Thursday, March 8, 2012

An observation about advocacy

Through the work I’ve been doing at my nonprofit, I have been very involved in educational advocacy. I can honestly say that I feel like I’ve been swimming in the advocacy pool and my fingers are getting pruney from it!
Any parent who has ever attended an IEP meeting knows that things can sometimes get very intense, especially when you do not agree with the school district’s recommendations for your child. Often those situations can be difficult to navigate and are full of emotion as you try to do the best you can.

I can tell you that my personal experience with getting my boys the education they need and deserve has been more positive than most people I know. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to say that. It hasn’t been perfect, but it could be a lot worse!  

As an advocate, I have sat through a variety of meetings in several school districts. One thing keeps coming to mind:
In an IEP meeting, why are informed and knowledgeable parents treated in an adversarial manner?

Now, this doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, I’ve been witness to some wonderful moments where things work well because the district recognizes the value of parental input.
Unfortunately, this is usually not the norm. To me, it would seem logical to expect that parents who are active participants in their child’s educational process would be treated as collaborative partners in the shaping of the IEP. Parents are often a very rich source of information about their child and much can be accomplished with a positive approach.

As a parent, you are an expert. It may not feel like it, but you are! If you have gone through the process of diagnosis, read every book you can get your hands on about the diagnosis, and have participated in various forms of private therapy in order to help your child, you are an EXPERT. If you feel like you don’t know anything because your kid is melting down again and you don’t know how to handle it today because your usual tricks aren’t working, you are still an EXPERT on your child.
Parents can be overwhelmed by the IEP process because it’s full of legal mumbo jumbo, there is vocabulary that is difficult to understand, and there are a lot of people in the room who have letters behind their name. It’s intimidating, for sure. God forbid you hear horror stories from your friends who have had awful IEP experiences! It’s a safe bet that you will feel some level of fear or dread as you participate in that setting.

When parents are able to claim a sense of expertise and power, they can ask insightful questions and help to effectively strategize with the rest of the team, which leads to positive changes for their child’s IEP. This is, of course, when things go well. Many times they do not go well. And then, that smart, powerful parent turns into an adversary in the eyes of the district.
I hate to see this happen! In my experience, and that of some of my colleagues, this can happen more often than not. The opportunity for improving a child’s IEP (and their school experience) is wasted. And it’s sad.

I don’t really have a well-developed idea to go along with this observation. This has been mulling around in my brain for a very long time now and I figured it was time to at least start the conversation. I haven’t prepared some glorious argument about what this means to me, or a list of tips and tricks to combat this kind of situation. I just wanted to share the idea of it. It’s food for thought. It’s not a complete thought. It’s a work in progress.
Educational advocacy and IEP’s are such hot button issues, that I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you agree that sometimes the parent can be seen as the adversary? How do you respond to that? What things have helped you get what you needed for your child’s education? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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