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Why Every Child With Special Needs Should Have an IEP Advocate

Ali Katz


As a parent of a child with special needs, navigating the educational system can often feel overwhelming and complex. It may even feel like you’ve been dropped into the deep end of the pool... without floaties... or swimming lessons... or water. But what if you could have a personal lifeguard on your side who's also an Olympic swimmer, knows all the strokes, and has trained for years? There is such a person: the IEP Advocate. 

If you aren’t aware of this resource, you’re in for a treat because I’ll break it all down for you here. You’ll learn what an IEP Advocate does, how to find the right Advocate for your family, and how to make the most of your relationship with your IEP Advocate. So let’s dive in (sorry, couldn’t resist another swimming metaphor!).


What an IEP Advocate Does 

When you first learned your child would need special education services, you likely felt a mix of emotions - concern for your child's future, uncertainty about the process ahead, and perhaps even a sense of isolation. Now, imagine having someone by your side who's not only been through this process before but has also dedicated their career to helping parents like you navigate it successfully. That’s what an IEP (“Individualized Education Program”) Advocate does.

An IEP Advocate can be especially helpful in three key areas:

Fostering Collaboration: While it can sometimes feel adversarial, the IEP process is meant to be collaborative. A skilled Advocate can guide you in building and maintaining positive relationships with your child's educational team, even when you're pushing for changes. 

Choosing Your Battles With the School System: From time to time, you may have disagreements with the school over your child’s accommodations. An experienced Advocate can help you discern which issues are worth pushing for and which ones might be better addressed through other means. This results in less time and energy for you, and more time and energy you can put into parenting your child.

Preventing Legal Disputes and Knowing When to Escalate: Often, with an Advocate's help, you can resolve issues that might otherwise have escalated to formal complaints or due process hearings. However, there may be times when legal action becomes necessary. In these cases, your Advocate serves as a crucial advisor. They can help you recognize when it's time to bring an attorney on board and can often work alongside legal counsel to resolve issues, either through negotiation or, if necessary, through a due process hearing.

Now you may be thinking, “Yeah, this sounds amazing! I need an IEP Advocate for my family!” Great. Then let’s talk about how to find the right person for the job.


How to Find the Right Advocate for Your Family

Your Advocate will be a close confidant, and you want to work with someone you like and trust, as well as someone who’s qualified to handle any situation that can come up. There’s a lot on the line. Your child’s education depends on it. So when searching for an IEP Advocate, consider these things:

Experience: Look for someone with a strong background in special education and advocacy work. You want someone who's seen more IEPs than you've had hot dinners.

Credentials: Many Advocates have advanced degrees in education or related fields. While this isn't always necessary, it can be beneficial. 

Familiarity with Your Area: Local knowledge can be crucial, as special education practices can vary by state and district. Find someone who knows your school district better than they know their own kitchen.

Communication Style: You'll be working closely with your Advocate, so choose someone whose communication style meshes well with yours. 

References: Don't hesitate to ask for and check references from other families the Advocate has worked with. And when you talk to other families, ask pointed, not general questions. So instead of, “How did you like working with them?” ask, “Please give me an example of a specific conversation they had with the school, what you liked about how they handled it, and what you didn’t like.” You’ll get better information by asking for specific examples. 

Once you’ve chosen the right Advocate for your family (hooray!), let’s make sure you know how to make the most of the relationship.


Making the Most of Your Advocate Relationship

An investment in an IEP Advocate is significant (and absolutely worth it!). To get the most out of working with an IEP Advocate, here are a few tips:

Be Open and Honest: Share all relevant information about your child's needs, your concerns, and your goals. The more your Advocate knows, the better they can help you. Don’t worry about feeling scared or vulnerable. They’ve been there and get it.

Ask Questions: Don't hesitate to ask for clarification on anything you don't understand. Channel your inner four-year-old and ask "why" a thousand times. Your Advocate is there to educate and empower you.

Be Prepared to Learn: Your Advocate will likely teach you a great deal about special education rules, IEP development, and negotiation strategies. Embrace this opportunity to become a more informed and effective Advocate for your child. It’s like going back to school yourself but without lunch and gym class.

Follow Through: Your Advocate will likely give you "homework" - tasks to complete between meetings. Take these seriously, as they're designed to strengthen your case and improve outcomes for your child. 

Trust the Process: Advocacy work can take time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Trust your Advocate's experience and follow their guidance, even if progress seems slow at first.


Remember, investing in an IEP Advocate is an investment in your child's future. Even though your role as your child's primary advocate is crucial, you don't have to do it all on your own. Embrace the support and expertise an IEP Advocate can offer, and watch as doors open for your child's educational success. Remember, every child has the potential to learn and grow - your job, with your Advocate's help, is to ensure the educational system recognizes and nurtures that potential in your child.


The Trusted Advisor for Parents of Children With Special Needs

As a Personal Family Lawyer® Firm, we understand that every child with special needs is different, and that's why we offer a personalized approach and a comprehensive range of estate planning services, including Special Needs Trusts and legal guardianship nominations, to create a plan that’s unique to your child and ensures your child’s success. As a trusted advisor, we’ll walk you through your unique situation and develop a plan that ensures your child has the physical, financial, and emotional support they need now and for years to come.