Looking back I can honestly say that my first IEP meeting was a disaster from an advocacy standpoint. For over two hours I just sat there, too nervous to say anything as a team of experts discussed my son like I wasn’t even in the room. At the end, a business card was hastily shoved into my hand as everyone rushed out the door and I was left sitting there wondering what had just happened.
Despite being just as qualified to speak about my son’s challenges and needs as anyone else in the room, there were a lot of reasons why I’d found it so intimidating. For a start, I had no idea what to expect or what was expected of me. I didn’t know if I was meant to speak or just listen, or even if I had the right to have any input into the outcome.
Being the newcomer into a team who already knew each other also made it difficult to find a way into the conversation. They used a lot of shorthand, spoke a language I didn’t understand and seemed to know a lot more than I did. And then there’s the fact that speaking up, particularly amongst strangers, has never been my strongpoint.
Amidst all this confusion one thing was never in doubt – I wanted to be at that table, not as an observer but as an active participant. But although I knew how important it was for me to be a member of the team, it took a long time to develop the confidence to walk into a meeting feeling as though I had a right to be there. To take control and act as an equal participant in the decisions made about my kids.
So today I’m sharing a few of the tips that have helped me develop this confidence and find my parenting voice.
Understand your role
Often there’s a perceived power imbalance that favors the professionals on your child’s support team – teachers, psychologists, therapists, doctors – and a lot of parents can find this intimidating at first. It’s hard to find your voice when you feel like the lowest member on the totem pole!
The truth is that each team member is there to provide guidance and expertise, including you. Everyone has a job to do and your knowledge, commitment and contribution can make that job a whole lot easier. So remember that no matter what kind of education or professional background you have, you are an expert on your child and this automatically makes your voice important and valuable.
Once you make the decision to become an active member of the team, go ahead and own that role. Attend all the meetings, follow up with people, stay in the loop – even on the days when it’s all too hard and you’d really prefer that someone else took care of everything.
Nothing boosts your confidence more than being prepared, so keep copies of all reports and paperwork in a place where you can find them again easily. Take notes of meetings and phone calls, who you talked to and when and why. Speaking up becomes a lot easier when you have the evidence you need, when you need it.
Knowledge is empowering, and learning as much as you can is one of the best things you can do to convince yourself that you deserve to be heard.
Learn about your child
Observe their strengths and weaknesses, make notes about what works and what doesn’t, track their progress and practice describing it all to others.
Learn how to research
Know where to look for information, how to read research articles and how to think critically about the things you’re reading.
Learn how the system works
Understand which funding and services are available to you, the people in charge of deciding whether you get them, the laws and procedures involved, and what you need to do to access it all.
Become an effective communicator
Being able to express your thoughts well can help your voice to stand out instead of being stifled or misunderstood. Brush up your writing skills – the more eloquent, precise and professional you come across, the more likely you are to be taken seriously and to get what you need. Learn negotiation techniques like how to argue a point, resolve conflict and progress a stalemate – these will really come in handy and boost your confidence.
Get people in your corner
It’s much easier to find your voice when there’s a team cheering you on! Join a support group, find other parents to talk to or hire an advocate to come along to meetings with you.
Learning how to be an advocate for your kids can be really difficult, but take comfort in the fact that nobody comes into special needs parenting already knowing how to do any of this stuff. It will take time and courage to find your voice. So be patient, go easy on yourself when you make mistakes and remember that every step you take is making you a stronger member of your kids’ support team.
Photo by Howard Lake via Flickr.
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.