Mark Coleman, left, leaves the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library with his children Drew, center, and Will after checking out books for the holiday break. Coleman has learned he needs support to best advocate for Drew, who receives special education services at school. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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A school superintendent once gave Diane Woodard advice that changed the way she approached advocating for her child to receive special education services. 

“You will never find a school district that will offer – offer – to do what is right for your child. Because it’s all about money,” Woodard said he told her. 

“When I heard that superintendent tell me that, that changed me as a parent,” she said. “I no longer expected that the school was going to do what my child needed. I had to fight for it.”

Woodard, a longtime educator, went through the process decades ago and said it wasn’t easy, especially because her daughter’s disability could seem “invisible.” 

Now, having spent the past few years working for the Disability Rights Center of Kansas as an advocate, she’s seen how hard it still is for some parents to get approval for services their child needs. 

Sometimes the center offers legal aid, but Woodard also advises parents over the phone and refers them to other agencies. 

“I tell the parents, ‘There is no one that knows your child better than you do. The school is going to tell you that they know better what your child needs. But that’s not true. You know what your child needs,’” she said.

Here are four tips from Woodard and other experts about how to be the best possible advocate for your child. In another story, we also cover the special education process in more detail. 

1. Document everything

Keeping track of information about your child’s special education plan in writing can help you understand and advocate for their needs. 

For example, if your child had specific struggles or improvements during remote learning that taught you something about their educational needs, keeping track of their performance in writing can help you start a conversation about how to adjust their Individualized Education Plan, said Debby Loveall-Stewart, executive director of Missouri Parents Act.

MPACT is a federally funded nonprofit that provides information and training for parents. An IEP is a program tailored to individual students, so they can receive an education appropriate for their needs.  

Woodard suggests parents complete an exercise where they ask themselves what their child is good at, what they need that they aren’t getting, what parts of the IEP are working, and what needs to be changed. They should then consider what needs are non-negotiable or open to compromise to prepare for meetings.  

Putting things in writing can also make it easier to hold your school accountable. 

For example, if you verbally request for your child to be evaluated for special education services but don’t put the request in writing, there won’t be a record of when you made the request. It’s important to have that record because your school has a deadline to make a decision. 

If you make a spoken agreement to amend an IEP but don’t put that consensus in writing, you also risk not having that part of the plan fulfilled. 

“You cannot hold a school accountable for something they verbally said at an IEP meeting,” Woodard said. “It’s got to be in writing if you want to make a formal complaint that they didn’t follow what they said they were going to do.”

Finally, make sure you’re receiving and keeping track of all documents from your child’s school and other agencies so you can fully understand your child’s needs and their education plan. 

“You’re going to be inundated with paperwork,” said Sarah Otto, executive director of nonprofit Advocacy in Motion. “Find a filing system to organize it. That is probably the one of the most overwhelming things of having a child with a disability.”

2. Use available resources for special education advocacy and support

There are a number of resources in both Missouri and Kansas to help you navigate the special education process and understand your child’s rights. 

Each state has a federally funded nonprofit to educate parents to have a voice in their child’s education. 

Missouri’s organization, MPACT, provides online trainings on topics like effective communication, understanding the IEP and dispute resolution. The website also has extensive written information on topics such as communication.

While the group won’t advocate on your behalf, it does provide one-on-one assistance to about 3,000 families a year to help them learn how to advocate for themselves, executive director Debby Loveall-Stewart said. 

Families Together, Inc. offers similar services in Kansas. 

Resources for families of children with disabilities

Missouri Parents Act: Offers information, training and one-on-one support to help you learn how to advocate for your child. 

Families Together, Inc.: A federally funded parent training and information center like MPACT, serving Kansas. 

Disability Rights Center of Kansas: Offers advocacy and legal aid and publishes guides on a variety of issues affecting people with disabilities, including educational issues. 

Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services: Nonprofit law firm providing advocacy and legal services to people with disabilities, including on education issues. 

Advocacy in Motion: Offers educational advocacy, including support at IEP meetings, for families in Missouri and Kansas. Fees can be reduced in the case of financial need. 

If you need legal assistance, there are groups in both states that can help.

The Disability Rights Center of Kansas provides free legal services to people with disabilities, including for some education issues. Even if the center isn’t able to take your case, advocates like Woodard can provide some guidance or referrals to other organizations. 

The center also has a detailed guide to special education rights on its website. 

Loveall-Stewart said MPACT would refer Missourians who need legal assistance to Missouri Protection and Advocacy or Legal Aid

Advocacy in Motion is a nonprofit that works with families in both Missouri and Kansas, offering educational advocacy among other services. For a fee that can be waived or reduced for families with financial need, the group can have an expert such as Otto attend an IEP meeting. 

3. Build your team for IEP meetings

When you attend an IEP meeting, expect a large team of people who work with your student. 

Ideally, you have a good relationship with each person, and they have your child’s best interests at heart. 

“Nobody at that education table has gone into it for the money and the fame,” Otto said. “You know, everybody at that education table has gone into it with heart and with the training and experience that they have. I think that as long as teachers can be continuous lifelong learners themselves, we can have a really great working team.”

At the same time, it can be intimidating to be faced with a group of educators who all know one another well, understand the same jargon and may already have reached a consensus on what they think your child needs. 

Mark Coleman, whose son has Down syndrome, said sometimes there are nine to 11 educators in his IEP meetings. His son attends Shawnee Mission School District.

Coleman, who is a board member of Advocacy in Motion, said IEP meetings can get emotional for parents and it can help to have someone asking clarifying questions, ensuring parents understand what is happening, and suggesting tweaks to IEP language. 

“If you have the ability to take somebody like a Sarah Otto or someone who is trained and has experience in helping families and students navigate the IEP process then you should by all means have somebody there with you,” he said. 

Woodard said she sometimes talks to families who go alone to IEP meetings with eight school representatives. 

“Do you think there’s a problem here?” she asks. “You’re going to ask for a one-on-one (paraprofessional for your child), and you’ve got eight people saying, ‘No.’ Do you think it’s going to happen? No, it’s not going to happen.’ … Here’s what I tell parents, build a team. Try and balance that table.”

Members of your team can include people who work with your child outside of school, disability advocates, or experts on their condition. If your child’s doctor can’t attend, Woodard said it’s worth asking if anyone from their office can stand in for them, or having them write a letter. 

4. Be a strong advocate for special education needs, but maintain good relationships 

Experts say it’s important to stand up for your point of view if you don’t think your child is getting the proper services. But it’s also important to do so respectfully and maintain good relationships with educators. 

“It’s real easy for parents to end up in tears during an IEP meeting. If you’ve got people sitting with you and you’re prepared, it’s less likely,” Woodard said. “And you’re going to be able to be more respectful and stay calm.”

Coleman and Otto said that Advocacy in Motion has a good reputation with school districts and seeks to be seen as a “problem solver” that makes communication go more smoothly. 

MPACT seeks to reach parents before they get into conflicts with school districts that require mediation, offering training on good communication. But Loveall-Stewart said families don’t always learn about those resources before they have a problem. 

“When families come to us, though, their communication with the school district is usually very severed. And the emotions are really high,” she said. 

“We would love for families to come to us when things are good,” she added. “But the nature of who we are, what we do and supporting people, it’s usually in their crisis situations.” 

“I talk to families often who are like, ‘I wish to God I knew about you a long time ago,’” said Alisha Ogden, multicultural coordinator for MPACT. “So getting the word out is so important, that there is help.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.