A special education advocate is someone who works to assist parents of students with disabilities in obtaining appropriate and sufficient services, instruction and accommodations from their public school district. Special education advocacy involves working very closely with not only parents of students with disabilities, but also with school officials, teachers, and other professionals. At times, emotions can run high and those who are the “decision-makers” can make things more difficult for everyone involved. There are many things I have learned over my time spent in this career, but here are my top five tips:
1. Stay Calm Under Pressure
It is crucial that anyone involved in special education advocacy learn the skill of remaining calm under pressure. I’ve been yelled at, talked down to, accused of things, hung up on, and even told I was not allowed in a school meeting. A special education advocate acts for the parent, and you better believe that if you engage in bad behavior in response to another person’s behavior, that will be held against your client at some point. Also, remaining calm even in the face of adversarial tactics can be very disarming to others – and therefore can be strategically a good move.
2. It’s OK to Be Passionate
While staying calm rather than reacting in anger is usually a good thing, I still think that it is important for advocates to remember that it is OK to be passionate for your client. None of us do this because it is “just a job.” We do it because we are passionate about kids, because we are dedicated to preserving the civil rights of students with disabilities, and because we really want to make a difference. It’s OK to show your passion and to be a zealous advocate for your client – as well as for the cause in a larger sense!
3. Listen to the Parents!
When parents engage the services of an advocate or an attorney, they have likely (and unfortunately) already experienced a long history of being ignored by everyone involved. Parents may already feel like whatever they say about their child’s needs just doesn’t make a difference, and that no one is really listening to their concerns. Your very first task as an advocate is to listen. It is so important that we make sure that parents know that their concerns do matter, and that we hear what they have to say. Parents know their children better than anyone else, and part of what you have to do is make sure that their input is validated – that starts with you!
4. Collaborate with Others, But Don’t Be a Pushover
Collaboration with others involved in the special education process and in developing a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is very important to ensuring good results. However, collaboration doesn’t mean that you as the advocate must be a pushover and must “go along and get along” with everyone no matter what. Developing good persuasive communication techniques can go a long way to allowing you to be collaborative in your dealings with others, while still zealously standing up for your client’s rights.
5. Find Good Mentors, Colleagues and Friends in the Field
The most crucial thing to “making it” as a special education advocate, in my opinion, is to make sure you find others who are in this field and share information with them. Having a mentor or others you can ask questions, vent frustrations to, and share resources with is very important. There are many ways to do this, whether it is finding local task force groups, making friends with other advocates, or joining one of the organizations that is devoted specifically to special education advocacy. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), for example, is a national organization that has members who are attorneys, advocates, related professionals and parents, and it provides networking opportunities to its members.