5 Ways to Maximize Parent Advocacy
Updated: a day ago
As a parent, you are your child's best advocate; however, the frustration and confusion that often accompany the process of navigating their special education services can be overwhelming. In this short blog, I am going to share six strategies to inform, empower, and ease your critical role as a member of the IEP team. I am also going to share an infographic with you to summarize these strategies and include links to provide additional resources.
Sitting across the conference table from … or nowadays… staring at a screen of the people responsible for your child’s educational well-being can be uncomfortable. I use the word uncomfortable, however over the last twenty years I have also heard this encounter described as awkward, intimidating, frustrating, confusing, and even terrifying.
One parent shared with me, "I didn't understand most of what they were talking about and felt completely unprepared. The meeting was overwhelming and I was embarrassed and angry when I left."
Unfortunately, this parent's reaction mirrors many of the parents I have had the opportunity to work alongside over the years. On the flip-side, I have also heard from parents whose success and peace of mind were a result of feeling more organized and informed.
Involve: Each school within a district has a parent-driven group frequently referred to as the Special Education Parent Advisory Group (SEPAG). Although some districts may dress up the title of their group, SEPAGs typically meet on a monthly basis and use a social media platform to share information. These groups can offer useful information and camaraderie for parents of students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Your case manager or another member of the Child Study Team will be able to connect you to your school's group. In the meantime, additional information about SEPAGs and why our team encourages your participation are highlighted in the article: Four Things We Love About New Jersey SEPAGs.
Organize: The onslaught of paperwork parents receive concerning their child's evaluations, progress reports, meeting notices, IEPs, and the like, can be overwhelming in itself. For this reason, it is highly advisable for you to create an IEP binder and customize it to your organizational needs. To help you get started, check out our collection of free printable worksheets and organizers here: Printable Toolbox
Prepare: One of the sections in your IEP binder should be marked Meetings. Insert a few sheets of lined paper and write down your questions, comments, and concerns. Review your IEP binder and relevant emails, progress reports, and shared data ahead of your meeting so the information is fresh in your mind's eye, as well as easy for you to access and reference during the meeting. If you have not received updated information prior to your meeting and are not sure where to look, contact your case manager and/or check the online parent portal (if available ). I also recommend familiarizing yourself with the Parents Rights in Public Education (PRISE) publication for parents in New Jersey. Your school district will provide you with an updated copy; however, the video, What is PRISE and How Can it Help Parents provides a good overview in under six minutes.
Share: Keeping your child's case manager and teachers up to date with their professional care and resources outside of school can be beneficial to developing and/or implementing their special education program in school. If you want your case manager or related services provider(s), such as the occupational therapist, speech therapist, or psychologist, to communicate directly with your child's providers outside of school, a consent to release information must be signed. Also worth noting, many teachers I talk to feel almost as stressed preparing for IEP meetings as the parents, for different reasons. I have found their discomfort is often alleviated, in part, by the parents clearly communicating their questions and concerns before the IEP meeting.
Inquire: Sometimes the pace of a meeting feels rushed or the language used in an evaluation is confusing ... and don't get me started on the alphabet soup of acronyms! There are some resources to break through some of those barriers, such as The ABC's of Special Education (printable guide); however, I strongly encourage you to reach out and speak up. If you are not comfortable communicating with your child's school, an advocate will be able to assist you by offering support and guidance regarding your and your child's rights. To learn more about non-legal advocacy services provided by Advo-Kids, visit our website or call our office to set up a free phone conference with one of our special education consultants.
Attend: A critical part of advocacy hinges on your participation at all meetings regarding your child's evaluation(s) and IEP. Participation via phone or an online video platform became normalized during the 2020-2021 pandemic; however, I always encourage in-person attendance if possible. On the infographic below, you will see a note regarding the school's right to hold a meeting without your attendance. To clarify, this does not mean they can hold an IEP meeting without your knowledge, nor does it mean the date they schedule is carved in stone. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are federally mandated to follow both of the following terms:
(1) Notifying parents of the meeting early enough to ensure that they will have an opportunity to attend; and
(2) Scheduling the meeting at a mutually agreed-on time and place.
Although this blog and infographic focus on parent advocacy strategies as they relate to navigating the process and preparing for meetings, I want to take a moment to talk about the Parent Input section of the IEP document. A year ago, our team published the blog article, Optimize the "Parent Input” Section of your Child's IEP by Jessica Lenhart. This article specifically addresses the Parent Input section of the IEP document and outlines five essential points to ensure your concerns and input are documented and addressed. If you subscribe to our blog, you will be updated whenever there are updates made to that blog (or any blog!), which may include new infographics, printable resources, and webinars.
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This material is for educational purposes only; it does not provide legal advice. Please be advised that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and Advo-Kids or this author. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.