Mistakes People Make – Advocates:

January 03, 2013

(An earlier version of this article first appeared at the Family Education Network at www.familyeducation.com.)

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In other articles of this series I have discussed some common mistakes parents and school systems make that tend to undermine the system’s ability to respond effectively to a child’s special education needs. In this piece I turn to the more serious mistakes that parent advocates sometimes make with equally detrimental effects. My sources again include lawyers who regularly represent school systems, hearing officers in special education proceedings, evaluators, parents, and parent/child advocates. Part of the reward of working in this area of the law has been to work with (and sometimes, respectfully, in opposition to) these professionals, and I greatly appreciate their thoughtful contributions to this discussion.

The non-lawyer advocate plays an extremely important role in the special education process. Often the parent of a child with special education needs him- or herself, a well-trained advocate can provide valuable assistance to parents trying to navigate the maze of special education law and procedures. A competent advocate can help parents to obtain necessary information about their child and about available educational alternatives, to organize presentations for key meetings, to develop effective strategies to obtain necessary services, and to make intelligent and realistic choices along the way. Advocates need to be constantly mindful of the power of their role and the trust parents place in them. Parents see their advocate as a person with special knowledge of a difficult system; they rely on that person to have a cool head and to apply keen, informed judgment every step of the way.

One clarification – there are some individuals who help parents in the special education process who are trained in the field of special education and are experts in their own right in the areas of their training and experience – typically, persons with M.Ed.’s or Ph.D.’s in education or related fields. While these individuals may act as “advocates” from time to time, they are better able to help parents as another kind of expert – an educational consultant. In that role they need to be objective, applying their expertise to understand the student’s situation and needs, and they may not always agree with the parents’ aims. They may offer expert counsel to the team and they can testify as experts in due process proceedings. Such educational consultants should be clear about their roles with parents and with school districts and, to the extent possible, should leave “advocacy” to lawyers, advocates and the parents themselves.

The more serious mistakes advocates sometimes make are generally ones of excess – excessive emotion that clouds judgment; excessive advice in areas beyond the advocate’s expertise; excessive involvement in a case where the parents would be better off doing things for themselves; raising parents’ expectations excessively; and feeding parents’ sense of outrage rather than helping them cultivate a calm, persistent approach. (Please note that the roles of lay advocates and lawyers are similar in many respects, and special education lawyers can and do make the same mistakes on occasion.) Here are some of the more common serious mistakes we see:

  1. Perhaps the most harmful mistake some advocates make is replaying their own special education or health advocacy battles through their advocacy for other families. This clouds the advocate’s judgment and tends to create a hostile relationship between the family and the school system that has more to do with the advocate than with the family’s real needs.
  2. Not informing parents up front what the special education process entails so that parents are aware from the beginning of the potential costs in time, money, and energy that will be required, particularly if they are seeking expensive services or an outside placement. For example, advocates should inform families that just obtaining even an excellent independent evaluation is not necessarily enough to convince a school system to implement the evaluator’s recommendations (or a hearing officer to order them); the family may have to incur the evaluator’s additional expense of school observation(s), consulting with the family’s advocate and/or lawyer, testifying, etc., and even all those additional tasks may not suffice.
  3. Assuming they know the child’s disability and educational needs before the independent evaluation is complete. Also, attempting to interpret testing results – scores, percentiles, etc. – without the experience and training to do so. These mistakes too often lead to giving advice outside of the advocate’s expertise, setting parents up for a fall if the evaluator’s findings and recommendations are different. The parent needs to hear from his/her independent evaluator, rather than the advocate, about what their child’s needs are and what services or program might meet those needs.
  4. Raising parents’ expectations too high without regard for the real limits of the process, the available services, and the legal standards that apply.
  5. Being habitually confrontational – mistaking an “in your face” approach for dealing from strength – and encouraging parents to do likewise. This type of approach by an advocate not only undermines a particular family’s work with a school system; over time, the advocate gets a negative reputation and becomes increasingly ineffective for all the families he or she attempts to help.
  6. The opposite problem: becoming too “chummy” with the special education administrators the advocate deals with repeatedly. The best approach for the advocate – and for the parent – is to combine a steady skepticism with a willingness to try all reasonable options offered by the school system, and to treat even the most arrogant or adversarial school personnel with the same degree of respect the advocate and parent wish to receive themselves.
  7. Failing to learn about the child from the school personnel who work with him or her. The advocate should listen carefully to what the child’s teachers say about the child and help the parents evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the teachers’ opinions and observations, rather than simply rejecting them out of hand.
  8. Not staying informed about special education procedural and substantive requirements. This means being completely familiar with the governing laws and regulations, state and federal, and with changes in those laws as they are enacted (e.g., studying IDEA 2004, the amendments to the federal special education law that became effective in July 2005). It also means following the decisions that are issued by the due process administrative hearing officers in your state to know how issues are being decided and what kind of attitude to expect from the individuals who make those decisions.
  9. Not consulting with an attorney knowledgeable in special education law at key decision points and on difficult issues of law or procedure; waiting until it is too late for the lawyer to be fully effective. (Typically one of the worst mistakes an advocate can make is to advise parents to open a due process proceeding and only then advise them to consult with a special education attorney – more often than not, under those circumstances, the attorney then needs to have the parent withdraw from the appeal they had just filed in order to further develop the case.)

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