What is Advocacy?
“A good education is the next best thing to a pushy mother.” – Charles Schulz, cartoonist
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. One of those tools may be an advocate.
ad-vo-cate – Verb, transitive. To speak, plead or argue in favor of. Synonym is support.
1. One that argues for a cause; a supporter or defender; an advocate of civil rights.
2. One that pleads in another’s behalf; an intercessor; advocates for abused children and spouses.
3. A lawyer. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition)
An advocate performs several functions:
Supports, helps, assists, and aids
Speaks and pleads on behalf of others
Defends and argues for people or causes
Why an advocate?
As educational advocates we evaluate children with disabilities and make recommendations about services, supports and special education programs. When we go to eligibility and IEP meetings, we are acting on your child’s behalf. As your child’s educational advocate we can negotiate for services by relying on our knowledge of the special education laws to implement tactics and strategies that will provide instruction that “fits” your child’s disability.
What Advocates Do:
Advocacy is not a mysterious process. Here is a quick overview of advocacy.
A. Gather Information
As your advocate we gather facts and information. As we gather information and organize documents, we learn about your child’s disability and educational history. We then use these facts and independent documentation to resolve disagreements and disputes with the school.
B. Learn the Rules of the Game
As your child’s co-advocate it is your responsibility to educate yourselves about your school district. You will need to know how decisions are made and by whom.
Advocates know about legal rights. They know that a child with a disability is entitled to an “appropriate” education (FAPE), not the “best” education, nor an education that “maximizes the child’s potential.” They understand that “best” is a four-letter word that cannot be used by parents or advocates.
Advocates know the procedures that you as parents must follow to protect your rights and your child’s rights.
C. Plan and Prepare
We know that planning prevents problems. Advocates do not expect school personnel to tell them about rights and responsibilities. We have read and are familiar with the special education laws, regulations, and cases to get answers to your questions.
We have learned how to use test scores to monitor your child’s progress in special education.
We will help you prepare for meetings, create agendas, write objectives, and use meeting worksheets and follow-up letters to clarify problems to nail down agreements.
D. Keep Written Records
Because documents are often the keys to success, as advocates we must keep written records. We have learned that if a statement is not written down, it was not said. We make requests in writing and write polite follow-up letters to document events, discussions, and meetings.
E. Ask Questions, Listen to Answers
We are not afraid to ask questions. When we ask questions, we listen carefully to answers. As your advocate we know how to use “Who, What, Why, Where, When, How, and Explain Questions” (5 Ws + H + E) to discover the true reasons for positions taken by the school professionals, administrators, and parents.
F. Identify Problems
We can define and describe problems from all angles, by using our knowledge of interests, fears, and positions to develop strategies. We are problem solvers not “the hired gun.” We will not waste valuable time and energy looking for people to blame.
G. Propose Solutions
As a parent of a special needs child we know that you must negotiate with schools for special education services. As your co-advocate we will negotiate, discuss issues and make offers or proposals. We are all seeking “win-win” solutions that will satisfy the interests of you the parent, the child, and school professional.
Plan for the Future
What are the long-term goals you have for your child? What do you envision for your child in the future?
Most parents are focused on the present and haven’t given much thought towards the future. Do you expect your child to be an independent, self-sufficient member of the community? Although some children with disabilities will require assistance as adults, most will grow up to be adults who hold jobs, get married, and live independently.
In order to achieve the goals of what you want for your child in the future you need to have a vision. Through this vision your child is more likely to achieve these goals.
If you believe others will make long-term plans for your child and provide your child with the necessary skills to be an independent, self sufficient member of society, you are likely to be disappointed.
Answer These Questions:
What do I want for my child? What are the goals for my child’s future? Do we have a master plan for our child’s education?
If your goal is for your child to grow up to be an independent adult, what will he/she need to learn before your child leaves the public school system?
And finally… what do you see for your future as the parent of a special needs individual?
Develop a Master Plan ;
If you are a typical parent, you don’t have a master plan. You have no idea where you are, where you need to go, or how to get there, and when you get there what to do? It is your responsibility to make long-term plans for your child, do NOT expect school personnel to do this for you.
Begin by thinking about your vision for your child’s future. What are your long-term goals for your child? What will your child need to learn? What services and supports will your child need to meet these goals?
Are you ready to be a co-advocate? Run out and pick up this list of supplies that will help you get started:
You will need:
- Two 3-ring notebooks (one for your child’s file; one for information about your child’s disability and educational information.
- 3-hole punch
- Package of sticky notes
- #10 Envelopes
- Contact log
- Small tape recorder
- Special Needs NJ phone number
- A co-advocate