How to Advocate for Your Child

No one knows your child better than you, so it's time to speak up if the school year isn't going as well as expected.

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yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">By Jean Sheff

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One Step at a Time
Check the 9 steps in the process of advocacy
Unbelievable as it may seem, the school year is almost half over. Parents and teachers across the county are asking themselves, "How's it going?" Because each school year is different, you never quite know what to expect come September. As parents we all root for our little ones. Of course, we all want them to have the best year possible. And in most cases, the year is probably running more smoothly than not. Homework may be an issue, decimals might be confusing, the playground scene might be a little tougher, but generally things are going well.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">And then again, what if they're not? As a parent, you may have lingering concerns that your child is having more than an ordinary challenge learning new information, staying on task or getting along with their peers. Experts agree, a parent is most likely the first person to spot their child's learning issues, so don't dismiss your hunches. January is the time when teachers – and parents – often address a child's learning problems by asking the school's Committee on Special Education (CSE) to review a child's learning issues. If you want to do best by your child, learn to become their advocate. It can be a hard, complicated job but armed with information and a plan, you can help your child make the most of their school days.


What is Section 504?

You may hear about a “504 plan” and wonder if your child qualifies. As part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Congress passed Section 504. It is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities by eliminating barriers and allowing full participation. A handicapped person is defined by 504 as a person with a mental or physical impairment that limits their major life activities. This may involve performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning and working to a substantial degree. Being eligible for 504 is not a consolation prize for children who are not eligible for special education services.

The school system will need to make an assessment as to your child's eligibility. If your child is eligible, a plan will be implemented to provide access to the general education curriculum.

We Have a Problem

"The earlier you face the issues the better off you are, because if there is a problem it will only get worse," says Alysa Sasson, a Larchmont mother of two children who receive special education services, and a special education law consultant. Sometimes it's not that easy. Plenty of parents go into serious denial, they don't want to know that anything could be wrong. "That's not unusual," says Sasson. Then again some parents overreact and blow small problems out of proportion. In order to best help your child you must stand back and look at the big picture, explains Sasson.

Understand that educators are used to dealing with measurable data. A "feeling" doesn't carry the weight of concrete information. If you believe your child is having trouble with homework, be specific about your concerns. Specific questions such as, "Johnny is spending three hours a night on homework and once a week the evenings end with tears, is that the norm for a third-grader?" are good to bring to the attention of your child's teacher.

"Use common sense," advises Sasson. "First, have a discussion with your child's teacher, ask if they have similar concerns." If the teacher is not receptive, you may consider speaking with the guidance counselor, school psychologist, principal or the district's director of special education. Once again, approach any meeting with concrete examples of your child's difficulty and look to work together on solving the problem. Private testing can be costly and not an option for parents, but it is a back-up plan if your concerns are not being addressed. "It can be hard not to become emotional but that will not help you or your child," says Sasson.

With respect to being heard, the law is on a parent’s side. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended in 1997 to recognize that a parent’s participation in the educational planning for children with disabilities is key to a child's success. In explaining the law, Sasson says parents are entitled to have an opportunity to participate in meetings, confer on educational plans and are actually considered to be part of the team that determines and develops what course to take. "Know that you are seen as an active participant," Sasson says.


What to Do

What can you do if the problem is so complex or if you are just so confused you don't know what to do? That's when parents often consult with specialists like Sasson or organizations like Student Advocacy, Inc., a 20-year-old, nonprofit organization based in Elmsford that offers assistance for parents in obtaining school services that meet the child's educational needs.

Student Advocacy's Executive Director Lisa Syron, encourages parents to call their intake line. "The first call takes just five minutes," says Syron. Your basic information and concerns are documented and an education advocate is then assigned to work with you and your child. "You receive a call-back within 24 to 48 hours." Services are charged on a sliding scale basis. Syron explains that one-third of the callers just need technical information that can be supplied immediately while another third ask the service to review their child's records and make suggestions, often at no cost. A final third, which are subject to the sliding scale fee, ask Student Advocacy to advocate for them. Student Advocacy and other professionals specializing in this field can help walk you through the process so you are prepared and knowledgeable along the way. But be prepared to think for yourself – remember you know your child best.

