Special education can be confusing, even to people who are experienced with education, including teachers and parents of kids in the special education system. That’s because SPED laws differ from state to state, policies differ district by district, and each child requires different accommodations based on their individual needs. While public schools provide families with special education teachers if a student is in their program, many parents wish there was someone on their and their child’s side—and their side only, not someone who works for the district. Enter, special education advocates.
What is a special education advocate?
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Parents, teachers, and administrators are involved in a student’s education plan. An advocate is a person who works independently from the school district and assists families whether or not they are already in a special education program or have been evaluated. A special education advocate is a “support person for parents involved in the special education process,” says Paulette Selman, a school psychologist and special education advocate in Oregon and Washington. More specifically, “Advocates attend meetings with parents, and they also provide behind the scenes advising and coaching … any time you are facing a group of professional educators around a table at school or on a Zoom meeting, an advocate can help.”
While SPED advocates often work on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans, “some have specialty expertise in other aspects of schooling, such as dyslexia, behavior supports, or discipline,” Selman says. They can also assist families in “disputes regarding whether to retain a child to repeat a grade or promote a child to a higher grade due to intellectual giftedness,” Selman says. Advocates often work with families with kids in public schools but can also consult families who have kids in private schools.
When should you hire a SPED advocate?
A family can bring in a SPED advocate during any stage. Julie Skolnick, founder of With Understanding Comes Calm and author of the upcoming Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child says she often refers her clients to advocates when families “are within the IEP system and you need someone right next to you at the table” because “an advocate comes in for the nuances on how you can use the law to your benefit.” An advocate “sits on (the family’s) ‘side’ of the table at IEP meetings. Ideally they help the entire team work together, but they are primarily there to increase parental voice and participation in the process,” Selman says. They are for the family and the child, not the school.
You can have an advocate help you with the evaluation process as well “to make sure the evaluation includes all the components it should” says Selman, such as “making sure to assess all areas of suspected need; for example, social skills, communication, fine motor skills, etc.” So, you can bring in an advocate as a proactive measure to make sure your child’s plan is most effective, or as a reactive measure when things have not been going well as is. No matter when an advocate comes on the scene, “Bringing an advocate to a meeting sends a message to the school team, and tends to produce a more formal response. They will usually send district-level administrators to meetings with advocates,” Selman says. If you want more attention on your child’s case, hiring an advocate is the way to achieve this.
How do you know someone’s a good fit?
There is no state or federal certification or license for special education advocacy, and many different types of experts may become advocates. Selman, who comes from a school psychology background, says some advocates are “parents who have been through the special ed process with their children and have a desire to support other families, or folks who come from the education world, such as former teachers, school psychologists, or speech/language pathologists. You can also find advocates who are non-educators; for example, some law firms that focus on special education issues will have non-attorney advocates on staff.” Unfortunately this means you may need to do some research to figure out if someone who is claiming to be an advocate is experienced and if they come from the right sector to be of best use to your child.
When hiring an advocate, Selman says to speak to them on the phone: “Ask how long they have been doing this work, how many clients they’ve worked with, and what type of situations they tend to be involved with for families. Ask why they are qualified to support you, and whether they’ve helped families in your particular situation. If you are considering filing a complaint with the state department of education, ask the advocate if they have direct experience with this process.” Make sure the person you choose can take you through the entire process you need assistance with.
Some advocates are volunteers, but Selman says families should expect to spend about $75 an hour for someone working professionally as an advocate and more if they’re affiliated with law firms. That may be a prohibitive expense for some families, but Selman says that “hiring an advocate is a lot cheaper than hiring a lawyer, and the advocate can help you avoid the need for legal representation by solving problems before they escalate.” So if you are having concerns about your child’s education, it may be worth the price.