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Advocacy Doesn't Have to Begin With a Scarlet 'A'

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We welcome frequent guest blogger Amanda Morin, parent advocate, former teacher, the Content Development Manager at Understood.org and the author of three books* and mother of Jacob Lewis, who has also written about the challenges of living with learning and social challenges.

Recently a parent I know told me about an experience she had at an IEP meeting. She described to me how she said, "My advocate suggested..." and watched the whole tenor of the meeting change. People sat up straighter. The principal looked wary and the note taker began typing more carefully. The parent asked me what I think happened.

"Why did they get so nervous? I used the word 'suggest' and wasn't demanding," she said.

As a non-attorney advocate, I always tell people my job is to put myself out of a job. I want to help facilitate conversations so a team can work together to help outside-the-box thinkers learn.

Once parents feel empowered enough to share their thoughts in a productive way and an IEP team knows that the parent wants to understand the process better to be an equal participant in the team, my job is done.

On the surface, none of that is inflammatory. So why is it that in special education, the word "advocate" seems to start with a scarlet "A?"  And why did this IEP team react so strongly to the mention of an advocate?

Not all parents understand the special education process and, truthfully, not all teachers around the table do either. I know I didn't when I was a brand-new teacher! That's where an advocate can be helpful. 

In fact, an advocate--be it a friend or a professional--is one of the things I'd put on the top of a checklist of what to bring to an IEP meeting. But clearly, to the IEP team this parent talked about, the word "advocate," had a negative connotation.

As we all know, advocate can be a noun or a verb. To advocate means to "to speak in favor of or recommend publicly" or "to support or urge by argument." An advocate is a person who argues a cause or speaks on someone else's behalf for that cause.

But it's not always that easy. There are valid obstacles in the way of both schools and parents feeling comfortable with having an advocate simply speak to the needs of a student and serve as sort of a translator for both sides. 

One of those obstacles is how parents and schools have traditionally experienced the definition of the word. Some have had the positive experience of it being speaking in favor of or recommending what's appropriate for a student.

But many have experienced advocacy as argument. Often an advocate isn't brought in until there's strife or misunderstanding and that person may be a lawyer. But that time, emotions are running high for everyone and it does feel like an argument.  Schools are rightfully hesitant about what they say and do in front of a lawyer and parents are struggling to be heard.

Another obstacle is the fact that there's no national professional standard for non-attorney advocates. While most are well-informed and well-intentioned, it only takes one experience of an advocate misadvising a parent about their rights or encouraging them to take on an unnecessary "fight" to make schools wary of having an advocate around the table.

A well-trained advocate can help get parents and schools work together to create the most appropriate program for a student. It doesn't have to be an argument.  It can be a way to level the playing field, defuse tension at meetings and take a step toward meaningful collaboration.

After I heard from that parent, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a seatmate on an airplane recently. We were politely discussing what we do for work and I must have used the words "education advocate."  In all seriousness, he said to me, "That must be so helpful to schools and parents. But who is against education?"

To the man on the plane, there was no doubt that having a facilitator in place is a good idea.

Like my seatmate, I agree that nobody should be against education. And he's right in another way, too. It's not just parents who need advocates; schools can also benefit from having them around the table.

Perhaps one solution is to have advocates around the table regularly. Maybe the solution lies in using the word "facilitator" instead.  Quite possibly it's both of those things combined with a willingness to take a leap and embrace a change in mindset and practice. We all--teachers, administrators and parents--need to understand that the cause being taken up is that of the student and his need for support.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email. 

*Amanda's Books: The Everything Parent's Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids' Learning Activities Book and On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy--Anytime, Anywhere! Follow Amanda at EverythingSpecialEd and on Twitter @AmandaMorin

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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