If the school has come to you or if you have secured their agreement for a CSE review, the next step is often testing which can help educators identify the problem. Even if you have done outside testing as part of the documentation of your child's problem, the school will most likely elect to do their own testing as well.

soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">"Ideally parents should understand not just what the numbers are on the tests, and there may be many tests involved, but they should understand what the scores mean," explains Patricia Pojer, M.S. Ed., a learning specialist and special educator based in Pleasantville. "In reviewing the tests we can draw probable conclusions; it's much like detective work." For example if your child's IQ tests well above average, say 130, but reading scores reflect comprehension to be below grade level, that discrepancy indicates a problem. You can ask to see test results prior to the CSE meeting and review them with a specialist at the school or an outside professional. "It's important to always ask questions," says Pojer. "Even the most intelligent, educated parent can feel like a deer caught in the headlights during these meetings."

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Even making sure the proper tests are administered is often an issue. "Attention deficit is considered a medical disorder, so while a teacher might be able to speak about the symptoms they could not make a diagnosis," explains Syron. "Sometimes issues are not only educational, they may require medical or psychological testing."

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soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Let's Meet

soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Once testing is complete, parents, and their advocates if they wish, attend a CSE meeting where test results are reviewed and an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) is presented which looks to insure that the child's educational needs are met. Sasson believes parents should have a good idea of the services they hope to obtain for their child. Pojer says that parents need to consider at least these five questions which should be addressed during the meeting:

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• How do my child's issues impact their learning?

soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• What strategies can be delivered to help?

soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• Who will deliver the services?

soNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• Who will communicate with parents and in what manner?

Verdana">• How will we assess progress and when will we review the plan?

The IEP is considered a legal document and you should not sign it until you fully understand all the information, advises Sasson. "You are allowed to take the IEP home to review it," she explains. You can even agree to some, but not all provisions. You should realize that the school is not obligated under law to maximize a child's potential. They are, however, required to provide each child with an appropriate education. "Sometimes parents have to be realistic, there is a chance the school will not grant all of their requests."

If parents are at an impasse with the school district there are legal actions that can be taken. But these efforts can get costly. In this area, the nonprofit organization Westchester Putnam Legal Services can assist parents with legal education problems and help them negotiate with their school district. There are no fees for their services.


Working It Out

Verdana">Most experts agree, for best results appeal to your child's teacher and school specialists in a manner that elicits their cooperation and respect. Everyone should be keeping what's best for the child as the ultimate goal. "By preserving relationships you'll get more," says Pojer. This may also be an ongoing process. Parents must be constantly vigilant. There may not be a quick solution. "As parents we all want to have our child's problems fixed yesterday," explains Syron. "Sometimes insisting on speed can work against the process; complicated issues usually take time to resolve."

If you are a parent looking for help with your child's educational issues, some of the agencies mentioned may be of service or you can ask the specialists in your school or community, network with other parents or contact educational organizations that specialize in your child's problem area for guidance. Whatever action you take, everyone should work together for a positive outcome.



One Step at a Time

Advocating for your child is a step-by-step process that takes time, patience and knowledge. Handled correctly, the outcome can make all the difference in your child's school experience.

• Acknowledge the problem

• Gather fact-based information

• Forge educational relationships

• Obtain accurate and prompt diagnosis

• Obtain educational assistance for your child

• Monitor progress of the educational program

• Reevaluate the program over time

• Help your child develop a lasting positive sense of self-esteem

• Continue to be vigilant in your advocacy

Return to Top


• Student Advocacy, Inc.,
– 347-3313, 347-7039 (assistance in Spanish), – Assistance for parents needing help securing school services that meet a child's educational needs. 3 W. Main St., Elmsford, NY 10523.

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• Westchester Putnam Legal Services
– 949-1305 – Legal services for parents seeking help with their child's unresolved educational issues.

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"mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">Books

"mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">• Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy - The Special Education Survival Guide, by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright, Harbor House Law Press, 2001; $29.95.

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• Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
, by Winifred Anderson, Woodbine House, 1997; $16.95.

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"mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">On the Web

"mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">• Schwab Learning – – A comprehensive site guiding parents in dealing with their child's learning difficulties. Spanish text available. Download free publications plus links to other valuable sites.

• New York State Education Department
Special Education main page, .
Help for parents page,


Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family, a United Parenting Publication.
January 2004.