Advocacy Tips for Parents

When a child has a disability, parents often learn that getting their child’s needs met requires persistence, organization, and advocacy. Advocacy is an action. A person is an advocate when they organize the work and press onward until a goal is achieved. Laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities also protect parents as legal advocates for their children.

This article includes tips for parent advocates working with the school. For more about parent rights, read PAVE’s article, Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Before a meeting…

  • Invite someone to attend with you. A friend or family member can help you take notes, ask questions, and keep track of your agenda.
  • Make sure you understand the purpose of the meeting. Is it to talk about an evaluation, review the Individualized Education Program (IEP), write a Section 504 Plan, consider a behavior support plan, discuss placement, or something else? If you want a certain outcome, make sure it’s within the scope of the meeting. If not, you may need more than one meeting.
  • Make sure you know who will be at your meeting. An IEP team has required attendees. PAVE provides more detail about IEP team requirements in an article that includes a Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting.
  • Consider anyone else you want to attend. Parents have the right to invite vocational specialists, related service providers, behavioral health providers, peer support specialists—anyone with knowledge of the student and their needs.
  • Get copies of important documents (evaluation, IEP, 504 Plan, behavior plan, etc.). Read them carefully so you can use these documents to organize your concerns and questions. Keep in mind that a services program/plan is a draft until after you meet.
  • If the school doesn’t provide documents with enough time for you to prepare, consider rescheduling.
  • Mark up a Draft IEP with your suggestions and questions:
    • Read the educational impact statement carefully. Consider if it accurately summarizes your student’s strengths and needs. If not, makes notes about what you want to add or change.
    • Note any changes you want under Medical/Physical or Parent Concerns.
    • If a goal is too hard or too easy, make a note to ask about adjusting it.
    • If a goal is written with jargon and impossible to understand, ask for an explanation and maybe a rewrite
    • Prepare to ask how teachers are using Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) to help your student reach IEP goals.
    • Read the services table, sometimes referred to as a “services grid” or “services matrix” to understand how often and where your student is being served.
    • Consider any questions you have about placement or access to general education settings. If you believe your student could be successful in general education for more of their day, consider what supports would make that possible.
    • Write down any questions about how the classroom or curriculum are adapted to be accessible. You might ask if the teachers are using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies to support multiple types of learners.
    • Write down your questions about progress and how it’s being tracked.
  • For an IEP or 504 Plan, read the accommodations carefully and make notes to ensure they are individualized and implemented to truly support your student.
  • Highlight anything in the behavior plan that sounds like bias or prejudice and consider how it might be rewritten. PAVE provides examples in a video training about development of a Behavior Intervention Plan.
  • To help you organize your questions and concerns, PAVE provides: Get Ready for Your Meeting with a Handout for the Team.
  • Learn about student and family rights and practice the vocabulary that empowers your advocacy. PAVE provides a three-part video training to help: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

At your meeting…

  • Do your best to arrive on time to make sure there is time to address concerns. If you notice there may not be enough time to do this, request to schedule another meeting.
  • Make sure the meeting begins with introductions and that you know everyone’s job and what role they serve on the IEP team. If it’s important to you, when you introduce yourself you can ask team members to use your name instead of mom, dad, gramma, or something else other than your name when they refer to you.
  • Ask school staff to explain acronyms or jargon while they are talking because you want to understand what everyone says.
  • If an IEP team member is absent (WAC 392-172A-03095), parents must sign consent for the absence. If someone is missing and you don’t think it’s appropriate to continue, ask to reschedule. If key members need to leave before the meeting is over, consider ending the meeting and schedule an alternative day/time.
  • Keep focus on your student’s needs. Here are a few positive sentence starters: I expect, I understand, My child needs….
  • If you notice the conversation steering into past grievances, the district’s lack of funds, or what “all the other children” are doing, bring focus back to your child and their current needs. Try stating, “I want to focus on [name].”
  • Use facts and information to back up your positions and avoid letting emotion take over. Ask for a break if you need time for some regulated breathing or to review documents or notes.
  • Notice other team members’ contributions that support your child’s needs. Here are a few phrases to consider:
    • “I think what you said is a good idea. I also think it could help to…”
    • “I think you are right, and I would like to add…”
    • “I hear what you are saying, and…”
  • If you don’t understand something, ask questions until the answer is clear.
  • If you disagree about something and your comments aren’t changing anyone’s mind, explain that you want your position included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is the document the school is required to send immediately after an IEP meeting.
  • If you hear something confusing, ask the school to put their position and rationale in writing so you can follow up.
  • Request to end the meeting if it stops being productive. Tell the other team members that you would like to continue working with them and ask to schedule another meeting. This might include adding people to the team to help resolve issues.

