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  • Writer's pictureCarolee Jackson

The Top 3 Reasons You Need an (Effective) Advocate

When considering how best to get the necessary supports and resources for their child's education, parents are inundated with tons of information on the internet, recommendations from friends and family members, and hopefully, input from their child's school. However, even with this deluge of information, it can be challenging to figure out what next steps to take, what questions to ask, and how to know if a support or resource is right for their child. That's where an advocate comes in.

An advocate, often called an Educational Advocate, Child/Family Advocate, or Educational Consultant, is a trained professional knowledgeable in the systems, supports, and services that schools provide. They have experience working in schools, so they understand the inner-workings of the system. They learn your child's and family's needs and work with you and the school to ensure that your voice is heard and your child's needs are met.

Still wondering why you might need to add an advocate to your child's village? Read on!

1. YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU NEED. As a parent of a child struggling in school, you know that you need answers. You know your child needs help. You know something needs to change. But, you likely feel confused about where to start, what to ask for, and even who to contact.

An effective advocate can do something for you that you aren't likely to do for yourself - ask you questions! In consultation with an advocate, you can tell your child's story, you can share all of your effort and struggles, and you can dream together about what your child's educational future can look like. Your advocate can then boil down all of this information to help you identify clear goals to work toward together. Your advocate can tell you what hills to die on, which ones to let go of, and what your rights as a parent are along the way. They can help you develop a real plan of action so that you don't spend sleepless nights jumping from one anxious thought to the next - you will have a plan for your child, so you can sleep tight.

2. YOU DON'T WANT TO GO IT ALONE. Sitting across the table from teachers, school staff, and other professionals can be an extremely intimidating and daunting experience, even when things are going WELL! Parents often feel like they don't know what to say, or what questions to ask, because they are intimidated by the knowledge and experience in the room. During IEP, 504, or problem-solving meetings, you are going to be inundated by information, reports, documents, people, and forms to sign. It's easy to get lost in all of it! If you're not careful, you might leave that meeting having signed papers you're unsure of, agreeing to a plan for your child that you don't understand, and feeling like your voice wasn't heard at all.

An effective advocate will help you feel confident going into a meeting. They will ask questions just to ensure that the professionals are explaining things slowly and thoroughly so you are informed. They will clarify details and the intended, or unintended, consequences of certain decisions so they are transparent to you. They will check with you to make sure you understand. They will help to keep the conversation focused so it makes sense. Your advocate knows your rights, the rights of the school, and the responsibility that the school has to provide or deny certain services to your child. You will have your own knowledgeable and experienced partner walking you through this process to ensure you are an engaged and vocal part of the team. You'll walk away knowing what your child's plan is, what services they are receiving (or why not), and understanding the documents you agreed to and signed.

3. YOU'RE EMOTIONALLY INVESTED. This is a good thing! You're supposed to be emotionally invested in your child's education and future! However, "Mama/Papa Bear mode" doesn't always yield the best results when it comes to facilitating tense or tricky conversations. When you're brain is firing from the pre-frontal cortex (one of the main centers for emotional processing), you might have a hard time asking questions that are focused on facts, data, and outcomes, or even persuading professionals of your point of view. Have you ever been in a situation where you got so flustered that you couldn't get your words out right, only to have the best argument come to you hours later? Yeah…we've all been there as parents. When your emotions run high, the professionals at the table can feel attacked, appear defensive, not understand you, and ultimately will not be as open to partnering with you to find creative solutions for your child. It's simply human nature.

An effective advocate channels your passion and emotion for your child into focused questions, facilitated dialogue, and discussions around data, facts, and your child's outcomes. When the energy in the room gets tense, the advocate works to soften it. When professionals try to talk around the issues, the advocate focuses the discussion and grounds them in data. An advocate who can cause parents and professionals alike to feel at ease at the table together will be the most effective in developing partnerships that will benefit your child's future. This open partnership results in beautiful, creative collaboration - the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that you really want when trying to address your child's unique needs. Ultimately, despite your emotions, your advocate will ensure that your voice is heard and your child's needs are being addressed.

*The above description is ideally what an effective advocate will be able to provide for you. However, it is important to note that advocates are humans too, and they can become very passionate about their work and their clients. I have sat on the professionals' side of the table numerous times feeling attacked, accused, or demeaned by aggressive and emotional advocates. I have watched as the teachers and staff members around me physically closed themselves off to the daggers. And I have seen even the best-intentioned advocates completely derail collaborative efforts on behalf of the child. This is truly a pity because their clients will never get the same level of service and outcomes through these methods. Rather than finding common ground, regardless of the issues, these advocates encourage parents and schools to take sides, ultimately drawing battle lines that don't need to exist. If you find yourself working with an advocate whose aggression and communication style causes the school staff to become defensive and uncollaborative, please, do yourself and your child a favor: find a new advocate!

Ready to have an effective advocate join your team? Contact me today for a FREE consultation!

This post in no way guarantees a particular outcome or experience as every situation is as unique as every child.

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