On the road to meeting a student’s special needs, families must go through an exhaustive process involving complicated policies, convoluted lingo, and numerous documents. Parents trying to navigate this process may benefit from the help of a special education advocate—an expert who can help educate and advise parents seeking support for their children. Special education advocates play a vital role in helping families know their rights and get the services that will allow their children to succeed.
Role and Responsibilities
What is the role of the special education advocate? Special education advocates help parents make sure a child’s special needs are met. They help parents understand available services, interpret test results, and work with schools to plan individualized education programs (IEPs).
For a student with special needs, learning concerns take many forms. A special education advocate helps families address previously identified learning challenges, as well as pinpoint overlooked factors that may be affecting a child’s ability to learn. These include:
- Learning disabilities
- Intellectual disabilities
- Vision and hearing impairments
- Speech and language disorders
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Behavioral and emotional disorders
- Physical disabilities
- Chronic illness
- Traumatic brain injury
A special education advocate takes on many responsibilities. To empower families and give a voice to students, special education advocates perform the following duties:
- Advising parents about services, programs, and accommodations that meet their children’s individual needs
- Helping parents interpret reports and evaluations, as well as explaining their implications
- Drafting requests, responses, and complaints to schools
- Assisting parents with submitting written requests
- Preparing parents for IEP and 504 meetings (meetings that outline the services and accommodations students will receive and how schools will remove barriers to learning, such as providing a talking calculator to students with dyscalculia), which may include suggesting support materials or prioritizing goals and objectives
- Checking special education documents for accuracy and completion both before and after IEP and 504 meetings
- Accompanying parents to IEP and 504 meetings to offer advice and assistance
- Advising parents about the strength of their cases before review and offering referrals to special education attorneys when appropriate
How Special Education Advocates Help Families
A complex system of federal, state, and local laws, plus policies and regulations, oversees special education. These laws, policies, and regulations detail:
- Students’ eligibility for special services
- Parents’ rights and protections regarding participation in their children’s education
- Services and accommodations available
Each of these aspects of special education involves a process, and each process is governed by rules and regulations. Special education advocates help families navigate not only the laws but also the processes by which schools implement legislation. Their expertise gives parents a chance to participate in shaping their children’s education.
Parents often lack knowledge of these systems, laws, and best practices. Furthermore, schools use a litany of terms and abbreviations—for example, CSE (committee on special education) or IFSP (individualized family service plan)—that can leave parents struggling to keep up in discussions about their children’s special needs. Special education advocates fill in parental knowledge gaps.
Additionally, parents often display sensitivity when dealing with issues regarding their children. Advocates assist parents who may feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Advocates also help parents gauge their children’s progress. In situations when parents believe their children may be stalling or even regressing, special education advocates guide parents through the steps to address the situation.
Special Education Advocate Careers
Those interested in a career as a special education advocate should become familiar with the training and skills necessary for the role.
Training and Skills for Special Education Advocates
Special education advocates need to have extensive knowledge of state and federal laws relating to special education. Their training and education should also cover IEPs, support services, accommodations, and special education curriculum. Earning an advanced degree in education can build invaluable knowledge in these areas.
Special education advocates can also look to organizations throughout the nation that offer training in special education law, rights, and responsibilities, including:
- Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
- National Special Education Advocacy Institute
- National Disability Rights Network
Additionally, the Federation for Children with Special Needs and state developmental disability councils offer continuing education classes on the latest research and new classroom techniques.
Alongside completing the right training and education, special education advocates exhibit key skills:
Special education advocates build paper trails. They compose letters, requests, and documents. Effective written communication plays an important role in a special education advocate’s success.
Special education advocacy requires gathering information about local support systems. It also involves researching information particular to individual cases, such as a legal issue pertinent to a student’s IEP. Often that information can be relatively obscure and not easily found, so special education advocates should have strong research skills.
Special education advocates build rapport with parents, teachers, and administrators. Working with parents requires empathy and compassion. Knowing how to collaborate with others is critical to special education advocacy.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the employment of special education teachers to increase by 3% between 2018 and 2028, which demonstrates an increasing need for special education advocates.
Empower Families as a Special Education Advocate
Special education advocates play a key role in helping students with special needs and disabilities get the services they need. By conducting research, offering expert opinions, and navigating laws and regulations, they help families make sense of the educational system.
Discover how American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching and Online Master of Education in Education and Leadership Policy equip special education advocates with the expertise needed to advocate for students’ rights.