Editor’s Note: In this post, parent advocate and former LCSW Susan Morton shares some common pitfalls encountered in the world of special education advocacy. While this short article is written for a professional audience, parents who are striving to be the best advocates they can be for their own children will also benefit from these tips. What makes a great parent advocate? You can provide invaluable assistance to parents trying to navigate the complexities of special education programming and procedures. A strong advocate knows how to:
- Obtain necessary information about the child and available educational program options;
- Organize and present data to key stakeholders in a compelling manner;
- Develop and implement effective strategies for obtaining the services the child requires; and
- Communicate the available options to the parents, allowing them to make intelligent and realistic choices throughout the process.
Errors that crop up during the advocacy process are often those of excess — excessive emotion that clouds judgment; excessive advice in areas beyond the advocate’s knowledge or experience; excessive involvement in situations the parents would be better off handling on their own; raising parents’ expectations excessively; and feeding parents’ sense of outrage, rather than helping them cultivate a calm demeanor in trying situations. Here are some of the most common mistakes advocates stumble into: (1) Replaying Your Own Special Education Advocacy Battles through Your Clients’ Case. Don’t relive your personal struggle to advocate for your own child, however similar that ordeal may have been to your client’s case. Your judgment will be skewed, and you may create a hostile relationship between the family and the school system. Despite the similarities between your own child and the student for whom you are now advocating, the reality is that your client may have very different needs. (2) Failing to Inform Parents Upfront about the Special Education Process. Do your clients understand the potential costs of their case, both in terms of your fee as well as the time and energy they will need to invest? Do they understand, for example, that even if they obtain an IEE, the school district team members can still disagree with the outside evaluator’s findings and refuse to implement her recommendations? Make sure the parents understand that this is one step in the process and that there are multiple directions their case may take. (3) Making Assumptions about the Child. We are constantly informing teachers that they are incorrectly taking a one-size-fits-all approach to a child with one or another disability. Does every child who is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder require ABA instruction? I think not. Yet we are also guilty of pigeonholing a child with a certain disability into a certain type of program from time to time, because we have particular experience with that area and think we know better. Make sure the student is thoroughly evaluated in all areas of suspected disability, and when you get the evaluation report back, read it. (4) Supporting Unrealistic Expectations. This is a really tough one. We want to champion our clients’ dreams for their children, especially in those truly crushing cases where the school has told the parents that “this is just the way your child is.” But we also know that pie in the sky ideals for how much progress a student will make are not always realistic. Do your best to be supportive and explore all avenues for the child’s education, while maintaining reasonable (not necessarily low) expectations on the part of the parents. (5) Taking a Habitually Aggressive or Confrontational Stance. Similarly to the first item on our list, don’t displace the parents’ rage with your own, and don’t look to instill aggression where there is none. You can express displeasure at the way the staff has handled a child’s programming without jumping across the table at them. (6) Being Overly “Chummy” with the Key Players. On the other hand, too much friendliness with anyone involved — whether they represent the school district, your client, or a third party — just looks unprofessional and inappropriate. Just keep it polite and professional. You can be affable while being effective in your advocacy. (7) Failing to Listen. I was going to subtitle this point “failing to learn,” but really, learning is about listening. What are the school personnel trying to tell you? Are they just being argumentative, or do they have real and valid concerns about how they view the child’s disability and his resulting needs? Help the parents evaluate the staff’s credibility and gauge the usefulness of the information they’re sharing. (8) Failing to Stay Informed. Keep up to date not only with what’s going on with your clients, but with local and national developments with special education laws and regulations, including new case law and hearing decisions. We are not lawyers, but it behooves us to keep abreast of changes in the law so we can keep our clients informed as well. On that note … (9) Failing to Refer a Case to An Attorney when Warranted. This could be a whole blog post by itself, or perhaps several. A knowledgeable advocate understands when the parents are wading into legal issues that are best handled by consulting with an attorney. Parents view their advocates as their personal educational experts; they rely on them to maintain their composure and apply keen, informed judgment throughout the decision-making process. Advocates must therefore remain mindful of the trust their clients place in them, and reflect on the case’s progress as new developments unfold. While mistakes happen to us all, it is just as important to know the best practices for avoiding mistakes as it is to know how to remedy any problems that do arise.