Going to a meeting at school can be intimidating for many families. Now imagine how it feels for the parents of a child with special needs. They go into a room filled with teachers, administrators, and therapists of all kinds. Many may be new to this process after a new diagnosis. They can easily feel overwhelmed and unprepared. They may not understand what is being said to them. This can add to their stress and make them feel like outsiders in the IEP or other meetings taking place.
Inform Families of Advocate Availability
When families are told that they need to have a meeting at school, inform them of their rights to have an advocate with them. Have packets of information which will explain what the purpose of a parent advocate is and how they may be able to assist them in this process. Make sure that they do not feel alone in this process. An advocate gives them the ability to have someone who has been in this position and can help guide them.
Parents should be able to request an advocate and have a way to communicate with them before any upcoming meetings. Help them to connect ahead of time. The parent advocate will also be encouraged to attend meetings with the family. If the families approve, they can chime in with questions or information which may asset with IEP updates or more. In addition to this, the advocate is another set of ears in the room. They will be able to discuss the process after the meeting if the family is unsure of something.
Parent Advocate Training
Districts should reach out to advocate training agencies which may exist in your state. Many are willing to have events for district families to learn about their rights, educate them on advocacy, and support them. In New York, the Parent to Parent Network has been around since 1994. They are a not-for-profit that pairs special needs families up with others who have experiences like them. Their mission states, “Parent to Parent of New York State builds a supportive network of families to reduce isolation and empower those who care for people with developmental disabilities or special healthcare needs to navigate and influence service systems and make informed decisions.”
In addition to this, schools need to see if families who are more comfortable with being advocates for their children would help others. Some may be willing to volunteer on a case by case basis to talk, mentor, and go to meetings with them. There should be information presented to these individuals on where they can go for training if they would like something more formal.
Discuss what protocol needs to be in place for special education teachers and therapists to suggest a parent advocate to families. Does your school promote parent advocates to special needs families? If you do please explain your experience and whether or not many take advantage of this option.