The following article appeared in Asperger/Autism Network
Working with your school district to ensure your child is receiving an appropriate education can be challenging. Often parents feel as though they are not an equal member of their child’s educational team and that decisions are not always made with their child’s unique needs in mind. Add the complexities of Special Education laws and it can quickly become overwhelming for many families, and that's when parents often look for the assistance of an advocate.
This article will help you understand the role of an education advocate and how to choose one that is right for your child.
Understanding the Role of an Education Advocate:
Let’s start with the fact that not all advocates are the same and their roles will vary according their training, experience, areas of expertise and personality. Choosing the right one for your child will be addressed below, but first let’s look at the role and responsibilities of an Education Advocate.
An Education Advocate can…
Answer your questions and simplify the education maze toward a better, more appropriate education for your child;
Suggest possible educational and/or clinical areas to investigate based on the unique needs of your child;
Examine test results and school records to determine whether further assessment is necessary;
Prepare documentation to support the program your child needs (requires)
Assist in the IEP process from evaluation, eligibility and IEP development;
Monitor progress and request program modifications, as needed;
Suggest accommodations to add to your child’s IEP to further support learning;
Provide referrals to proven professionals such as physicians, evaluators, educational consultants, speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists
Investigate and explore alternative educational placements for your child;
Is familiar with local schools and resources and can often see solutions not immediately obvious to other people;
Can support parents through mediation and other dispute resolution avenues;
Teach parents how to effectively advocate for their child
The role of a skilled advocate goes beyond the duties listed above most advocates consider the role to include fostering a positive and collaborative working relationship with schools and school districts to the maximum extent possible, while holding school districts accountable to the Federal and State laws that has been put in place to protect your child.
We also work hard to maintain a cooperative, professional and courteous meeting atmosphere that encourages the entire team to stay focused on your child’s educational needs. In many cases, this can be one of the most challenging parts of our work.
Selecting the Right Advocate for Your Child:
Now that you have decided that you need the assistance of an advocate, how do you choose? In this section we will help answer this question.
Choosing an Education Advocate is an important decision. Advocate’s styles vary just as parents’ styles do. You will want to choose an advocate who is most compatible with your personality and objectives.
We are very fortunate in Massachusetts to have the Parent Consultant Training Institutes (PTI) provided by The Federation for Children with Special Needs. Through this comprehensive training series advocates often get their first look at the field of advocacy and begin to develop the skills they will need. This program is unique to Massachusetts and does not exist in most other states. You can learn more about this training at www.fcsn.org. or by calling 1-800-331-0688 to find out about FCSN’s workshops and trainings.
In addition to the PTI Training, Massachusetts hosted The SEAT (Special Education Advocate Training) Program. SEAT is a joint initiative of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA) and The Center for Disability Studies and Community Inclusion at the University of Southern California Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
The purpose of this Cohort was to develop, implement and evaluate a replicable program to train special education advocates that leads to quality outcomes for students with disabilities. In order to do this, the SEAT Project developed an advanced year long, comprehensive training and practicum program for individuals who practice as professional Special Education Advocates.
This training was a federally funded project to develop and field-test a uniform training curriculum to produce competent special education advocates and consisted of a small group of experienced advocates. We anticipate in the coming years that a standard nation-wide training will be implemented.
In addition to the above mentioned training opportunities many advocates continue to build their skills by attending workshops, trainings and seminars. Advocates come from all walks of life many getting their start in related fields and/or have special needs children of their own. Most advocates are not lawyers and do not give legal advice. A well-trained advocate will refer you to an attorney if needed.
Continuing Education is Important
It is imperative that advocates stay up to date on the ever changing field of special education. Special Needs Advocacy Network, (SPaN) is a growing organization of advocates here in Massachusetts that’s primary goal is to enhance the professional growth and development of advocates. SPaN provides workshops, training and professional information on issues related to special education, providing its members with opportunities for continuing education. SPaN also provides its members a forum where advocates can discuss common needs to share and disseminate information. In addition SPaN provides information about governmental activities, both federal and state in that impact special education law. For more information on SPaN and to see their professional directory, visit www.spanmass.org.
Questions to Ask:
Aside from trainings, experience and backgrounds you may find it helpful to ask the advocate you are considering a few questions about their work. Below is a list of questions that you may find helpful:
How long have you been advocating professionally?
Have you advocated for children with my child’s disability/ies in the past?
Have you advocated in my school district?
Do you have enough time to handle my case?
How do you prefer to communicate?
How much do you charge and what do you charge for?
You may also ask for references from families that have worked with an advocate in the past. Many evaluators, therapists and attorneys can provide recommendations as well. Good advocates get good reputations quickly; less skilled advocates get bad reputations even faster.
Although the answers to the questions above along with some knowledge about the advocates training will be helpful, but it is equally important to feel as though you have connected with your advocate. You have to trust and have confidence in your advocate and often you will get a sense of whether it is a good fit right from that first exchange.
You should feel comfortable speaking with your advocate and sharing important information about your child with him or her. You are about to embark on a journey and a strong working relationship with your advocate can make that trip a more productive and successful one if you are on the same page.
Understanding Your Role as Parents:
Parents play a vital role in their child's education. Advocates cannot make decisions for you, but will assist you in considering options and alternatives in order to empower you as the parent. Parents are equal partners in the team that develops their child's IEP and they care deeply how their sons or daughters learn and grow.
In the course of their child's education, parents may interact with a large number of professionals. Being able to work effectively with different professionals, exchanging ideas concerns and openly communicating about what's working and what's not, are all important elements in their child's educational success. Often parents find that they are able to communicate more clearly and negotiate more effectively with an advocate by their side.
Christine M. Riley established Cape Cod Advocate in 2005 to provide educational consultation and advocacy for children of all ages and disabilities. A certified mediator, she is trained through Wrightslaw and the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN). Christine is a member of National Council of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and Special Needs Advisory Network-Massachusetts (SpaN) and is a former board member of SPaN, FCSN, ISEA and SEAT.
This blog is not intended as legal advice nor to take the place of professional consultation. Each child and situation is different. Call or email Cape Cod Advocate for more information.