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Ask the Advocate
How to Help Parents Move Beyond their Emotions - to Advocacy
By Patricia Howey

I am working with a family that does not know how to advocate for their child. They are full of anger and focus only on what has happened in the past. At the IEP meeting I saw the school trying to help and cooperating with the parents.

How can I help the parents get past the past?

Pat Responds

First of all, is it possible that the school was on its best behavior because you were there? This happens more often than you would think.

The first thing you can do to help is to buy these parents, Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy. Before you give them the book, open it to page 34 and read the following paragraph:

If you are like many parents, when you learn that your child has a disability, you turn to school personnel and medical specialists for help. If your school district does not provide your child with appropriate services, you get frustrated and angry. If you believe your child was damaged, you are likely to feel rage and betrayal. Once broken, trust is hard to mend.

Remember this paragraph as you work with these parents. For whatever reason, they no longer trust the school. You must help them learn to advocate and to rebuild that trust.

Once you have memorized this paragraph, give the parents the book. As you give it to them, open the book to page 33 and read the following paragraph:

As a parent, emotions may be your Achilles Heel. To be an effective advocate, you must control your emotions and use them as a source of energy.

Let the parents know you understand their anger and frustration.

Tell them you would like to help them take the energy they are wasting on anger and use it to advocate effectively for their child.

Walk through the book with them. They do not have to read it from cover to cover. Have them scan the Table of Contents and choose what chapters they want to read first. It is important for them to have some control over their advocacy efforts.

Make sure they – and you - fully understand Chapters 10 and 11 on Tests and Measurements. Until they understand test results they will never be able to tell whether their child is making academic progress.

If they want to learn more, tell them about the Tests and Measurements multimedia training available on Wrightslaw, Understanding Your Child’s Test Scores.

Introduce them to the Wrightslaw website. Have them subscribe to the newsletter, the Special Ed Advocate.

Encourage them to attend a Wrightslaw seminar. Get them to connect with other parents who are successful advocates. Networking can help recharge their batteries – and yours!

It is important for you to understand that parents rarely start out angry. Often, they become angry because of the way school folks treat them. The school does not respect the parents’ knowledge and experience. They feel left out of the process.

Most attorneys know that many people file lawsuits not because of harm suffered, but because someone treated them badly. It is possible to do some very nasty things to people and they will not sue you. But, you must treat them right. Doctors and hospitals do it every day. Some are sued. Most are not, because they treat people with respect and compassion. Knowing this fact makes me suspect that in the past, these parents have been treated very badly and they are very angry because of that. That is why they are so emotional.

Part of your responsibility as an advocate is to help parents move beyond the emotions that prevent them from being effective advocates for their child. If you are unable to do this by using all of the measures available to you, then it may be time to refer these parents to another advocate or attorney.

It is critical for you to remember that until you are able to move these parents "From Emotions to Advocacy," neither your advocacy efforts nor theirs are likely to be successful.

Meet Pat Howey

Pat HoweyPatricia Howey has supported families of children with disabilities since 1985. She has a specific learning disability and became involved in special education when her youngest child entered kindergarten. Pat has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have a variety of disabilities and she has used her experience to advocate for better special education services for several of them.

Pat is a charter member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), serving on its Board of Directors from 2000 through 2003. She has been a Commissioner on the Tippecanoe (County) Human Relations Committee, a graduate of Leadership Lafayette and Partners in Policymaking, and a member of the Wrightslaw Speakers Bureau. She has been on the faculty of the College of William and Mary Law School’s Institute of Special Education Advocacy since its inception in 2011.

Pat has an A.S. and a B.A. in Paralegal Studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She is an Indiana Registered Paralegal and an affiliate member of the Indiana Bar and the American Bar Associations.

Pat began her advocacy career as a volunteer for the Task Force on Education for the Handicapped (now InSource), Indiana’s Parent Training and Information Center. In 1990, she opened her advocacy practice and served families throughout Indiana by representing them at IEP meetings, mediation, and due process hearings.

In 2017, Pat closed her advocacy practice and began working on a contract basis as a special education paralegal. Attorneys in Indiana, Texas, and California contracted with her to review documents, spot issues, draft due process complaints, prepare for hearings, and assist at hearings. In January 2019, she became an employee of the Connell Michael Kerr law firm, owned by Erin Connell, Catherine Michael, and Sonja Kerr. Her duties have now expanded to assisting with federal court cases.

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

Contact Information

Patricia L. Howey, B.A., IRP
POB 117
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117
E-mail: specialedconsulting@gmail.com
Webpage: https://cmklawfirm.com/

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Created: 01/20/2012
Revised: 07/15/2019

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