Parents and Teachers

The Role of Advocates in Special Education

Parents hire special education advocates to help them achieve the best education possible for their child. Advocates can help parents with IEP meetings, school disputes, goal setting, and more. Advocates are not licensed attorneys, but they can play a crucial role in your child’s special education. This is the guide for any parent who’s interested in hiring an advocate. It covers what advocates do, how to narrow down a list of advocates, how they are different from attorneys, and more. 

Special Education Advocates Overview

If you’re thinking about hiring a special education advocate, it’s important to understand what they are, how they can help you, and how to find the best one for you. 

  • What are Special Education Advocates?
  • Finding a Special Education Advocate
  • Special Education Advocate Training
  • Special Education Advocate Best Practices
  • Self-Advocacy
  • Special Education Attorneys

What are Special Education Advocates?

Parents hire special education advocates to help them understand their rights and secure the appropriate special education services for their child. Advocates help parents and schools develop individualized education programs (IEPs), interpret test results, and understand available services. The following are the main duties that special education advocates undertake. 

  • Help parents submit written requests
  • Draft complaints, responses, and requests to the school
  • Interpret and explain evaluations and reports to parents
  • Advise parents about recommendations, services, and programs best fit for their child
  • Advise parents about their cases before review
  • Refer parents to special education attorneys if needed
  • Offer advice and give recommendations during IEP and 504 meetings
  • Set objectives, prioritize goals, and suggest support materials before IEP and 504 meetings
  • Check special education documents before and after meetings

Finding a Special Education Advocate

Special education is governed by a complex system of regulations, policies, and local, state, and federal laws. These cover things like available services and accommodations, parent protections and rights regarding their child’s education, and child eligibility for special education services. 

While special education advocates help parents navigate these regulations, they are not licensed attorneys. Advocates can learn from training programs, but they do not require formal certifications or licenses. Because of the lack of formality, it’s crucial that you conduct the necessary research when hiring an advocate. 

The first step to finding a suitable advocate is to determine what problems you need to address. Common reasons to look for an advocate are listed below. 

  • You need help navigating the special education process overall
  • Your child has been denied special education services
  • Your child has an ineffective IEP
  • Your child isn’t receiving helpful services

If your child has been suspended from class, expelled from school, or arrested, you’ll most likely need legal assistance instead of an advocate. 

The next step is to list out important criteria you want in an advocate. Advocates should have relationships with people like special education coordinators, teachers, and principals in your local school district. They should also have extensive knowledge of local special education policies. 

Besides these basic criteria, look for advocates that will attend IEP meetings with you, that understand your child’s needs and evaluation, and someone with experience supporting children like your own. It’s also helpful to find an advocate you have good rapport with and one you could see yourself working with long term. 

To find qualified advocates, you can start by asking teachers, specialists, and other parents for personal recommendations. Other places to find advocates are through your school district’s special education parent teacher association (PTA), a parent advisory committee (PAC), your state’s parent training and information center, or The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)

You can also find them through local chapters of advocacy organizations like The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) and Decoding Dyslexia

After conducting your research, narrow down a list of three or more candidates that you’d like to interview. Try to learn more about each advocate’s qualifications, experience, pricing, and training, ask some of the following questions. 

  • “Do you have experience working with this school district?”
  • “What experience do you have as a special education advocate?”
  • “Have you worked with children that have similar disabilities to my child?”
  • “Can you create a proposal of what we will ask from the school district?”
  • “How much do your services cost and what do they include?”
  • “Are there any extra fees I should know about?”
  • “Do you have a working relationship with an attorney?”
  • “Do you have any testimonials you can provide?”
  • “How will you keep me updated during the process?”
  • “What is my role as a parent?”

Once you’ve conducted the interviews, you can select a candidate and begin negotiating fees. If a candidate’s fee is significantly higher than other candidates, you can gently mention this to try and get a better deal. Once fees are negotiated, you’re ready to begin working with your advocate. 

Special Education Advocate Training

Special education advocates need to have a deep understanding of state and federal laws, rights, and responsibilities. Their training should teach them about special education curriculum, accommodations, support services, and IEPs. 

Organizations that provide special education advocate training include The National Disability Rights Network, The National Special Education Advocacy Institute, and The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. For continuing education needs, advocates can learn from state developmental disability councils and The Federation for Children with Special Needs. 

