How to advocate for a special needs student.
I’m not someone often at a loss for words. I’ve spent most of my adult life in trial, teaching, and speaking. But, almost a year ago I was DM’d a question that has left me speechless. A teacher wrote me a “simple” inquiry. “How can I advocate for my special needs students?” And since that day I’ve sat down time and time again and wrestled with providing a meaningful answer.
How can that be, I found a caring concerned teacher and have nothing for them. How? Why? What is so hard about that question? Bluntly put, it’s a question of balance. As wonderful as having a teacher as an advocate sounds, it’s not “sustainable.” Our school system is more than just a giant soulless bureaucracy. It’s a hodgepodge of small autocracies overseen by countless petty tyrants. It is an inhospitable environment that trembles at the thought of meaningful change, and can cruelly punish those who push for it.
Losing a good teacher is a high price to pay for 15 minutes more of speech. So, I reframed the question. As an attorney, parent, and advocate what could a teacher do that would most help me get the placement, services, and supports a child needs? And, after much thought, here is my answer.
Be there for your student. Don’t ask to be excused from IEP or 504 meetings. Introduce yourself, don’t wait till there is a formal invocation. “Hi, I’m Ms. Smith and I am Johnny’s math teacher.” And, don’t show up empty-handed. The single biggest complaint I hear is a lack of transparency, and most parent’s biggest fear is the unknown.
Most, if not all, special needs students don’t self-report about their day at school. Parents feel isolated, ignored, and in the dark. This breeds mistrust and undermines cooperation and collaboration. A weekly email, however short, that shares the treasures of what their child has done while away from them can be like a breath of air to a drowning man. Show up at the IEP with some work samples, tests, artwork. Something real and tangible that cuts through the vagueness of “Johnny can do “X” in 4 out of 5 opportunities, at 80% accuracy, with moderate prompting.” Make it real, and keep it real. It’s about a child, a family, a future, fancy terms are meaningless fluff.
Sorry to be frank, but District’s lie. I’m no stranger to lies. After 25 plus years wrestling with sometimes heinous criminals I am somewhat a connoisseur of lies. Even then, it caught me off guard the first time a school official straight up lied to me under oath. Since then I’ve gotten over it and have been very successful in utilizing the lessons from my “criminal past” to bring them into the light. But, if I could ask only one thing of a teacher it would be don’t lie. Don’t say a child isn’t behind when they are.
Don’t pretend behaviors that are disrupting your class every day aren’t happening. Don’t say a student doesn’t need a service when in your heart you know they desperately do. It sounds easy, but I’ve seen the glares and stares when a teacher doesn’t toe the party line. I won’t pretend it will be easy but swear to yourself before ever meeting that you won’t lie. You don’t have to pound the table. Even when soft-pedaled the truth has a power and resilience. Something as simple as, “I know it’s an IEP team decision, but from what I see “X’ might really help” could be enough to change the trajectory of a child’s life.
DON’T REMAIN SILENT IN THE FACE OF LIES
Sins of omission are the next category. Having endured the scorn and possible repercussions of actively telling the truth, it’s easy to sit silent and feel blameless in the face of other’s lies. It’s been said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.” Don’t facilitate a miscarriage of justice by sitting mute in the face of lies. When someone says, “well she’s making progress” and you know it isn’t true, speak up even if softly. “Not really, I’ve tried everything I can think of and could really use some help.” As hard as it is to imagine, something that simple can make all the difference.
It’s hard to look into a special needs parent’s pleading eyes and admit that things aren’t going well. It can feel like a service or even a gift to offer a ray of hope. But, only when it is actually true. Facts are facts, data is data. Nothing has ever been truer than “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” As painful a step at that is, it’s the first step on the path to a solution. What happened yesterday is done, we’re here about what can happen tomorrow.
Take the first step, but don’t forget this process isn’t about making the student fit into the system, it’s about trying to individualize the system to serve the student. Make it positive, without stretching the truth. “He really struggles with writing. But he’ll talk about trains all day. I think if we let him write about trains it may help him engage.” “She hates speaking in front of the class but is a great artist. How about we let her draw a picture that demonstrates what she learned?” Sometimes, just a little flexibility can put a student on a different path.
NEVER STOP CARING
To the teacher who first wrote me, I’m sorry this took so long. It’s far too easy when locked every day in battle with Districts to forget all the caring, giving, committed educators that are on the front line of the battle. Thank you for all you do. The supplies you pay for out of pocket, the late nights and weekends spent making learning a memorable experience.
Too often teachers and special needs parents find themselves at odds when we both want the same thing. I’m sorry for the times you bear the brunt of decisions made far above your head. Thank you for wanting to step up and be part of the solution. There is so much you can do, without putting your career on the line. There are hundreds of thousand special needs parents, advocates, and attorneys ready to go to the mat for students.
If you want to help, just don’t pull the mat out from under us. It may not seem like much, but in truth it’s everything.
To learn more, please visit www.survivingspecialeducation.com