A Parents' Guide to Advocating for Their Special Needs Child

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Parents of children with disabilities have the often complex and challenging task of resolving a dispute with their school district over the appropriatenesss of their child's educational program and services. Any child may need servcies and supports in several areas such as specialized instruction, counseling, speech or occupational therapy. Parents may find themselves confronted with professional jargon that may seem incomprehensible to anyone without professional training. There are also legal standards that apply to the development of an IEP for the child. The legal rules will provide the criteria to be applied in the resolution of a legal dispute over the appropriateness of a child's IEP.

Despite these challenges, parents can become effective advocates for their children in this process. Under the law, parents are full members of the IEP team, and have the right to fully participate in the development or revision of their child's IEP. The parent does not have to be the educational or legal expert. It's important to ask for explanations of anything that you don't understand in a school document, such as an evaluation report, progress report or a lengthy IEP. It is also helpful to consult the many sources of information available on the internet. There is a wealth of material available that can help you to gain an understanding of your child's disability, effecive interventions in the school setting and the legal rights and obligations of school districts and parents.

However, even the most diligent efforts by parents may not lead to a satisfactory resolution of your concern. If you are not sure if your child is recieving appropriate educational services, it may be time to obtain an independent evaluation by a professional in the area of concern e.g., by a speech pathologist or school psychologist, or to contact a lawyer who has knowledge and experience in the area of special education. Consultations with professionals outside of the school district will often help parents to obtain a greater understanding of their child's needs, and to understand their legal options. The better informed you are, the more effectively you will be able to advocate for your child in IEP meetings or in less formal interactions with school personnel. The understanding and insights of outside professionals may also help parents to decide whether more formal legal action is advisable.

The final and perhaps most important point is to remember that parents bring to the table their own knowledge and insights concerning their children's unique strengths and needs. That is something that only the parents can contribute. It's the parents' input that allows an Individual Education Program to be truly individualized for their child.

Additional Resources

Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education Consult Line 1 800 879 2301 Wrightslaw.com Education Law Center, 215 238 6970 or www.elc-pa.org

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