One of the great gifts in my life has been my two children, both of whom have had challenges that would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
I have been an active leader among special education parent advocacy groups in my community, and I want to share some of my lessons learned in this space.
1. The parent is the most important member of the IEP team.
Until your child is old enough to advocate for themselves, you are the most important person on the special education team. You are the one who must immerse yourself in information about your child’s disability and needs, and about available resources and how to tap into them. You are the one who will be there for your child, no matter what. No matter how dedicated or informed the other members of the team are, they do not know your child as well as you do — and at the end of the day, for them, it’s a job. To you, it’s your child’s whole life.
2. Your relationship with the rest of the team is a professional collaboration.
Some of your collaborators will have more or less understanding of your child’s learning needs. Try not to take it personally, even if it feels heart-wrenchingly disappointing. Mutual respect is important in any collaboration, but do not worry about whether they like you – it is only important that they listen to you.
3. Do not expect your expertise to be adequately valued.
Draw confidence from your knowledge of your child and insist on putting all that you know on the table. At the same time, don’t expect the team to acknowledge your expertise. If you are treated like you are being unreasonable or asking too much, try to maintain your confidence and professionalism. And keep fighting for your child.
4. Stay organized and document everything.
Document requests, questions, responses — and document your child’s growth and progress. You can use this documentation in the IEP meeting to demonstrate what has been tried and point towards the needs to change approach. You will need this documentation if you seek help from outside experts or service providers. And, you can use it to appeal to higher-ups in the district, at the state level, or the office of civil rights. You don’t want to need these appeals, but if you do, you will want to have that documentation in order. Demonstrating you are documenting everything also demonstrates to the school district that you know your rights, and those who work with you should know your rights, too.
5. Know you are not alone.
For every question you have, hundreds of other parents have figured out answers. Their answers won’t necessarily be the same as yours, but they can point you in the right direction. Parents of children with special needs learn the top tricks of lawyers, doctors, psychologists and teachers — and we are always happy to share what we know. Here are a few of my favorite parent-to-parent resources: