Almost nothing reduces a confident parent to a puddle of uncertainty or anxiety faster than navigating your child’s special education services. It doesn’t matter if you are new to your child’s learning challenges or have been trekking to IEP meetings forever. When you are a parent or caregiver managing your child’s learning needs, and you are passionate about supporting that child so their abilities are maximized, it’s easy to feel like you are climbing backward up a steep mountain with no flashlight in the dark.
Being Overwhelmed is Normal. Staying There Doesn’t Have to Be.
This might sound dramatic – and trust us, it often feels dramatic! Navigating special education services for your foster, kinship, or adopted child is one part of raising kids that many of us feel ill-equipped to handle graciously and with confidence that we are doing the best for our kids. Instead, we often feel as if the school is trying to get one over on us or that the teachers only see our kids’ challenges and not as the whole, unique precious kids they are. Even worse, we feel so overwhelmed by the entire conversation that we break down into tears at every. single. meeting.
However, we are convinced that with preparation, support, and shared wisdom, you can navigate your child’s educational services with robust advocacy and not stay stuck in uncertainty or anxiety.
Adjust Your Mental and Emotional Load
Raising a foster, kinship, or adopted child with learning differences can be a big task for parents and caregivers. It will help if you learn how to manage the mental and emotional load to avoid burnout and help you be the best advocate for that child.
There are several mental shifts that you should consider as the parent or caregiver of a child when navigating special education services:
Shift from “It’s me against the school.”
It’s easy to take an adversarial position when you are fighting for the best support for your child. However, we encourage you to assume the best about the school and the process. Assume that the school district means well. Yes, you are the expert on this child. But they are the experts in meeting this child’s academic needs. Remember that you have information about your child that will round out the support plan – and vice versa.
Shift from isolation to community.
You are not alone in this journey of meeting your child’s educational needs. You are surrounded by teachers, counselors, administrators, and other professionals with a stake in your child’s success. Build a relationship with them that supports you as they also support your child.
Further, you are not the only parent or caregiver raising a child with learning differences. Taking time to connect with others who have similar experiences will help you feel less lonely. You need the support of a community that gets it. Try a few of these ideas:
- Connect with the special needs parent organization in your school district.
- Find an online support group based on your child’s diagnosis.
- Invite a parent from your child’s classroom out for coffee to pick their brain about support.
- Set up a playdate at the park with a couple of families to find your people.
Shift out of “my child has a problem.”
Your child’s learning challenges do not mean your child cannot learn. Diverse learning needs do not mean your child has a problem. Remind yourself that every brain learns a little differently. Your goal is to embrace your child’s learning differences as unique to who they are. When you see your child’s differences as ways to meet their needs and figure out their keys to success, your advocacy can be a purpose to be fulfilled rather than a burden or unpleasant task to be managed.
And there’s something remarkable about a parent on a mission to support their student!
- Your heart and mind can open to more creative opportunities to meet their needs.
- You begin to trust your instincts about your child – courage comes more easily to ask for help finding support.
- You can also be open to hearing your child’s team share their insights into your child’s struggles without feeling threatened or discouraged.
- You can work preventatively when you see signs of something going off-track because you’ve taken time to know your child’s differences.
Shift out of the “what if” spiral.
One more shift to consider is to stop looking for the “what ifs” around your child’s school experience. It’s easy to spin out and start picturing worst-case scenarios – for tomorrow’s meeting, the new year, high school, living in your basement forever, etc.
We all do it, and it’s okay to occasionally let yourself have the “what if” breakdown. However, be diligent not to allow yourself to spiral deeper into hopelessness and frustration. When you find yourself going down “there,” go for a walk, take a bubble bath, or journal your feelings. Find healthy ways to remind yourself of this reality:
Your child’s current situation is rarely as bad as your panicked, “Oh my gosh, they will never learn how to read” brain might be imagining at midnight over a bowl of rocky road ice cream.
Preparation is An Essential Key
We say it often at CreatingaFamily.org: “Knowledge is power.” When we spoke with the guest experts for our recent podcast, Navigating Special Education and the IEP/504 Process, they offered suggestions for how to educate yourself.
