Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves are co-authors of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide, and are the parents of a son with learning disabilities who is about to graduate from college. They live in Massachusetts.
As the parent of a child with special needs, one of your most important jobs is to be an advocate for your child in the school setting. You are vital to the success of your child’s education. You cannot be a passive observer; you need to be involved.
Here are some reasons why:
You Are the Only Permanent Member of Your Child’s Team
You are the only permanent member of the Team that decides what services and accommodations go into your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). New people who do not know you or your child will join the Team each fall and leave it the following spring. Occasionally a Team member might stay on for more than one school year, but most do not.
Schools Think Short Term, You Think Long Term
You and the school see your child’s education from different perspectives. In a way, this is natural since school personnel are focused on the current school year. You, on the other hand, are looking ahead to when your child becomes an adult. These different timelines can result in a source of conflict as you may want services that will help your child acquire skills needed in later years, but the school may only want to provide services that will meet more immediate needs.
As an example, students today are not given much instruction in handwriting and instead are taught keyboarding. But functional handwriting has not disappeared from the adult world. Our adult children will still have to fill out job applications or medical forms legibly by hand. Most of us are aware of other basic skills that may not have an immediate application in the classroom but which we know our children will need in later life. We have to be patient but persistent advocates for teaching these skills.
Skills Not Learned in School Have a Lasting Effect
Take the role as your child’s advocate seriously, because eventually your child will leave the public school. If he or she does not receive an appropriate education, who will help your child in a post-high school setting to balance a checkbook or fill out a job application? Many children who do not receive an appropriate education will need to take remedial courses after high school to learn skills they missed when they were younger.
What Parents Can Do
To become a better advocate for your child’s education, we recommend the following:
- Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order to better understand the progression of your child’s education. Trends will become apparent as you study the details and analyze the data over time. You must do this since Team members are transient and they don’t see the “big picture” that you can see. This exercise will show you the areas where your child has made progress or areas where he or she hasn’t.
- Compare your child’s goals from year to year. If some goals never change, that means that either the goals aren’t appropriate or that your child isn’t making effective progress. Also compare the service delivery grid for each goal. Are the frequency and duration of services adequate to achieve the goal? If you notice that services are being decreased and the goal hasn’t been accomplished, you will want to discuss this with your Team.
- Keep a notebook in which you record the important details of conversations you have with school personnel. If there are any action items, make them the subject of a follow-up letter or email to that person. If there are any misunderstandings about what was agreed to, this will help correct them before too much time and too many opportunities have passed. This improves positive communication with the school.
- Keep a parent journal of your observations of your child’s experience. Record details about progress or lack of progress, and be sure to date your entries. Write in this journal on a regular basis and review it periodically. Progress almost always happens gradually, and you will only begin to see it when reviewing entries from past weeks, months, or even years.
- Review your child’s IEP progress reports as you receive them. Compare the reports with the IEP goals and make sure these progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these reports do not accurately describe your own observations, be sure to question these reports in writing to your child’s special education liaison. This will document your concerns.
- Realize that every year of your child’s education matters. Time is essential in special education. If there are too many delays getting services, your child may fall behind. Each new year builds on the skills learned the previous year. It is remarkable how quickly a school year can go by and how the academic demands intensify as students advance in the grades.
Being your child’s special education advocate is an additional job for you on top of all the other things you are already doing. But it can be one of the most rewarding jobs you will ever have. Giving your child an appropriate education is an essential foundation for a productive future.
Learn more strategies for success in the Graves’ book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide. You can also discover more resources and check out their blog at their website.