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Choose Your Advocates Wisely – Getting the Best For Your Child With Special Needs
Imagine. After months of waiting and anticipation, the moment has finally arrived! Your beautiful baby is entering the world and life is the fullest it has ever been! As the nurse gently places your newborn in your arms, she places a book in your hands. “This is your child’s handbook,” she explains, “Be sure to read it as soon as possible. Oh, and pay close attention to the special needs section.”
Crazy scenario, I know. But sometimes I wish I had that manual! Coping with the role of a parent is the best of times, but coping with a child who has special needs is even more demanding and difficult. This is a path that family and friends may not have traveled. Loneliness, disappointment, frustration and a sense of failure can make the journey miserable. The challenges can become overwhelming once your child reaches school age. At that time you enter a whole world of professionals who will be with your precious child 6 hours a day! It is a world that is a culture unto itself with its own language and its own set of rules. You may feel like an outsider. You may feel that you need help. You may need someone to act as an interpreter in this new country.
You start your investigation…look at the internet and the yellow pages…can anyone out there help me do the best for my child at school? Before choosing a person to be your child’s guide and advocate, you need to do your homework; for the sake of your child and your sanity. There are many people who call themselves lawyers. But it’s up to you, the parent, to make an informed decision about whether a person is truly qualified to advocate for a student with special needs and whether that person is a “good fit” with you, your child, and your goals. Take your time to research; the decision you make can literally affect your life and your child’s life in ways you never dreamed possible. The person you choose will affect your relationship with school staff, your spouse, your child, and your family members. A lawyer will have a direct impact on your marriage, your personal relationships and your family. You are inviting someone into your world. Be very careful who you give this precious gift to.
What role can a lawyer play?
o Help parents find support and resources that are available
o Model effective relationship building and problem solving skills
o Listen to all parties in an honest and non-judgmental way;
o Clarify the issues
o Suggest options and possible solutions
o Document meetings or help parents understand documents and assessments
o Find and provide information
o Speak for the parent/child when they cannot speak for themselves
o Assist the family with written correspondence, documentation or phone calls
o attend meetings
o Monitoring of decisions made and actions taken
Here are a few things to think about before you decide who to choose:
Advocates should be qualified to speak with integrity and knowledge about learning excellence. A high level of qualifications brings a level of respect for the table. People are much more likely to listen to someone who has “stepped into their shoes” and has experience in education and special needs. It is probably safe to say that very few people are willing to modify their own expertise and professional methods based on the ideas and opinions of someone with little or no experience and credibility in the field. As an educator, sitting in meetings with someone without special education qualifications and having them point out your shortcomings is a waste of time and money. Any parent who has experienced someone without children lecturing them on the best methods of raising children knows how frustrating it can be. Teachers are more likely to be open to the opinions and suggestions of someone who is at least qualified to make such statements. It makes sense that if you want to foster the best education for your child, you would expect an attorney who has the special training and experience to enhance your role as a parent. Maintaining professional development by attending conferences, updating current policy documents and procedures are important qualifications to have. Special education is an ever-evolving science, and the advocate must stay current. Good knowledge of local resources, service providers, and community programs makes problem solving easier. It is equally important that the attorney you choose has the interpersonal skills needed to work with others to create solutions. As a parent, expect the person you hire to be qualified to help you work with the school.
Advocates should know your child.
The people chosen to represent your child need to read assessments, reports, communicate and spend time with the child to really know who they are working for. Then the role of advocacy is authentic, and not a matter of fighting for a cause or to boost the ego. When a lawyer knows the parent and child well, he or she can help find common ground between school and home. The advocate should be able to explain how your child’s disability may affect their learning and then work with you to help prioritize your child’s needs. A wise lawyer is someone who will seek solutions, not blame. Advocates should see the child in the context of their classroom. A children’s program on paper can never tell the whole story. There is no way a teacher can put into words all the supports, plans, visuals, tools, and strategies used to help a child succeed. A child’s world says much more than any documentation could ever describe. It is important to note that entering the classroom opens a “sacred trust”. Just as you wouldn’t let someone you don’t trust into your home, teachers need to be careful who they open their classrooms to. If someone comes into the room to “observe” and then report to the parent all the things they think are being done wrong and “build a case” against the school, then the relationship is destroyed. Would you want someone to come into your home to “observe and criticize” you as you go about your daily parenting duties?