1. Learn about your rights – and your child’s, too!
Whether you are new to supporting your child in school or not, you can access resources that will help you understand the full extent of your rights in the system. Ask the school for the document of procedural safeguards for special education. This lengthy notice spells out your rights, the child’s rights, and how to proceed with grievances in conflict.
Every state has a parent support resource to help parents and caregivers understand their rights and the procedures of federal laws in that state. You can find information for your state at the Center for Parent Information and Resources.
Here are additional sites to help you educate yourself on parental and child rights in special education:
- Understood.org –to help people with learning and thinking differences find ways to thrive.
- Wright’s Law – legal information and special education advocacy tools.
- A Day In Our Shoes – an educational advocate who supports parents and caregivers
2. Gather necessary information before meetings.
Before meeting with your child’s team, ask for copies of the related documents. This will give you time to review and process questions or concerns before the meeting. Preparing in advance bolsters your confidence and gives you an equal footing with the team. It’s also an opportunity to get your emotions in check so you can be focused and productive in the meeting.
3. Assume your role as a member of your child’s team.
It may be uncomfortable initially but see yourself as part of your child’s team. You are, in fact, the expert on your child, and it’s entirely appropriate for you to trust yourself to take that lead! Taking that a step further, don’t feel pressured to blindly trust the other experts around the table. Instead, remember that you’ve done your homework to understand and even question their recommendations.
Educating yourself is an ongoing process. These suggestions are not once-and-done. They are also points for refreshing yourself between meetings. Review them when a new diagnosis is added to your child’s file or when suggestions are offered that don’t feel quite right for your child.
Handling Special Education Meetings and Communication
It’s normal to feel nervous about a coming meeting. However, we encourage you to consider your special education team meetings as opportunities! You have all your child’s key players at the table for these meetings. Think about how to maximize conversations so that you are all working together to set your child up for the best potential for success.
Here are a few ways to come to these meetings prepared for the process.
Streamline your communication.
Try to keep all your communication in emails. This might mean you’ll send a summary of in-person communication as a follow-up. It takes extra time, but it’s worth it when you need the documentation. The time and date stamps and written clarifications will serve as your running record, and you can refer to them more readily in your meetings.
Keep paperwork in a binder.
Organize all documentation for each child in a binder. Whether you choose an accordion file or a three-ring binder, put the most recent information at the front to keep you current. This cuts time spent chasing down data and searching for answers. It also conveys your commitment to this process when you show up with current information and organized thoughts to your child’s meetings.
Be your own best advocate.
1. Ask questions!
In your meetings with the team, be a good listener. Take notes and jot down questions that come up as you listen. Be bold and ask them for their sources of information, resources to help you understand their perspectives, and the research that explains their proposed options.
2. It’s okay to ask for a pause.
Sometimes, the meetings feel heavy – whether it’s the flood of information, anxiety over a diagnosis, or a challenge the team presents. It’s okay to pause the conversation and ask for clarifications or other options to consider.
It’s also acceptable to ask for a second meeting before you sign off on any changes they propose. Take that time between sessions to get the answers you need or request an alternative plan.
3. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer.
Finally, it’s okay to NOT know the answer to their questions about your concerns or suggestions for your child. Be comfortable ending a meeting without a conclusion and seek a follow-up to finalize things with the team.
Lead with your child’s strengths.
When the meeting is ready to begin, consider how to lead the conversation with your child’s strengths and talents. You could tell a story of Johnny’s great compassion over a news story he watched. You might ask them to tell you something good they’ve seen in your child unrelated to an academic struggle. Figure out ways to talk about your child as a whole person. Help everyone on the team remember that learning differences are only one small part of who your precious child is.
Use supportive scripts.
We know that no matter how prepared you might be, sometimes the meetings still feel confrontational, and surprises still happen. To ready yourself for these moments, memorize a few short scripts that can help you stay calm and speak from a position of strength and confidence:
- “Respectfully, I disagree.”
- “Let me share with you my perspective.”
- “Can you supply documentation for that information?”
And remember that “NO” is a complete sentence. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial “no.” However, it still conveys your position and gives you options to fall back and regroup in a follow-up meeting or after a short pause.