I recall attending a school 504 meeting, as a single parent of a child with inattentive ADHD, where a panel of teachers, counselors, and administrators all sat across from me. I had a sinking sense that I was being judged for my child’s behavior and struggles. I felt like I was on trial. At the same time, I felt the pressure of how important the meeting was for gathering information on my child’s progress and advocating for beneficial changes to their education.
It turns out I was not alone. As a mental health educator and psychoeducator today, I often hear from parents and caregivers about the distress they feel ahead of meeting with their child’s educational support team.
School meetings are critical because they allow us as parents to to gather needed information and promote beneficial changes to our child’s education. Yet, we can feel powerless at times. We may also vicariously experience the trauma and shame associated with disability during these meetings.
So, how can we best support ourselves during an IEP/504 meeting (or any advocacy meeting) so we can fully support our kids? Here are some tips I’ve gathered from families, professionals, and my own parenting experiences over the years:
1. You don’t have to do it alone. IEP and 504 meetings can feel even more daunting if you feel isolated. Remember that you can bring a trusted family member or healthcare advocate with you. Beyond being a calming presence, a relative or trusted friend can help by making sure that you express your key points, stay on track, and ask pointed questions. Your support person can also help you debrief after the meeting.
2. Write out your questions and concerns ahead of time. Whether you use a phone, laptop, notepad, or an old-school clipboard, jot down any questions that come to mind well before your meeting. Chances are that you have many concerns. Writing down your thoughts will help you to keep organized and to fit your important concerns into the limited time allotted. Also, take notes during the meeting if you want to remember details and worry that you won’t!
3. Go ahead and ask your questions. Just like you might have heard from your favorite teacher growing up: No question is a stupid question. Ask questions, seek clarification, and gather information without worrying about feeling self-conscious. It’s your right as a parent.
4. Remember that everyone on the IEP team is trying their best. Most educational professionals are spread thin, overworked, underpaid, and burnt out. Keeping this in mind should help you to communicate with kindness and compassion. If you’re concerned about nervousness giving your speech an unintended edge or otherwise hindering effective communication, try roleplaying with a supportive friend who will give you honest feedback.
5. Commit to following up. You can request a review of your child’s plan at any time. Make sure you collect the contact info of all those in attendance at the meeting so that you can reach out if a new issue arises. Don’t be afraid to express that the plan isn’t working and needs revamping if need be.
6. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Be a fierce advocate for your child, but also keep in mind that educational advocacy is a process that takes trial, error, and refinement over time.
Parenting a child with an atypical neurotype isn’t always easy. Advocacy isn’t, either. The silver lining? We grow through meeting challenges. We become stronger and develop more confidence as we become used to the role of advocate. In fighting for your child’s needs, you may find a voice you didn’t know you had.
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