By Alison Bell
Almost all parents at one time or the other are called into the school to talk about their child’s behavior or academic performance. And if your child has an individualized education program (IEP), you probably attend regular meetings.
It’s all too easy to feel intimidated by teachers or administrators and fail to speak up or make informed decisions. How to best be an advocate for your child? Hillsides school liaisons Melvyn Washington and Delfino Hernandez offer the following tips. They spend their days lobbying for the educational rights of the children who reside in Hillsides Residential Treatment Services for children unable to live at home, and their first-hand advice can help you, too:
- Read your school’s Parents’ Rights Handbook. Every district has such a handbook, and each school should have copies available. “It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with it and learn what your rights are,” says Washington.
- Take your child with you to meetings. While not all meetings may be appropriate for your child to attend, in general, it’s a good idea for your child to accompany you. “You want your child to play a role in their own education and be part of the discussion,” says Hernandez. Adds Washington: “It’s also good for kids to see that their parents are taking an interest in them and advocating for them.”
- Exercise your right to ask questions. It’s difficult to always understand the concepts being discussed at a school meeting because educators may throw around insider terms and acronyms you‘re unfamiliar with. “If you don’t understand something, ask,” says Washington. “Say something like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m a lay person; please explain to me exactly what you mean.’” It’s also a good idea to take notes during a meeting, or bring another adult with you who can take notes while you ask the questions because sometimes it’s hard for one person to absorb all the information.
- Never sign an IEP document at the end of the meeting. Instead, take the document home and carefully review it so you are not rushed into a decision. If you’re unsure of any of the language or conditions, you may want to ask the advice of an attorney or educational consultant. “This is a legally binding contract and you want to make sure you are totally happy with it before you sign,” says Washington. “If there is something you disagree with, go back and ask to have it changed.”
- Keep in mind that you, not the school, are the expert on your child. “You may think the school is looking after your kid, but in reality, the school is looking after itself,” says Washington. “Often the decisions a school makes are more about funding than the child. This is why in the end, there is only one best advocate for your child, and that’s you.”
Alison Bell serves as the communications and development associate in Hillsides advancement services and is an author and writing instructor.