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Choose Your Advocates Wisely – Getting the Best For Your Child With Special Needs
Imagine. After months of waiting and waiting, the moment has finally arrived! Your beautiful baby enters the world and life is fuller than ever! As the nurse casually cradles your newborn, she slips a book into your hand. “This is a guide for your child,” she explains, “Make sure you read it as soon as possible. Oh, and pay attention to the special needs section.”
Crazy scenario, I know. But sometimes I wish I had this guide! Navigating the role of parent is difficult at the best of times, but finding your way with a child with special needs is even more demanding and difficult. It is a path not traveled by family and friends. Loneliness, frustration, disappointment and feelings of failure can make the journey miserable. Once your child reaches school age, the challenges can be overwhelming. That’s when you enter a whole world of professionals who will hold your precious child for 6 hours a day! It is a world that is a culture unto itself, with its own language and its own rules. You may feel like an outsider. You may feel that you need help. You may need someone to act as a translator in this new land.
You start your investigation… Look on the Internet and the Yellow Pages…..can anyone out there help me do what’s best for my child at school? Before choosing a guide and advocate for your child, you should do some homework; for your child and for your own sanity. There are many people who call themselves lawyers. But it is up to you, the parent, to make an informed decision as to whether or not this person is truly qualified to advocate for a student with special needs, and whether or not this person is a “good fit” for you, your child, and your goals. Take the time to research; the decision you make can literally affect you and your child’s life in ways you never imagined. The person you choose will affect your relationships with school staff, your spouse, children, and family members. A lawyer will directly affect your marriage, personal relationships and 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 available
o Model effective communication and problem-solving skills
o Listen sincerely and non-judgmentally to all parties;
o Clarify 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 if they cannot speak for themselves
o Help the family with written correspondence, documents or phone calls
o Attend meetings
o Follow up on decisions made and actions taken
Here are a few things to think about before deciding who to choose:
Advocates must be qualified to speak with integrity and have knowledge of exceptional circumstances in learning. A high level of expertise brings a level of respect to the table. People are more likely to listen to someone who has “walked in their shoes” and has experience in education and special needs. It’s probably safe to say that very few people are willing to change their practices and professional methods based on the ideas and opinions of someone with little or no experience and credentials in the field. As an educator, it’s a waste of time and money to sit in meetings with someone with no special education and ask them to point out your shortcomings. Any parent who has ever been lectured on the best ways to raise a child by someone who doesn’t have children knows how frustrating it can be. Teachers are at least more open to the ideas and suggestions of someone who has the ability to make such statements. It makes sense that if you want to promote the best education for your child, you would expect an attorney with special education credentials and experience to enhance your role as a parent. Continuing professional development by attending conferences and staying abreast of current policy documents and procedures are essential qualities. Special education is an ever-evolving science, and an attorney must be up-to-date. A solid knowledge of local resources, service providers, and community programs facilitates problem solving. It is equally important that the attorney you select has the interpersonal skills needed to collaborate with others to create solutions. As a parent, expect the person you hire to be qualified to help you work with the school.
Advocates need to know your child.
The people chosen to represent your child should read assessments, report cards, interact and spend time with the child to know who they are really working for. Then the role of advocacy is real and not a matter of fighting for a cause or an ego. If the advocate knows the parent and the child well, he or she can help open common ground between the school and the home. An advocate should explain how your child’s disability may affect their learning and then work with you to help prioritize your child’s needs. A smart lawyer is one who does not place blame and seeks solutions. Advocates need to see the child in their classroom context. 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 make a child successful. A child’s world says more than any document can describe. It should be noted that to enter the classroom is to open a “sacred deposit”. Just as you wouldn’t let someone you don’t trust into your home, teachers should be careful who they open their classrooms to. If someone goes into the room to “observe” and then reports back to the parent anything they think was done wrong and to “make a case” against the school, the relationship is ruined. Would you want someone visiting your home to “observe and criticize” you as you go about the day-to-day functions of parenting?