Representatives should be objective and solution-oriented
When interviewing a lawyer, listen carefully for language that promotes solutions, not revenge. The representative’s personal experience with the school district, board or previous personal history has no place in the discussion. This is about YOUR child. An advocate can use basic knowledge of people and resources to make a workable plan for your child. In order to ensure a positive proactive response from the people involved with your child, it is best for the lawyer to be respectful, kind, considerate and open-minded. Of course, this applies to every team member.
Can an attorney help your child access the best possible education without undue stress on the resources and staff involved? Sometimes, in hopes of helping a parent, promises are made that are too burdensome on a personal or financial level…the school must educate all students, not just yours. Parents may disagree and say they care about their child. While this is entirely true, schools cannot operate on this assumption. Educational institutions have an obligation to take care of the collective, while at the same time ensuring that each individual gets what is needed. It is not fair to assume that school staff should take from one child to provide for another. Imagine someone suggesting that a parent take away funds from one of their children in order to give them to another. There are solutions that can work for everyone. We have to look for them as a team.
Lawmakers should be facilitators, not dictators.
Listen carefully and observe the lawyer. Are they talking about going to battle? Using words like “they” and “us?” Watch out for the ego that your child uses to feed himself! Egos look out for egos, not children. Red flags should wave wildly when an advocate sees only the negatives in a child’s education or when promises are made of specific outcomes for your child. An advocate who speaks with an “I’ll show them” attitude will not effectively negotiate a plan that makes everyone want to do their part. Problems are not solved that way. The kids don’t win in these scenarios.
People should be recognized for the effort they put in; we need to feel supported and respected. We are more open to solutions when we are not feeling defensive. No person, educator or parent, should leave the discussion feeling ignored, dismissed or discounted if they are truly promoting the child’s needs rather than their own. When the disagreement descends to the level of behaving like children who demand that everyone play by their own rules, the child with special needs is no longer at the center of the discussion. An advocate is worth their weight in gold when they can look at a situation objectively without emotional charge and create solutions that work for the child.
Each member of the team has a perspective on how to best help the child: the principal, member of the local agency, speech therapist, teacher and parent have ideas that come from their training and experience. A skilled advocate is able to listen to each member’s ideas and see solutions that draw on the strengths of each person at the table.
Ultimatums, threats and accusations drive a wedge between parent and teacher that is extremely harmful to the child because the message the parent gives is that they trust that person more than the teacher.
End of the road
As a parent, it can be very frustrating when you feel the system is failing your child. At times, anger and resentment can be too much to bear. It is easy to fall into the trap of vengeance and revenge. Going to the press or calling a lawyer should never be done without serious consideration of the consequences. These actions should never be born out of an emotional reaction. The cost will be high. Before you take any action, the question that should be at the center of your mind is, “How will this benefit the child? How could it hurt the child?” It’s all too easy to get caught up in a sense of revenge. When we feel helpless, it is almost intoxicating to gain a sense of power. We must be honest with ourselves about what drives our course of action. Before taking such steps, consider that your child may have many years of school ahead of him. Your child’s siblings may have many years in the education system. The damage caused by legal action and/or public humiliation cannot help but affect your relationships with the very people you will rely on to provide the best for your children. I’m talking about the deep-seated hurt, mistrust and fear that sinks into the soul of anyone affected by litigation and bad press. Public humiliation and bad press may make the school system cave to your demands, but it does nothing to bring out the best in any human being or relationship.
This does not mean that legal action is sometimes not necessary. But it is a LAST resort. Attorneys may or may not be affiliated with an attorney, but they are not attorneys and should not be giving legal advice.
Hiring a lawyer does not take away the role of parents in decision-making. Advocates understand documents, technical language and educational jargon. They can explain special program options or requirements, attend meetings and ask clarifying questions, but you as the child’s parents make the decision. Your child needs YOU to be in charge; Your role is long-term!
Educators should listen, really listen to what parents are asking for. We may have to cut through layers of hurt, anger, resentment, and fear to see authentic concern for their child. I believe that most of the time we can meet the demands of parents on some level. Look for common ground.
The relationship between parents and school can be difficult because the child’s life is at stake, and emotions are at their peak. But with hard work, respectful dialogue, and child-centered problem solving, it is possible to work as a team to get the most out of your child’s education. It is up to the adults to do it for the sake of the children.
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