How Parents Can Advocate for Their Child with Special Needs at School

By Andrew Hawk

How Parents Can Advocate for Their Child with Special Needs at SchoolThe relationship between the parents of a student with special needs and the personnel of the school the student attends can be tricky to say the least. I have seen disagreements erupt from parents thinking students get too much time in the special education environment and from parents thinking that students don’t get enough time. Some parents ask for accommodations that the school is unwilling to provide. In several cases, parents advocate for their student to have a one-on-one teaching assistant or extended school year services. Schools will sometimes shy away from these things because they can be expensive.

If you are unhappy with the way something is going at your student’s school, you have more power than you think. Here are some ways you can advocate for your student.

Be Informed
Don’t just read your procedural safeguards; go online and review the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Knowledge is power. This is especially true when it comes to special education. You may want to go to your state’s Department of Education website and review state law, too. IDEA is the guiding light in special education law, but some of the details vary from state to state.

Keep Paperwork
There will be a lot of paperwork. Individualized education plans (IEPs), meeting notices, and progress reports are some of the items you can expect to receive from your student’s school. I recommend keeping these in a three-ring binder and taking the binder with you to all IEP meetings. This will help you track and understand the changes the school may suggest to your student’s IEP.

Monitor Progress Reports
Students should be making progress toward their IEP goals. If students are not making progress, it is important to find out why. Was the goal too ambitious? Is a change in instruction needed? If there is one mistake I see parents making, it is that they do not pay enough attention to progress reports. I understand that a lot of pieces of paper come home from school, but progress reports are just as important as report cards. If your student is not making any progress, you may want to explore extended school year services.

Consider Extended School Year (ESY)
Extended school year is a program for special education students who show a lot of regression in learned skills during long breaks (such as over the summer), are not making adequate progress toward their IEP goals, or are at a pivotal point in instruction. ESY can be a costly endeavor that the school administration did not consider when budgeting, so they may be resistant to it. But legally, schools have to offer ESY if data supports students receiving it. Have you ever heard the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? If your student is not progressing, you should be the squeaky wheel.

Call an IEP Meeting
The law requires that schools have one IEP meeting per special needs student per year. However, the teacher or parent can call an IEP meeting at any time. There is no limit to how many can take place in a year. If something isn’t right with your student’s learning or educational plan, call a meeting to discuss it. You can do this by contacting the special education teacher who is acting as your student’s case manager.

When disagreements arise . . .

Be Aware of the School’s Point of View
While you’re advocating only for your child, it’s the school’s job to meet the needs of all students. In addition, there is a lot of pressure on schools to keep students in the general education environment as much as possible. This pressure comes from the federal Department of Education and trickles down to individual states’ Departments of Education. However, if your student’s needs are not being met, you are within your rights to ask for more services.

Start with a Phone Call
When something happens that concerns you, whether it be a bad grade, an unfair consequence, or something else, I recommend starting with a phone call. If a phone call does not work, you can elevate to a conference and then, if needed, to an IEP meeting. School personnel will rate the seriousness of your concern based on which of these you implement. I recommend starting small and working up.

Do Research of Your Own
In many cases, schools will point to research findings that validate their chosen course of action. If this occurs, do some research of your own. See if there are studies that support your side of the disagreement. If you find reliable research that supports your case, share it with the school.

Be Professional
Teachers understand that parents are passionate about their child’s success. However, you should always try to maintain a professional demeanor when talking to school personnel, even if you disagree. In many cases, your student may have the same teachers for several years. A heated meeting can lead to many awkward meetings in the future.

Consider a Parent Advocate
If you are having trouble resolving an issue with your student’s school, contacting an advocate is a logical step that many parents follow. Some counties employ advocates as a resource for parents. In many cases, people who act as advocates have a special interest in special education. Sometimes advocates are retired teachers or parents of grown special education students. An advocate is there to help parents negotiate solutions to disagreement with their child’s school. These people act as your representative, so choose someone professional. If you are unsure how to find an advocate, a quick web search should be all it takes.

Consider a Facilitated IEP Meeting
Parents are often unaware that they have the right to request a facilitated IEP meeting. In these meetings, your state Department of Education will send a state facilitator to assist with the case conference. The state facilitator will be a neutral party. He or she should be able to shed some light on how the state views your case from a legal point of view.

If All Else Fails
When everything else has failed, you can request an arbitration hearing. An arbitrator will listen to both sides of the issue and will make a ruling for the parents or the school. In most cases, schools will try to avoid arbitration at all costs. Win or lose, these hearings create bad press for school systems. If you need information about how to go about setting up an arbitration hearing, information should be available on your state’s Department of Education website.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.

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