The Parent as Advocate  
Spain, Spain & Varnet, P.C.
33 North Dearborn St. Suite 2220
Chicago, IL 60602
(312) 220-9112
Fax: (312) 220-9261
  Reprinted with the permission of Theresa M. Varnet
Spain, Spain & Varnet, P.C.

    The following information is presented to you to enable you to be a more effective advocate for the student (your protege) who has special needs. In most cases, you will be this child's only advocate and it is important that you understand what your rights are as a parent as well as what your protege's rights are as a student with special needs. As the parent, you have the right and responsibility to participate in the development of the student's special education program. You are a very important member of the Special Education Team. The following information is offered as "tips" to help you play a more active, informed role in the development and monitoring of the student's Individual Education Plan (IEP).

    • Remember that you are a professional member of the special education team that will determine the student's special education placement and level of services. The other members of the team (teachers, psychologists, therapists) must consult with you regarding their recommendations for the student. Your success as an advocate requires that you be confident about your abilities and your rights as a parent.
    • Read about the student's special needs. Talk with other professionals and other parents of children with similar special education needs. (It may be helpful to join a special interest organization that addresses the specific educational, social or legal rights of particular disabilities such as the ARC (association for retarded citizens, LDA (learning disabiities association, CHAD (children with attention deficit disorder), etc.)
    • Use the knowledge and skills you already have. You can become more knowledgeable about issues such as advocacy, communications and organizational skills, negotiations and conflict resolution by reading books available through your public library or parent advocacy centers such as the Family Resource Center located at 20 East Jackson St., Chicago, IL.
    • Remember that you are the primary decision maker for the student. No changes in the student's placement or services should occur without your approval.

    • It is important that you maintain an up to date, personal file on each student that you advocate for as a parent. This home file should include the following information:
      • names of regular education teacher and special education teacher
      • name and address of school
      • principal's name and phone number
      • school psychologist
      • related services personnel such as therapists, aides, consultants and even the name of the bus driver and phone number of the bus company
    • A copy of the revised edition of "A Parent's Guide: The Educational Rights of Students with Disabilities"
    • Copies of all report cards
    • Copies of test results, assessment reports, and recommendations from independent assessments.
    • Copies of all written letters and notes to and from school personnel
    • Copies of all written communication with outside professionals regarding the student's unique needs
    • Dated notes on parent/teacher conferences (even informal conferences with the student's teacher)
    • Dated notes on conversations with the student's physician, social worker or other professional who sees the student.
    • Dated notes on all telephone conversations with school personnel or others regarding the student
    • A list of all medications being given to the student at home and at school as authorized by the student's physician. Include the kind of medication, time and dosage information and possible side effects. In addition, note the prescription numbers as well as any changes in dosage or reaction.

    • Schedule a pre-assessment conference with the student's teacher of school psychologist. Know what evaluations will be done and who will do them. Ask for other evaluations if you think they are necessary.
    • Meet with the student and ask him/her what kind of help s/he thinks s/he needs. If the student is severely disabled, observe his/her interactions in his/her present class as to whether or not it appears to be an appropriate placement, if the student appears happy and comfortable in the classroom, interacts with his/her classmates, etc.
    • Ask for copies of all school records and review them before the IEP meeting. Under the IL School Records Act you have the right to look at any relevant records in the student's file and to make copies of records. Read the records carefully and make notes of those issues you want to discuss at the IEP meeting or of any questions that you may have.

    • At the IEP meeting, you will want to know:
      • Who is at the meeting and why?
      • How much time did each member spend observing the student?
      • What were the test results in understandable terms?
      • Who is going to make sure the IEP is implemented?
      • When you can observe the program recommended by the IEP team?
      • When progress reports will be given?
    • You may want to bring a friend or family member to the IEP meeting to assist you in taking notes or to discuss the meeting with you afterwards
    • Invite professionals that know the student or ask them to send a report if you feel the information will be of assistance in determining the student's needs
    • Remember that you too are a professional member of the IEP team. Stand straight, shake hands firmly, and maintain eye contact as you are introduced to other participants. If no one begins the introductions, do it yourself. Speak clearly and maintain eye contact while you are talking
    • Arrive promptly
    • Make note of who is present so that you can compare the names with the attendance sheet on the IEP
    • Be as specific as possible in discussing the student's needs. Be positive and be clear.
    • Make positive statements, such as "I expect. I understand. This student needs..." That way there is less chance that other people will misunderstand what you say. You will feel more confident and be more effective.
    • Feel free to ask questions or for clarification of anything you don't understand
    • Be flexible enough to accept minor revisions, but be firm about the major issues
    • It may not be possible to finish all the business at hand in one session, even when things are going smoothly. It's best to reconvene the IEP meeting to stay fresh rather than rush just to finish up. This is particularly important when a change of placement is being considered.