Special Education Advocate Best Practices

The goal of special education advocates is to help parents achieve the best possible education for their child. Advocates should conduct themselves in a professional manner during IEP meetings. 

They should make valuable suggestions, ask good questions, and disagree with school administrators if needed. However, advocates should never be inconsiderate, disrespectful, or demeaning to school staff. This type of behavior is counterproductive and will make it more difficult to negotiate special education accommodations. 

Advocates need to be good listeners during meetings. They should always paraphrase and repeat statements to avoid misunderstandings. It’s also important that they ask follow-up questions depending on the answers they receive. 

Advocates need to develop the interpersonal skills necessary to interact with parents, administrators, and teachers. They need research skills for finding information on things like legal issues and local support systems. They must also have the writing skills to create requests, letters, and other documents. 

They need to be persuasive during meetings to negotiate what’s best for the child. They should always work to diminish the barriers between parents and school administrators. If they make a mistake, advocates should be able to apologize and take corrective action. 

Since there is no Code of Ethics for special education advocates, it’s their responsibility to conduct business in an ethical manner. Advocates are not penalized for unethical behavior, but they need to self-enforce professionalism and good conduct. To achieve the best results, advocates need to have professional respect for everyone on the IEP team

Self-Advocacy

While professional advocate services have their benefits, it’s important for your child to learn how to self-advocate. Children should develop an understanding of their disability and their best methods for learning effectively. 

Middle school is a great time to teach your child self-advocacy skills. That way, they don’t need to learn them during high school when classes are more difficult. 

Start by having your child write a letter to their teachers. In it, have the child include his or her strengths and struggles in the classroom. It’s also helpful to have student-led conferences where children can address their needs and ways staff can support. This creates confidence and personal responsibility in children. 

Once students are in college, they need to know their legal rights under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Learning disabilities need to be documented by an educational psychologist before students take exams like the ACT or SAT. By documenting their disability needs, students can receive helpful accommodations like extended time on placement tests. 

Special Education Attorneys

Special education attorneys can be hired for help with things like dispute resolution, mediation, specialized school placement, or when a school fails to follow a student’s IEP. Attorneys usually work with a special education advocate to solve problems. Attorneys should only be hired as a last resort because they charge much higher fees and aren’t needed in every situation. 

While advocates guide parents through the special education process, attorneys are legal professionals who represent parents in school disputes. Some of their duties overlap, however. The following roles can be done by both advocates and attorneys. 

  • Negotiate and write letters to schools on your behalf
  • Review IEP and 504 plans and attend their meetings
  • Give advice on schools, evaluators, service providers, and specialists
  • Recommend strategies for working with a school
  • Give information and answer questions about child rights

Advocates cannot practice law, but they can represent parents in impartial hearings or due processes in some states. Many advocates are former education specialists or teachers. They are helpful for sharing information about local school systems, assistive technology, behavior strategies, teaching methods, and education services. 

Some schools allow special education advocates to facilitate meetings and mediate. Other schools are less receptive to advocates and may hire a lawyer if you include an advocate in meetings. Advocates typically charge lower fees than attorneys. 

Attorneys are required to have a license to practice law in any given state. Attorneys can represent parents in state and federal lawsuits, represent parents in impartial hearings and due processes, prepare legal documents and complaints, and offer legal advice. Attorneys focus on the legal side but can specialize in special education. 

By bringing an attorney to meetings, you show the school that you’re serious about your concerns, and schools will typically hire an attorney of their own. Attorneys typically charge much higher fees than advocates that can cost more than $100 per hour. 

Conclusion

Consider hiring an advocate if you need help obtaining the best education for your child with special needs. Advocates can help you create IEPs, settle disputes, understand special education law, and much more. To find an advocate, start by asking for personal referrals or using the resources mentioned in this guide. From there, you can create a list of candidates, interview advocates, and hire the best fit. 

While advocates do not need to be licensed, they should have training and experience with interacting with local school systems, helping children with similar disabilities, and understanding special education law. If you need help settling legal disputes, it’s best to hire a special education attorney. Whether you decide to hire an advocate, it’s important to help your child develop self-advocacy skills throughout their education. 

I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment below! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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