As parents, we strive to give our children the skills to be self-confident and able to stand up for themselves. Parenting children who have challenges, usually means that parents have had to take a strong advocacy roll and sometimes, even an adversarial role with schools districts, sport teams, groups and more. In that process, it can sometimes be difficult to nurture and create that independence in your child to be able to advocate for themselves.
We currently live in a time where many parents, while raising their children, may also have to care for their own elderly parents or another senior adult. This increases stress and minimizes your time. It is even more essential, as a parent, then to teach your child to be able to advocate for themselves as early as possible. The rewards for this are many and impact many.
Following are some ways parents can coach their child with special needs to be comfortable in attending, participating and self-advocating for themselves in their Pupil Evaluation Team (PET) meeting (and eventually in any situation).
Discuss the upcoming PET meeting in advance with your child – the younger the better but you can start at any age. What things are going well in school and with teachers/aids/other students and what isn’t going so well. Take notes. Ask your child what they would like to change, what would they like to learn that they aren’t being taught right now, what subject or activity they hate and why. Explain to your child how the PET meeting works, who will be there, what they cover and its purpose. Show your child everything you have planned for the meeting and that you are bringing your copy of the Special Education Law and last PET and IEP (Individual Education Plan), this way your child sees you being prepared.
Ask if your child would like to attend the PET, encourage them but don’t push. If they agree to attend, let them know they can talk if they want but if not, you will follow your notes. Make sure they always know you are on their side.
Tape the meeting whether your child attends or not You have a legal right to have any meeting taped but instead of making an issue, I simply say it is so my child and I can listen to it later. Take notes too and check off each point you have on your sheets and what the response is. It is important for your child and you to see that everything is covered. Once home, go over the results of the meeting with your child in detail using your notes and memory. Listen to the tape once with your child and see if it agrees with your memory and if all your questions got answered. Allow your child to listen to the tape as many times as they want until the next meeting. Keep teaching and reinforcing your child of their rights and their IEP.
After your child has attended a PET or two, at the next one, encourage your child to be willing to answer any questions you might have at the PET that you may need to ask in order to represent your child’s view accurately. My daughter would get frustrated with my wording and next thing, was asking questions and feeling more comfortable expressing herself. School staff must remain focused on what the child needs (finances and resources are not allowed) and by having the child/student attend, it helps keep the school staff focused on the child. No one should in any way negate what the child says; everyone agrees that there will be times when they will disagree but all discussions are valued. Always tape the meeting.
Continue to always do the preparation work with your child with the goal of them writing it down, handling it at the PET, with you more as a back-up, and doing most of the talking. Always tape the meeting for review of what happened but also to point out to your child how well they did in participating.
The goal is to have your child develop the self-confidence to attend and actively participate in their PET meeting. As a parent, your role shifts from advocating to one of support. It is the most wonderful feeling when your child tells you that they don’t need you to attend the meeting with them (you must do so until your child is age 18 but you can just be an observer) and they actually take charge of the meeting and the school personnel go along with it. The student is the point of focus and what the whole meeting’s purpose is for – how to best provide the right type of education your child needs/deserves/and is entitled to.
Simultaneously educating your child about the PET process and learning to advocate for themselves, is learning to advocate for themselves in school when an issue arises. It is best to be able to deal with a school immediately rather than your child coming home after to tell you, sending a note or trying to see the teacher the next day or even a day after that before it is dealt with. What a time delay, meanwhile, your child has to live in limbo. By giving your child the tools to self-advocate in school, this is eliminated and will serve your child well the rest of their life. Every child with special needs can advocate to some level.
Role playing is a great way to teach a child how to handle situations that arise at school, teach what and what not to say, tact and that they have a right to say something. I knew the day that my child came home and told me that she had walked out of class on her teacher and when the teacher asked her why, she said that she was going to the principal’s office to complain that the teacher was not following a certain aspect of her IEP and though she had tried to talk with the teacher about it and nothing had changed, then she was going to the principal to complain that the teacher wasn’t following the IEP. The teacher did get in trouble and things changed. That day showed a child with disabilities who could advocate for herself and I that I had done my job well. Now it’s your turn.