Sometimes you just need some quick tips to help you through the maze that is special education law. Fair enough. Here are my Top Ten tips for parents and advocates:
1. Put everything in writing! Document every single thing you do as it will only help your child and help if you find yourself in a dispute with the school. Email is best because it has a date, time, and recipients noted.
2. Make them put everything in writing! Not only should you document everything, make the school do the same. If they say something during an IEP meeting or agree to a service, make them put that in the IEP or in writing to you. An old saying goes “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen.”
3. Do not sign anything until you are 100% sure about it. If you need to consult with an attorney or expert in special education, do so. If there is any doubt in your mind, don’t sign a document. Make sure your child is getting the services you believe are necessary.
4. Keep your expectations reasonable. This does not mean that you shouldn’t demand the moon for your child; you should. But also realize that schools have lots of kids – sometimes lots of other disabled kids – and they have limited budgets. Talk to someone to make sure you are not being unrealistic in what you ask for.
5. Consult a special education expert about what your child needs. You need to be able to translate your child’s needs into concrete things a school can do for your child, whether that is different curriculum, access to the classroom, therapies, services, etc. A good education advocate or education psychologist can often help you know what your child needs. And don’t jump onto bandwagons, such as the 1-on-1 aide bandwagon; such aides are helpful, but only when your child actually needs that. For example, if your child is dyslexic, an aide won’t do much for your child unless that aide is a dyslexia specialist.
6. Be prepared! I know I sound like the Boy Scouts, but it is a good motto for special education. Read as much as you can about your child’s disability; make sure you understand your child’s challenges (reading? writing? math? social? behavior?). Go into an IEP meeting or any other interaction with the school armed with tons of information – more is better.
7. Know your rights. Most parents don’t know their and their child’s rights under the law for special education. First, the school should give you “procedural safeguards” that list your rights. Read that carefully or consult with a special education lawyer who can tell you your rights.
8. Keep your emotions in check. I know this is easier said than done when it comes to your child, but yelling matches never accomplish anything. This is why advocates are sometimes helpful because they can remain calm and objective. Remember what our mothers always told us: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” If you follow Tip #6 above, it will help you follow this Tip.
9. Take copious notes. Write down everything, especially at an IEP meeting. Again, this may be when an advocate comes in handy. Parents are often overwhelmed at these meetings and intimidated by the sheer number of people around the table “on the other side”. You will need notes to confirm what you heard and make sure everything is in the IEP that should be. These notes also come in handy if you end up in a dispute with the school. Keep a journal or diary or let your advocate do that.
10. Don’t back down. This is an easy thing to do when you think “it’s me against an entire school district.” But if you have followed all of the Tips above and you still feel strongly that you are asking for the right things for your child, do not let them convince you otherwise. They are obligated by LAW to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to your child with a disability. And if you have to fight them and you win, you can be reimbursed for your attorney’s fees. So don’t be afraid to do battle.
I hope these are helpful. If you need more tips beyond these 10, consider getting our book “Schoolkidslawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law” which also includes forms and an explanation of the entire special education process for you.
And always, you can contact me for a consultation at 856-335-5291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.