After months of waiting and anticipation the moment has finally arrived! Your beautiful baby enters the world and life is the fullest it has ever been! As the nurse gently places your newborn in your arms she slips a book into your hands. “This is your child’s manual,” she explains, “Be sure to read it as soon as possible. Oh, and pay close attention to the section regarding special needs.”
You begin the investigation…look on the Internet and the Yellow pages…..can someone out there help me do the best for my child in school? Before you choose the person who will be your guide and Legal advocates for children and youth, you must do some homework; for the sake of your child and for your own sanity. There are many people who call themselves advocates. But, it is up to you, the parent to make an informed decision as to whether the person is truly qualified to advocate for a student with special needs and whether this person is a “good fit” with you, your child and your goals.
Take the time to do your research; the decision you make can literally affect your own and your child’s life in ways that you never dreamed possible. The person that you choose will impact your relationship with school personnel, your spouse, your child and the members of your family. Legal advocates for children and youth will have a direct effect on your marriage, your personal relationships and your family. You are inviting someone to enter into your world. Be very careful to whom you give this precious gift.
What role can an advocate play?
Assist parents in finding supports and resources that are available
o Model effective relationship building and problem solving skills
o Listen to all parties in a genuine and nonjudgmental manner;
o Clarify issues
o Suggest options and possible solutions
o Document meetings or help parents to understand documents and assessments
o Locate and provide information
o Speak on the parent/child’s behalf when they cannot speak for themselves
o Help the family with written correspondence, documentation or phone calls
o Attend meetings
o Follow up on decisions made and actions taken
The following are a few points to ponder before deciding who you will choose:
Advocates should have the qualifications to be able to speak with integrity and knowledge about exceptionalities in learning. A high level of qualification brings a level of respect to the table. Humans are far more likely to listen to someone who has “walked in their shoes” and has experience in education and special needs. It is probably safe to say, that very few people are willing to modify their own expertise and professional methods based on the ideas and opinions of someone who has little or no experience and credentials in the field.
As an educator, sitting in meetings with someone who has no special education qualifications and have them point out your deficiencies is a waste of time and money. Any parent who has experienced being lectured on the best methods of raising children by a person, who has no children, may know how frustrating this can be. Teachers are more likely to be open to the opinions and suggestions of someone who is at least qualified to make such statements.
It makes sense that if you want to cultivate the best education for your child, you would expect an advocate that had the special education credentials and experience that would enhance your role as parent. Maintaining professional development by attending conferences, keeping up to date on current policy documents and procedures are important qualifications to have. Special education is a constantly evolving science and an advocate must be up to date.
A solid knowledge of local resources, services providers and community programs facilitates problem solving. It is equally important that the advocate you choose have the interpersonal skills necessary to work collaboratively with others to create solutions. As a parent, expect the person that you hire to be qualified to help you to work with the school.
Advocates should know your child.
A wise Legal advocates for children and youth is someone who will look for solutions and not blame. Advocates should see the child in the context of his classroom. A child’s program on paper can never tell the whole story. There is no way that a teacher can put into words all of the supports, plans, visuals, tools and strategies that are employed to make the child successful. The child’s world tells far more than any documentation could ever describe.
It is important to note that entering a classroom is opening a “sacred trust.” Just as you would not let someone that you do not trust into your home, teachers must be wary to whom they open their classrooms. If someone is entering the room to “observe” and then report back to the parent all of the things that they think are being done incorrectly and to “build a case” against the school, the relationship has then been destroyed. Would you want someone coming into your home to “observe and critique” you as you carry out the daily functions of parenthood?
Advocates should be objective and solution minded
While interviewing Legal advocates for children and youth, listen carefully for language that promotes solutions rather than vengeance. The advocate’s personal experience with a school district, board, or previous personal history has no place in the discussion. This is about YOUR child. The advocate may utilize background knowledge of the people and resources to facilitate a workable plan for your child. In order to secure a positive proactive response from the people that are in relationship with your child, the advocate is best to be respectful, courteous, and considerate and open minded. Of course, this is true of every member of a team.
Can the advocate help your child access the best education possible without putting undue stress on the resources and personnel involved? Sometimes in the hopes of helping a parent, promises are made that are overly taxing on a personal or financial level…the school must educate all students, not just yours. Parents may disagree and say that it is really their child that they care about. While that is very true, schools cannot operate on this premise.
Educational institutions have a duty to look after the collective while at the same time ensuring that each individual receives what is needed. It is not fair to assume that school staff should take from one child in order to provide for another. Imagine someone suggesting that a parent take away resources from one of their children in order to give to another. There are solutions that can work for everyone. We need to be searching for them as a team.
Advocates should be facilitators not dictators.
Humans need to be acknowledged for the effort that they invest; we need to feel supported and respected. We are more open to solutions when we are not feeling defensive. No person, neither educator nor parent, should leave a discussion feeling that they have been ignored, rejected or discounted if they were genuinely promoting a child’s needs and not their own.
When the disagreement lowers itself to the level of acting like children who are demanding that everyone play by their rules, the child with special needs is no longer the center of the discussion. An advocate is worth their weight in gold when they can objectively look at a situation without an emotional charge and create solutions that work for the child.
Each member of a team has a perspective on how to best help a child: a principal, community agency member, speech pathologist, teacher and a parent have ideas that stem from their training and experience. A skilled Legal advocates for children and youth is able to listen to each member’s ideas and see solutions that draw on the strengths of each person at the table.
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