    • In reviewing the student's IEP be sure the following information is included:
      • The student's strengths (that is, what can s/he do),
      • the student's weaknesses (that is, are there any physical constraints or specific need areas),
      • the student's learning style (how s/he learns best),
      • the general goals and specific objectives,
      • the suggested teaching methods for meeting the goal,
      • the evaluation procedure for measuring the effectiveness of the IEP and the student's progress,
      • a description of the student's participation in regular education activities such as academic, non-academic, extracurricular activities,
      • the help that the student's regular or special education teacher needs to implement the IEP and who will provide that help,
      • any modification of the school rules that is required because of the student's disability,
      • the types and amounts of services necessary for the student to achieve the general goals,
      • the service providers responsible for carrying out each part of the IEP,
      • the student's transportation needs (how will s/he get to school?),
      • where the services are to be provided, such as in a classroom, small group or on an individual basis,
      • the types of specialized materials or assistive technology necessary to enable the student to meet the objectives,
      • how long and how often the student will receive related services,
      • the dates on which services will begin,
      • if the student is 14 years or older, a transition plan that addresses what services or skills the student will need upon graduation from high school,
    • Maintain close contact with the student's teacher. You may want to have regular meetings, have a daily notebook or regular telephone calls. Share information and suggestions. Be supportive. Listen to the teacher's feelings and ideas.
    • If you think the student's teachers are doing a good job, tell them so. Thank teachers and other members of the IEP team, including the principal and special education director when they have done something you appreciate.
    • Go over the student's IEP every few months to consider if it's working, if the services agreed upon are being given and if the student is happy and making progress in his/her placement.
    • If the IEP is not working, ask for a meeting of all the people involved to discuss the IEP and change the IEP if necessary.

    • Talk with the student's teacher or liaison person to see if you can work out the problem. Sometimes the problem is a simple misunderstanding and can be resolved by asking questions or explaining why you are concerned and what you expect. Remember that you are a member of the IEP team and should try to work cooperatively with other IEP team members to resolve problems.
    • If this does not work out, send a letter to the school representative responsible for monitoring the student's program. You may also want to send a copy to the principal and special education director. (Remember to keep a copy for the student's home file.)
    • Call the school representative three days after s/he receives the letter to ask what has been done about the problem or what will be done.
    • If the school representative is not able to solve the problem, contact the special education director for resolution of the problem.
    • If necessary, contact the Illinois State Board of Education, Monitoring and Compliance Division (217) 782-6601.
    • If all else fails, you can request a hearing for a Level I due process hearing before an independent hearing officer to resolve the problem.

    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students with handicapping conditions be educated to the maximum extent possible with students who are not handicapped. This is a very controversial issue and it is important that you, as a parent, understand what integration means and doesn't mean.

    • What does integration mean?
      • all students learning together regardless of the type or severity of their disabilities,
      • all students having their unique needs met in the same setting,
      • providing the necessary supports and special services within regular schools,
      • supporting regular education teachers,
      • having students with disabilities follow the same schedule as students without disabilities,
      • all students participating in all facets of school life, academic classes and non-academic and extracurricular activities, including art, music, gym, field trips, assemblies and graduation exercises,
      • encouraging friendships and social relationships between students with disabilities and without disabilities,
      • students with disabilities receiving their education and job training in regularcommunity environments,
      • teaching all children to understand and accept human differences
      • students with disabilities attending the same school they would attend if they did not have disabilities,
      • taking parents concerns seriously,
      • providing an appropriate individualized educational program,
      • students learning side by side even though they have some different educational goals,
      • using innovative teaching strategies for student's varied learning styles,
      • integrating related services in the regular classroom.

    • What Integration does not mean:
      • "dumping" children with disabilities into regular programs without necessary supports and services,
      • locating special education classes in separate wings at a regular school,
      • grouping students with a wide range of disabilities in the same program,
      • ignoring students' needs,
      • exposing students to unnecessary hazards or risks,
      • placing unreasonable demands on teachers and administrators,
      • isolating students with disabilities in regular schools,
      • placing older students with disabilities at schools for younger students or other age-inappropriate settings,
      • maintaining separate schedules for students in special education and regulareducation,
      • trading off quality for integration,
      • doing away with or cutting back on special education services,
      • all students doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way,
      • sacrificing the education of typical students.
    • There are many known and documented benefits for integrating students with disabilities for all children. However a parent should monitor the plans for inclusion very carefully to be sure that the school is truly trying to benefit the student in its plan to include him/her in regular education and not merely trying to reduce the need for special education classes or reduce special education spending.
    • At the IEP meeting, make sure the details of the student's inclusion plan are included. Be as specific as possible as to the supports and services that will be provided by the school in order to enable the student to benefit from his/her IEP in the integrated placement.
The above information was developed with the assistance of the following resources:
  1. Purposeful Integration...Inherently Equal by S.Taylor, et al.
  2. Getting to yes— Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Barbara Buswell and Judy Veneris
  3. UNM Institute for Parent Involvement, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  4. Federation for Children with Special Needs, Boston, MA
  5. Family Resource Center on Disabilities, Chicago, IL
  6. A Parent's Guide: The Educational Rights of Students with Disabilities, Illinois State Board of Education
     This material is intended to offer general information to clients, and potential clients, of the firm, which information is current to the best of our knowledge on the date indicated below. The information is general and should not be treated as specific legal advice applicable to a particular situation. Spain, Spain & Varnet P.C. assumes no responsibility for any individual's reliance on the information disseminated unless, of course, that reliance is as a result of the firm's specific recommendation made to a client as part of our representation of the client. Please note that changes in the law occur and that information contained herein may need to be reverified from time to time to ensure it is still current. This information was last updated August 18, 1996.

Revised: July 18, 2002.