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So You Want to Be A Special Education Advocate?
Here is Your Game Plan
by Pat Howey

I was surprised to learn that the most frequently asked questions to Wrightslaw are:

  • "I was a certified special ed teacher and I want to become a parent advocate. I'm not sure how to get started ..."
  • "I'm a good special ed teacher but I know there is more I can do to empower parents and students . . . and districts to be more supportive. I would love some direction. Can you help?"
  • "I'm a retired school administrator. I'm interested in training to become a special education advocate. Where should I begin? Is there a certification process?

So you want to be a special education advocate? What do you need to learn? What skills do you need to acquire?

Smiling woman training to be a special education advocate

Here are five essential things you need to do:

  • Expose yourself to advocacy opportunities
  • Learn about special education law and advocacy
  • Join organizations like the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
  • Attend conferences and training programs
  • Practice, practice, practice your advocacy skills

Expose Yourself to Advocacy Opportunities

The best way to become a good special education advocate is by exposure. If you wanted to catch the flu, you would hang out with folks who had the flu. If you want to become a good advocate, hang around with folks who do advocacy work.

Learn about Special Education Law and Advocacy

Read everything you can find about the special education laws, children's disabilities, and how children learn.

Read IDEA 2004, the federal special education regulations, and the Commentary to the regulations that was published in the Federal Register as a supplement to the federal regulations.

Don't forget that law is always changing. What you read today may change next week or next year when courts issue new decisions. State complaints may clarify portions of the special education law.

To stay current on the changes in the law, you need to spend time reading caselaw. Staying current on the law is easier now.

Since 2015, Pete Wright has written annual editions of Wrightslaw: Special Education Legal Developments and Cases . These books are available in the Wrightslaw Store as downloadable searchable PDFs with active hyperlinks. Each edition includes a Table of Decisions with the date, court, synopsis of legal issues, outcome, and prevailing party in the cases.

Join Organizations and Attend Conferences

Join at least three organizations or disability information groups. Many organizations have terrific state and national conferences. There are often special sessions for advocates at these conferences.

Most organizations publish state and national newsletters for their members. Newsletter editors are always looking for fresh content. After you've read a few issues, offer to write an article for a favorite newsletter.

Attend Training Programs

Attend a Wrightslaw special education law and advocacy training program or seminar. After COVID closed public gatherings, several organizations arranged for Pete to provide their members with virtual training. Wrightslaw is expanding to offer online training.

Partners in Policymaking provides leadership training, advocacy skills workshops, and resource development. Participants learn how to network and share resources. Partners programs are available in all states and several countries. If you have questions about your state's program, contact your State Coordinator.

The Federation for Children with Special Needs offers Parent Consultant Training Institutes for parents and professionals in Massachusetts.

All states have at least one Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). The staff at these centers serve families of children with disabilities (birth to age 26) by helping parents participate effectively in their children's education and development. The Yellow Pages for Kids with Disabilities has a Directory of Parent Training Information Centers or go to the Center for Parent Information & Resources. Be sure to check out the Resource Library for family-friendly information and research-based materials on key topics.

We hope you'll consider subscribing to The Special Ed Advocate newsletter -- the newsletter is unique, interesting and it's free!

Link up with Other Advocates

The first step in your Game Plan was Expose Yourself to Advocacy Opportunities. You need to link up with other advocates in your state or community. You'll find advocates listed on the Yellow Pages for Kids website for your state.

Volunteer to Help

Try to hook up with a special education attorney who represents parents. Offer to help the attorney prepare cases for due process hearings and IEP meetings (for free). If you take this step, your knowledge and experience will jump. You'll also learn about things you can do that will jeopardize a good special education case.

You'll begin to view advocacy cases from a different perspective. You'll understand why you always need to prepare every case as though it will end up in a due process hearing.

Practice Your Advocacy Skills

In addition to learning information, you need opportunities to practice advocacy skills. Offer to go to IEP Team meetings with parents. Offer to be a friendly face at the table. Assure the parents that you will not say anything unless they ask for your input. Pat Howey teaching a session at the 2011 Institute of Special Education Advocacy at William & Mary Law

Explain that you are trying to learn - and the best way to learn advocacy skills is by going to IEP Team meetings.

When you go to IEP meetings for other children, you don't have the same emotional reaction as when you attend an IEP meeting for your child. You can be more objective.

You'll also learn about the players, their roles, and their personalities. You'll recognize their tactics and strategies more easily because you are not emotionally involved. You'll see the games people play. >

You'll see that parents wear "buttons" and how some school personnel push these buttons. In time, you will be able to prepare parents so they do not become overtly emotional or angry when someone tries to push their buttons.

So you want to be an advocate?
What were those five steps you need to take?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Meet Pat Howey

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 member of the faculty of the College of William and Mary Law School's Institute of Special Education Advocacy since its inception in 2011.

Pat has degrees 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.

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



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Revised: 02/11/2021

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