Lawyers must be objective and decisive
When interviewing an attorney, listen carefully for language that encourages solutions rather than retaliation. An attorney’s personal experience with the school district, board, or prior personal history has no place in the discussion. This is about YOUR Child. An advocate can use information about people and resources to facilitate a plan that works for your child. In order to get a positive proactive response from those involved with your child, the advocate must be respectful, polite, considerate and open-minded. Of course, this applies to every member of the team.
Can an attorney help your child get the best education possible without putting undue stress on the resources and staff involved? Sometimes promises are made that are overburdening on a personal or financial level in hopes of helping a parent…the school needs to educate all students, not just yours. Parents may disagree and say that it is the child they care about. While this is very true, schools cannot function on this basis. Educational institutions have a responsibility to take care of the collective and at the same time ensure that each individual receives what is needed. It is wrong to think that school staff should take from one child to provide for another. Imagine someone suggesting that a parent take the resources of one of their children to give to the other. There are solutions that can work for everyone. We have to look for them as a team.
Lawyers should be facilitators, not dictators.
Listen carefully and observe the lawyer. Do they talk like they’re going to war? “They” and “us?” using words like? Watch out for an ego your child is using to feed himself! Egos focus on egos, not children. Red flags should fly wildly when an advocate sees only negative aspects of a child’s education or promises specific results for your child. An attorney who speaks with an “I’ll show them” attitude is not going to effectively negotiate a plan that makes everyone want to do their part. Problems are not solved like this. The kids don’t win in these scenarios.
People should be recognized for the effort they invest; we need to feel supported and respected. When we are not defensive, we are more open to solutions. No person, educator or parent, should feel ignored, rejected or compromised if they are truly promoting the needs of the child rather than their own. When the disagreement boils down to acting like children who demand that everyone play by their own rules, the special needs child is no longer the focus of the discussion. An advocate is worth its weight in gold when it can look at the situation objectively without emotional baggage and create child-friendly solutions.
Each member of the team has a perspective on how to best help the child: the principal, community agency member, speech pathologist, teacher, and parent have insights that come from training and experience. A skilled attorney is able to listen to the ideas of each member and see solutions that build on the strengths of each person at the table.
Ultimatums, threats and accusations between parents and teachers are extremely damaging to the child because the message the parent sends is that they trust this person more than the teacher.
The End of the Road
As a parent, it can be very frustrating when you feel that a system is failing your child. Sometimes anger and resentment can be unbearable. It is easy to fall into the trap of revenge and revenge. Going to the press or calling a lawyer should never be done without serious consideration of the consequences. These actions should never arise from an emotional reaction. The cost will be high. Before taking any action, the question that should be front and center is, “How will this benefit the child? How could it harm the child?” It is very easy to get caught up in revenge. It’s almost intoxicating to feel empowered when we feel helpless. We need to be honest with ourselves about what drives us to act. Before taking such steps, consider that your child has many years in school. Your child’s siblings may work in the education system for many years. The damage caused by legal action and/or public humiliation can’t help but affect your relationships with the people you would trust to give your children the best. I’m talking about the deep pain, disbelief, and fear that permeates the psyche of anyone affected by lawsuits and bad press. Public humiliation and bad press may make the school system comply with your demands, but it does nothing to bring out the best in any person or relationship.
That doesn’t mean legal action isn’t sometimes necessary. But this is a LAST resort. Advocates may or may not be affiliated with an attorney, but they are not attorneys and should not provide legal advice.
Hiring an attorney does not take away a parent’s role in decision making. Lawyers make sense of documents, technical language and academic jargon. They can explain options or requirements of special programs, attend meetings, and ask clarifying questions, but you, as the child’s parent, make the decision. YOU need to be responsible for your child; your role is long-term!
Educators need to listen, really listen to what parents are asking. We may have to peel away the layers of hurt, anger, resentment, and fear to see the true concern for their child. I believe that in most cases we can meet the wishes of the parent at a certain level. Look for common ground.
The relationship between parent and school can be difficult because the child’s life is at stake and emotions run high. 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 a child’s education. It’s up to the adults to make it work for the kids.
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