Learn why parents and schools have different perspectives, what to do when disagreements turn into power struggles, how to use your power wisely, the dangers of making threats, how to deal with IEP meeting frustrations, and more.

From Emotions to Advocacy: The Parent's Journey. Classic article about dealing with your child's disability and how to manage your emotions.

Special Education Advocacy

You will find dozens of useful articles about special education advocacy on the Wrightslaw site - click here.

9 Ways to Boost Your Child's Attitude Before the Bus Arrives - What can you do before your children leave for school to help them feel that they can conquer anything? These no-nonsense pointers from Jackie Igafo-Te'o will help you eliminate a large portion of last-minute stress that comes with every weekday morning.

Parent Advocacy: What You Should Do - and Not Do. Good advice from attorney Leslie Margolis about steps parents can take to get quality educational services for their children with disabilities.

When Parents & Schools Disagree. Educational consultant Ruth Heitin describes common disagreements between parents and schools and offers suggestions about how to handle these disagreements.

Meet Pat Howey

Pat HoweyPat Howey has a B.A. in Paralegal Studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College where she graduated with honors. She is an active member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and other organizations. In 2004, the Learning Disabilities Association of Indiana honored Pat with its Outstanding Service Award for her commitment and compassion towards students with disabilities.

Pat Howey writes articles and answers questions in Ask the Advocate.

As a member of the Wrightslaw Speakers Bureau, Pat Howey provides training for parents, educators, and others who want to ensure that children receive quality special education services.
Learn more about Pat.

Wrightslaw programs are designed to meet the needs of parents, educators, health care providers, advocates, and attorneys who represent children with disabilities.

"Changing the World -- One Child at at Time."

Contact Information
Pat Howey
Special Education Consulting
POB 117
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117
Website: patriciahowey.com
Email: specialedconsulting@gmail.com

Last revised: 03/22/12

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