Partnering with your educational advocate: A team approach

When a parent hires an advocate, they are creating a “home team”.   That team brings together professionals who both work directly with your child outside of school (perhaps therapists or evaluators) and those who work with you to ensure she gets the programming she needs.  Parents hire educational advocates when they are frustrated and overwhelmed by the conflicting mix of outside professionals reporting one thing, the school reporting another, and the child you see every day struggling and not making gains.  Parents don’t hire advocates without careful thought and consideration. 

Before you choose to work with me,  I want you to talk to ask questions and talk to other parents who have worked with me.  It’s my hope that you inquire about my style, my strengths, and what I view as my weaknesses before you retain me.  I’m an employee, albeit one who is passionate about what I do.  I’m not here to paint a living room or fix a leaky roof.  My work product is your child’s success.   I am responsible for ensuring your goals are met.  There is no one perfect formula.  Parents are emotional, most advocates care deeply about the student they are working on behalf of.   Advocates sit with folks during what many consider the most stressful meetings of their lives as parents.  It IS tough stuff.

One of the most important things parents can do is to deliver a consistent message to the school team when there is a meaningful disagreement over IEP services.  (Please note this is not written in regards to routine, annual review IEP meetings or ones where there has been a successful collaboration between the school and family and the advocate has been retained for additional support). 

Keeping on message includes working as a team with your advocate and outside professionals, with a clear and consistent strategy.  This could include sharing your vision and then together creating a plan for how to tackle the issues one-by-one.  It also includes planning around how information will be presented and discussed at an IEP meeting.  People always ask, “Is it ok for me to talk?”  It’s not my job to tell any parent not to talk, I just always caution people to be careful with what they say.

A personal anecdote appropriate to insert here:  When I was doing a lot of talking/venting as a mom and trying the advocacy gig solo, I wasn’t successful.  How do I know that?  Nothing I said made a difference and the meetings felt like me vs. the world.  I then hired an advocate and she got the process back on track.

An unfortunate occurrence is when parents’ words or body language are at odds with what they have hired the ed advocate to do.   Caring moms and dads so want to believe what the team says.  Parents are tired and frustrated.  Only mom and dad disagreeing or fighting during the meeting is more toxic to your child’s case.  Always stay on message.

I work for you, I will always do (within ethical boundaries) what you ask of me.  However, remember that schools often feel advocates are the problem and react to parents and advocates in ways which I swear someone must lecture them on.  Sometimes, the most savvy administrators will only address the parents, putting them on the spot, or reflect to the team that any request, however reasonable, is the advocate’s idea.  They create conflict when the advocate is simply reflecting what the parents have asked them to do.  The most successful school teams do not subscribe to the theory that advocates are actively creating problems. 

So, what can parents do? Speak from your heart, be honest, but stay on message.  A team meeting is a negotiation.  Like any negotiation, have a strategy and stick to it.

If you have a change of heart during a meeting, ask to take a break.  It’s ok to change your mind.  It’s incredibly painful to see parents sit either frozen and/ or else shaking their head yes, when it’s a reflex. not a meaningful response.  We all want to get along, but hugging team members one minute, only to walk into the parking lot reflecting to me how unhappy they are with the IEP or a part of the process is confusing.  Everyone needs time to process a meeting.  Take that time before responding to ideas from the school. Don’t feel pressured.

Parents hope, no matter how many conversations they have before the meeting about strategy, or how many written plans you’ve created documenting those plans, that schools will change their minds.  That the district will want what is “best” for their child and be working in his best interest.  Often that is the case (not the “best” part, but the working in the best interests part), but most often, when schools see one child and the parents see another, that is not the case.  Even the best of school administrators have the unenviable job of forcing you to prove “why” what the school team has proposed is not working.  

Imagine walking into a meeting, with an advocate, where a comprehensive independent evaluation (IEE) is being considered and hearing the chairperson state at the onset that the team had reviewed the evaluation and was offering more services.  These changes have already been incorporated into a draft IEP.  I’m all for collaboration and am well aware of the practice of “pre-teaming”, but in a case like this the team takes the parents, supposed equal members of the IEP team, out of the equation.  Their input during the meeting is not considered, the drafts collected at the conclusion.  In essence, the school team successfully shuts out the parents from the IEP development process. 

In a situation like this, the advocate can state their disagreement and point out the strengths of the independent evaluation and perhaps the challenges with the school’s position, the inconsistencies that exist.  However, if the parents don’t present their concerns in the same manner,  the meeting from the school’s perspective becomes a ripe opportunity for pitting the advocate against the parents.  If the advocate steps in, she is viewed as hostile.   This becomes a huge victory for the school because not only have they shut out the recommendations and data in the evaluation, they have presented such a forceful approach that they have neutralized the parents’ attempts to collaborate.

The worst thing to say to a hostile team chairperson in response to a question: “I have to ask my advocate what to do”.

Imagine being the advocate and seeing school district staff whisper about your clients or make fun of the child during a meeting.  Imagine hearing a speech and language pathologist complain that your client is “crazy” to a fellow professional.  Imagine sitting across from a classroom teacher who smiles and giggles the entire team meeting, unable to contain her disgust with the parent and advocate.

I have seen all the above.  It is debilitating to the IEP process and interferes with the advocacy process.   It’s my job to rise above what may be complex and unprofessional dynamics and advocate for the student and help their parents find and use their voices.  When schools are bullies, and the parents either ask me not to intervene or they inadvertently give in because they have a difficult time with conflict, it is hard to effectively do my job.

It’s important to employ a clear strategy.  This will allow the momentum to advocate for meaningful change to continue.  It’s important to stay on message with the Parent Concerns you have prepared.

It’s ok to be angry or hurt about your child not getting their needs me.  Yelling, name-calling, and lying are not tactics to employ.  Parents shoot themselves in the foot by being too aggressive and yelling.  Likewise, being passive also gets you nowhere.

It’s critical to present that united front and always remember you don’t have to agree to anything in the team meeting. You don’t have to sign anything on the spot.  Listen and collaborate, but don’t agree to something you have concerns about.  You can say “I need to think that over” or “It’s difficult to make that decision so quickly in a meeting”.  As the advocate, I’m happy to take the nasty criticisms from the school district, but you really harm your case when both the school and your advocate don’t really understand what you want.  Open, honest, collaborative, and mindful discussions are what make for productive team meetings and best outcomes.

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