As a former special education teacher, I remember the first time a parent notified me that they would be bringing an advocate to an IEPT meeting. My blood pressure spiked immediately. It set me on edge, made me feel all my Ts better be crossed, and had me gearing up for a fight rather than a collaboration. Then, the meeting came, and I realized that the advocate sitting across from me had never met the student, knew very little about her or the IEP process. It was a relief to me of course. I was now once again the expert in the room, and I could relax.
Your child’s best advocate
I also knew it was a disservice to the family. This may be fine if there aren’t any big issues, or district administration isn’t in attendance. School staff become tongue-tied when district administration are in attendance, and an advocate that understands the language of education, how the system works on the inside, the IEP process, as well as your rights and the laws is necessary. Your student’s special education teacher is no doubt your child’s best advocate in the school building, but once their superiors step in, they are put in the position of being an employee first. They have to choose between their job and your child.
The voice of reason
In these cases, the role of the advocate is to be the voice of reason, to be able to see all sides, most importantly the student’s, remind all at the table of their shared goals, and help the team move forward. This is what advocacy is to me. It serves no one to have to go to mediation to solve issues – this can tie up the process for months, cost thousands in lawyer fees, and the student “stays put” all the while. And believe me, as tough as districts can be to negotiate with, they really do want to do what is best for your child. Having a strong advocate at the table who has the knowledge and skills to help facilitate conversation productively should not set anyone’s blood pressure rising, as it once did mine, but rather should be a relief for all parties.
Advocates collaborate with families and schools
Advocates are problem solvers, they are supporters, and put the interests of the student first. They aren’t out to get the school staff, they are there to help a parent who is lost in the legalese, to translate “eduspeak,” to guide the family and school team through the process of drafting an IEP that is rooted in strengths and areas for growth for the student. They are there for the same reason everyone else is, to collaborate on a plan that is both attainable for the student and practicable by the district.
Alexis Boyden worked in special education for nearly 15 years. She entered the profession to be an advocate for students, and continues that work today as a educational consultant.