According to the dictionary, an advocate is a person who pleads for another. As parents, we are advocates every day. When you walk into your child’s classroom to meet with their teacher or attend back-to-school night, you are advocating for your child. Those are easy ways to support your child. However, when you have a child who needs a different approach to learning, that’s when advocating can be challenging.
That’s when PTA’s long legacy for advocating for every child’s success helps.
In the arena of special education, families need to remember the six “P’s”—Planning, Preparation, Patience, Persistence, Politeness and Passion.
As the Federal Legislative Chair (FLC) for California State PTA and the proud mother of a son with a learning disability who is now attending college in Prescott, Ariz., my advocacy efforts on behalf of families with students with special needs began almost two decades ago. My son was not receiving the necessary services that were listed in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) at his preschool. I directly advocated for improved services for my son by calling and writing letters to members of the school board, the district superintendent and others.
This is where being polite but persistent paid off.
We were successful and in the process, I learned the value of planning and preparing for a successful IEP meeting. A great piece of advice that was given to us: Keep an organized notebook with dividers. We had a picture of our son on the front of the notebook which is subtle, but helped to provide a “face” to a name. We had a section for all correspondence (who we talked to and when, copies of letters and emails all went into this section). This particular section is just as important as the sections that contain the actual IEP.
If I had not kept note of who I spoke to and when, I don’t know how successful we would have been at resolving our concerns.
Whether it is advocating for your child at an IEP meeting, walking the halls of your state capital, or visiting your representative on Capitol Hill remember to plan, come prepared and be persistent but polite. You may need to educate the educators and legislators about your concerns.
The sixth “P” passion, and is why I continue to work as an advocate for California State PTA and along with my husband and others, I co-founded an affiliate of Parents Education Network in Los Angeles (PEN-LA) in 2015. This organization helps parents collaborate with educators, students and the community to assist students with learning and attention differences to succeed at school and outside the classroom.
Through PEN-LA, we host support groups for parents of children with special needs as well as various workshops aimed at bringing educators and families together in a non-adversarial setting where they can learn more about a particular topic. Patience goes a long way when advocating, as does passion.
My passion is what keeps me going and excited to help other students succeed like my son. As my son so eloquently phrased it, “I have you to advocate on my behalf and guide me, but there are other kids whose parents either don’t know how or can’t.”
Become a Voice for Positive Change for All Children
If you want to start advocating for children, begin by educating yourself about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is a federal law that requires schools to service the needs of students with disabilities, and requires schools schools to evaluate students suspected of having a disability such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia. The law has been up for re-authorization since 2009.
IDEA protects the rights of children with disabilities, provides them with free and appropriate public education and gives parents a voice in their child’s education.
I decided that I wanted to help other parents learn how to become advocates for their children. As a parent, you know your child. You know what services and supports your child needs—whether it is with regards to reading, writing or other areas. You can work to be theirs and others’ biggest advocate.
Heidi Brewington is the federal legislative chair of California State PTA and co-founder of Parents Education Network in Los Angeles (PEN-LA).