After a meeting…

  • Review your notes and highlight or circle places where there is an action or something that needs follow through. Transfer relevant information into your calendar.
  • When the Prior Written Notice (PWN) arrives (usually within a few days), compare it to your notes. Make sure all key agreements, actions, and IEP/504 amendments match what you understood to be the plan when you left the meeting.
  • If you want something changed in the PWN, ask for those changes in writing.
  • If you disagree with the outcome of the meeting, review your Procedural Safeguards (downloadable in multiple languages) and consider your dispute resolution options.
  • If you consider filing a Community Complaint, PAVE provides a video training to walk you through that option.
  • Consider contacting school district special education staff if they didn’t participate in the meeting and you think your team needs more support.
  • Consider asking for another meeting, Mediation, or a Facilitated IEP meeting, if issues are unresolved.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program can help family caregivers organize their concerns and options. Click Get Help for individualized assistance.

Back To School Checklist!

Late summer is the time to gather school supplies, find out what time the school bus will pick up and drop off, and prepare to find new classrooms and meet new teachers. Parents of students with disabilities have some additional things to check off the list to be ready for the year ahead.

Super important: Before school starts, make sure you know what’s included in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), Section 504 Plan, and/or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). For a more detailed article about getting ready for a new school year, see PAVE’s article: Tips to Help Parents Plan for the Upcoming School Year.

Here’s a checklist to help you get organized:

  • Create a one-pager about your child to share with school staff
    • Include a picture
    • List child’s talents and strengths—your bragging points
    • Describe behavioral strategies that motivate your child
    • Mention any needs related to allergy, diet, or sensory
    • Highlight important accommodations, interventions, and supports from the 504 Plan, IEP, or BIP
  • Make a list of questions for your next meeting to discuss the IEP, BIP, or 504 Plan
    • Do you understand the goals and what skills your child is working on?
    • Do the present levels of performance match your child’s current development?
    • Do accommodations and modifications sound likely to work?
    • Do you understand the target and replacement behaviors being tracked and taught by a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)?
    • Will the child’s transportation needs be met?
  • Mark your calendar for about a week before school starts to visit school and/or send an email to teachers, the IEP case manager, and/or your child’s counselor
    • Share the one-pager you built!
    • Ask school staff how they prefer to communicate—email, phone, a notebook sent back and forth between home and school?
    • Get clear about what you want and need, and collaborate to arrange a communication plan that will work for everyone
    • A communication plan between home and school can be listed as an accommodation on an IEP or 504 Plan; plan to ask for your communication plan to be written into the document at the next formal meeting
  • Design a communication log book
    • Can be a physical or digital notebook
    • Plan to write notes every time you speak with someone about your child’s needs or services. Include the date, the person’s full name and title, and information about the discussion
    • Log every communication, whether it happens in the hallway, on the phone, through text, via email, or something else
    • After every communication, plan to send an email thanking the person for their input and reviewing what was discussed and any promised actions—now that conversation is “in writing”
    • Print emails to include in your physical log book or copy/paste to include in a digital file
    • Having everything in writing will help you confirm what did/didn’t happen as promised: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.”
  • Consider if you want to request more information about the credentials of teachers or providers working with your child. Here are some things you can ask about:
    • Who is providing which services and supports?
    • Who is designing the specially designed instruction (SDI)? (SDI helps a child make progress toward IEP goals)
    • What training did these staff receive, or are there training needs for the district to consider?
  • Ask  the special education teacher or 504 case manager how you can share information about your child, such as a one-pager, with school team members. This includes paraprofessionals or aids and other members of the school team.
    • Parents have important information that benefit all school team members. Ask who has access to your child’s IEP or 504 Plan and how you can support ensuring team members receive information
  • Have thank you notes ready to write and share!
    • Keep in mind that showing someone you appreciate their efforts can reinforce good work
  • Celebrate your child’s return to school
    • Do the bus dance on the first morning back to school!
    • Be ready to welcome your child home with love and encouragement. You can ask questions and/or read notes from your child’s teachers that help your loved one reflect on their day and share about the new friends and helpers they met at school

Below is an infographic of the above information.

Tip! you can click on the image and access an accessible PDF to print and keep handy.

Back to School Checklist click to find the accessible PDF

Click to access an accessible PDF of the infographic above