5 Tips for Advocating for Your Special Needs Child in Public School

Tips for Advocating for Your Special Needs Child in Public School

Many parents who have children with special needs are not knowledgeable on how to advocate for their children. The world of special education can be complicated and confusing, especially for people who do not live it day in and day out, such as SPED teachers and administrators. There are dozens of rules, laws, policies, jargon, acronyms, and choices; therefore, reading SPED documents, consent forms, and being in meetings can overwhelm outside parties––even parents. 

Parents may try to advocate for their children by wanting certain accommodations or statements included in an IEP, wanting to dig deeper into what type of interventions are being used in the classroom, or maybe by questioning the data collection methods being used. However, they may not know how or who to turn to, to ensure that their child is being effectively represented and getting everything that they need to be successful in the school setting. 

Many family members truly want to advocate for their special needs children in a public school setting but are uncertain about how to prepare for this role. 

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Thankfully, all parents need to do is research, learn, and practice the steps to become their child’s best special education advocate. 

Continue reading to understand more about how you can take charge of your child’s academic, behavioral, and emotional success today––and these are the five areas in which you can increase your advocacy skills. 

  • Be Informed
  • Document Everything 
  • Ask the Right Questions
  • Build Communication
  • Monitor and Respond

1. Be Informed

Be Informed as an advocate for your special needs child

Parents cannot advocate effectively for their children with special needs if they do not have all the information they need. This includes understanding the child’s rights, the district’s rules, the child’s Individualized Education Plan, the Behavior Intervention Plan, how data is being collected in the classroom, etc. 

Like every field, the world of special education has its own jargon, and parents who learn that jargon will be better advocates. Thankfully, there are various sites, such as the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, that offer a helpful glossary of common special education acronyms that are used. By reading up on these and finding the ones that are most related to your child, you will be able to understand more of what is being written or said concerning your child’s educational needs. 

Another way that parents can be informed is to stay up-to-date with special education topics in the news. Laws and policies can change; it is wise to understand your rights as a parent and to know what’s going on nationally and locally in the world of education. 

Parents also have the right to be informed by their child’s SPED teacher, SLP, OT, or whoever else works with him or her. If you have a school-aged child with special needs, you are not required to wait until the end of the week, month, or 9 weeks to get a thorough update on your child’s progress. You have the legal right to ask for more frequent progress reports and to call a meeting about your child whenever you feel it is necessary. Schools have no right to turn you down if you ask to call a parental concern or IEP meeting to the table. 

Staying on top of things and informed is one of the best things a parent can do for their child who has special needs. 

2. Document

Document to be an advocate for your special needs child

Parents who wish to advocate for their special needs children in a public school would be wise to keep written records of anything significant that happens including all communication to and from the school. This also consists of documenting anything that is said but not put in writing. Requests and any communication with school officials should be done in writing (or email) when at all possible to keep a paper trail. 

Recording IEP meetings is an option as well; however, recording any meeting or phone conversation should be done with the knowledge and consent of everyone present. Typically, if parents or any outside representative records during a meeting, a school representative must as well, so don’t be surprised if the meeting is stopped for a moment to obtain a recording device. 

None of these actions are recommended because there should be a level of suspicion toward a school district; it is all merely done to protect the student and the family in case something happens. Oftentimes there is a “he said, she said” mentality, and if everything is properly documented on the parent’s end, there should be less worry that something might be said or done that is not correct. 

There is a great deal of paperwork associated with being a special needs advocate, and parents should keep all records organized and easily accessible. If you don’t have some sort of an organizational system going on for your child’s IEP and reevaluation meetings, go ahead and start one. 

3. Ask Questions

Ask Questions to be an advocate for your special needs child

Being knowledgeable and having documentation will in turn help parents feel more confident about asking questions. It is a good idea to prepare a list of questions ahead of time when going into meetings concerning your child’s academics or behaviors. By doing so, can make meetings more efficient while also freeing up your brain to concentrate on the meeting and not that you are supposed to be thinking about asking. Sometimes, depending on the scenario, it is beneficial to let teachers and other school staff know what your urgent questions and concerns are before an important meeting so that everyone can have the needed information upfront, as well as make plans for how to more effectively address the child’s needs. 

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Asking questions also correlates with asking for or requesting assessments. If you feel as if the current assessment results are not representative of your child’s functioning, request an additional assessment. Learning about the assessment types and what results they give is a must for a parent with a special needs child. 

Do not feel embarrassed or guilty about asking questions. Your child is in their care for the majority of the waking hours and you deserve to know whatever you need to. This is a great and easy way to advocate for your child. 

4. Build Communication

Communication is key. 

Parents can advocate better for their children in public schools if they build strong lines of communication with their child’s teacher, service providers, and other school officials. Parents can think about communication in terms of building relationships over the long term; the more open the line of communication is, the better the parent-school relationship will be. Furthermore, keep in mind that communication can include email and phone calls along with scheduled in-person meetings if there are relatively minor questions or issues that need clarification.

It is also crucial to have open and honest communication with your child. Even if your child is non-verbal, there is still a level of communication there and you can gain an understanding of how their day at school went. If your child is verbal and able to express their concerns and needs, ask them specific questions related to school and how it is going for them. By doing so, you can better advocate for their individual needs. 

5. Monitor and Respond

Some children with special needs have multiple diagnoses. Parents should keep an eye on their child’s psychological condition as well as their educational progress and take action if something seems amiss. At times, children may digress only at home and do fine in school and vice versa. Children with special needs and mental health disorders might even go into a crisis situation and require hospitalization. Parents must regularly monitor their child for emotional, medical, or behavioral changes that might warrant a trip to the doctor or psychiatrist. 

Parents may have an intuition when a child’s behavior changes in some way that indicates a more serious problem. If they do notice changes, they may want to talk to the child’s teacher and other adults who work with the child. Teachers and other school staff appreciate it when they are kept in the loop. Medication changes, an addition of a new diagnosis, if different behaviors are seen in the home––really, anything that can affect your child at home, and note-worthy things should be communicated to the school.

Tips for Advocating for Your Special Needs Child in Public School: Conclusion

These listed are not the only ways you can advocate for your child’s needs, but choosing to improve on these areas is a good start. An active, involved parent can make a significant difference in the education of their child with special needs. You do not have to hire an advocate…you can be the advocate, especially since you know your child the best. 

Advocating for your child is a win-win situation. It helps improve your child’s success while allowing you to be more involved in their world of education. School officials appreciate parents who are knowledgeable and who participate in their child’s education. 

With these important advocacy steps, you can become more knowledgeable and active in the public school system for your child with special needs.

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated November 2021