The job of the advocate

To best serve the special education student, it takes time

Parents tend to become frustrated and overwhelmed at this point in the school year. They may feel like their student’s needs aren’t being sufficiently met, or that they aren’t being heard by the team. Parents have just had enough and now want an advocate to fix things immediately.   

Unfortunately, an advocate cannot resolve issues immediately, and that can be the hardest thing for parents to understand. Parents who are new to special education may be frustrated by what seem like cumbersome timelines.

Their students may have been struggling for a number of months – if not years –so they want them to receive help before more time is wasted and their student falls further behind. Or parents could have been involved with special education but hope that their student will have a more successful year. Parents may also have had great experiences with special education but this year the student has hit a bump in the road.

This all adds up to the same thing: Upset parents who want a change to happen fast.

Effective advocates cannot act quickly if they want to provide the best support to families. They must take adequate time to listen and take notes on what the parents (and students, if possible) are concerned about.

Recently I had a two-hour phone consultation with a parent of a young student. The consultation did not even begin to scratch the surface of the information I needed to gather to provide adequate consultation and support to the family.

I needed to ask permission to go to the student’s school to read the student’s file, which in most cases includes both regular and special education files. I needed to interview all members of the school team – which could include outside service providers such as doctors and/or therapists. Next, I wanted to observe the student accessing their education in the general education and special education settings. I also wanted to talk to the student.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to gather as much information as possible regarding the student’s successes as well as areas of need. This takes time, but it’s essential to understanding the student’s needs and providing the appropriate support to that student. And certainly, when attending team meetings, it’s essential for the advocate to be armed with as much information as possible.

It’s also important for the advocate to actively listen – as well as clearly communicate – during those meetings to help the team build collaborative relationships in the best interests of the student.

Advocates are specialists whose years of education and training are necessary to assist the team in moving forward in the best way possible for the student. Advocates are not easy to come by because the job requires skill, patience, excellent communication and mediation skills, the ability to see the whole child and the big picture, and to be willing to work to tear down barriers to support the student.

Elizabeth Feingold retired from Kearsarge Regional School District, where she worked for over 30 years as a special education teacher and coordinator at the elementary, middle and high school levels. She is now a consultant and advocate. Email her at

More Learning Curve columns by Liz Feingold

Remembering my father, my teacher

Reflecting on the lessons he taught me everyday through his actions

Managing anxiety

Students can succeed with a treatment plan and support

Preparing for the annual IEP meeting

Strategies you can use to improve collaboration and reduce frustration

We are all in this together

Parents, teachers share the same hopes and fears
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