As a parent of a special needs child, you want your actions to be supportive as well as effective. To do this you need to accentuate their strengths and lessen the impact of their weaknesses. In short, you must be your child’s greatest advocate.
"Although there are many professionals that care and do a good job, it is their job and they go home at the end of the day. But this is our child and he or she only has us to see the big picture of their future," says Michelle Ritchie, mother of three boys in Grayslake, two of whom have IEPs.
Know your child
The first and most important key to being your child’s advocate is knowing your child’s ability level. There are two major sources of information you can use to determine this:
n One comes from the time you spend doing homework together. Homework gives you insight into your child’s day. It allows you to see how he is handling new information. The problem comes in trying to figure out if your child is getting the right amount of homework. "A general rule of thumb for homework is about 10 minutes for every grade level," says Tammi DeGrave, learning disability resource teacher at Millburn School in Wadsworth. For example, a fourth-grader should, on average, have no more than 40 minutes of homework a night.
If every night your third-grader gets out her math homework and you spend an hour going over it, it might be too difficult. On the other hand, maybe your fifth-grader never brings home a page of homework. In this case, he might be ready for something a little harder.
n The second piece is classroom testing. Depending on the type of test, you can determine if your child is struggling with the subject matter or the method the test employs. For example, your child may have good reading comprehension but fail a short answer test on the subject. This is a symptom of a writing problem and not a lack of comprehension.
To truly understand how your child is doing you need to be actively involved. Keep track of how long she works on homework. As you study with her, try using different techniques. Write down what seems to be the most effective. You then have concrete information to share during conversations with teachers or during the next Individualized Education Plans (IEP) meeting.
Who are you going to call
Occasionally throughout the year you might have a question or concern about your child. In general, you will need to speak to the person who has the most contact with your child, your child’s teacher.
"Tell the teacher a little about your concern and end your comments with a question," says DeGrave. For example, a parent might say "I have noticed his homework for the last couple of weeks is identifying coins. When he works with me at home he seems to get all of them correct. Is there something more we should be working on?"
Sometimes you might feel that a part of your child’s IEP needs are not being met. In this case, you might meet with both his teacher and his case worker or special education teacher. This is the time to ask specific questions about how the IEP is being executed. A parent, or any member of the IEP team, may at any time ask for a formal meeting to review and/or adjust the IEP, says DeGrave. This is the time to share any information you have gathered, such as how your child is progressing or where he is falling behind.
Determining and reviewing the IEP can be very overwhelming. As the parent, you sit with a group of professionals who should all have something important to share about your child. Luckily, there are several things you can do ahead of time to maximize your meeting.
n Before the meeting, write a list of any questions you have.
n If possible, bring a second set of ears, perhaps a spouse or friend. It is always helpful to have another person to hear something you might have missed or just to get a different opinion on what was said.
n If your child already has an IEP, look it over carefully, paying close attention to the accommodations page. Although every district is different, this page is generally called Accommodations Page and is found near the end of the IEP. "This page is a reminder to all the teachers of what works best for your child," DeGrave says.
n If you have concerns that your child is struggling or not being challenged enough, bring concrete examples rather than general statements.
n If you have a specific request, especially one that involves a certain program or technology, do your homework. Check and see if the district has a history with it.
n Lastly, go into the meeting with an open mind.
Invite your child’s opinion
The only person who knows your child better than you do is your child herself. Your job right now is simply to be the best advocate for your child. However, in the end, it is to help her learn how to be an advocate for herself.
n Start at a young age by asking your child about their day. At first, you will need to ask leading questions and even then she might have trouble answering. The point is to get her to think about it so the next week, when you ask again, she is better able to respond. This exercise gets her mind tuned in to what she needs to be successful. It also sets the stage for her to feel comfortable to ask others for help.
n As your child gets older, have her become more involved. Either sit down together before the meeting or have her make a list on her own, sharing which tools or accommodations work well for her and which ones don’t. When you are in the meeting be sure to share her ideas. There is something about hearing a child’s words that helps everyone remember why they are there.
Sometimes, parents of children with special needs fall into the trap of using the label as an excuse. It is easy to do when you see your child floundering, and discouraged, you want to come to the rescue. The key is to find the middle ground.
The next time an activity gets too hard don’t give your child permission to quit. Instead find the tools or accommodations needed for her to be successful.
"When our daughter was younger, she was absolutely aware that we had expectations of her to be the best she could be," says Diane Luczak of Gurnee, whose daughter has dyslexia. "I tried not to force her down the beaten path, but let her find her own best way to accomplish a task. She knew I was there to support her efforts—not to do things for her."
Amber Beutel is a teacher, private tutor and mother of two children living in Grayslake.