Advocating For Kids With Special Needs: 5 Ways To Do It At School And Beyond
This guest post is from Lyn Pollard, a mother of two one-of-a-kind kids who learn and play differently. She writes, blogs, talks, and tweets about parent advocacy, literacy, and safe schools for children with learning differences, disabilities, and special needs on her blog at Different Doodles and @DiffyDoodles on Twitter. A trained journalist, former change management consultant, and serial entrepreneur (ChalkyDoodles.com), Lyn is working to create change and remove stigma for all kids with differences. Here, she shares
How would you answer if, say 10 years from now, your child with learning differences, autism or special needs asked you, “Mom, what exactly did you do to help me?”
Isn’t that what we all secretly dream of? For our children with special needs one day to not only fully benefit from the advocacy we undertake on their behalf, but to express a vested interest in the journey that we, as parents of one-of-a-kind kids, couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have taken any other way?
As the mother of two kids with differences (my daughter has dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD and my son has high-functioning autism and is gifted at Math) here the top 5 answers, that I hope will (someday) make my kids proud:
1) Understand your child’s differences and protect their rights: Advocacy 101 for parents of kids with differences & disabilities. Pretty much the moment we receive a diagnosis, parents dive into learning about their child’s unique condition, be it due to a developmental delay, congenital condition or the result of an injury.
This is an important, instinctual first step that immediately helps us know what we are facing and what to do next. This may include understanding not only your child’s condition, but how to work with your health care provider or insurance company to get your child the care and/or therapy that he needs.
The vital second step is to gain a basic understanding of federal and state laws that protect your child with differences. For example, one of the first things I did after receiving our daughter’s dyslexia diagnosis was to read the Texas Dyslexia Handbook, which describes in detail our state’s law regarding dyslexia treatment on all public school campuses.
2) Make your child’s school a Safe School for all kids: For kids to learn and grow, their school must be a place where they feel accepted, accommodated and most of all, safe. Did you know that kids with differences have a greater than 60 percent chance of being bullied on their school campus (according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities)? As parents, we should be involved with keeping schools safe for all kids by knowing our state’s bullying laws, and making sure they are being enforced on our campuses.
Does your state have an anti-bullying law? (To learn more about your state’s anti-bullying law visit Stop Bullying). Does your ISD promote and adhere to it? How does your campus enforce it? Is there info about it on your ISD’s website? If not, why not ask for it?
Other elements of safe schools include making sure children with emotional or mental health issues are given appropriate help and support. Also, ensuring that children with learning differences receive the appropriate special education and/or modifications and leaving stigma at the door are part of the equation.
3) Ensure everyone on your child’s campus understands and accepts people with differences: Talk to your counselor, principal or SLP (SLPs in my Texas ISD are usually the case-managers for children with Autism spectrum disorders who are protected under IDEA) about how students and teachers are being educated about learning differences and special needs in your school district and on your child’s campus.
Do you have a child with a recognizable disability, like Down Syndrome who shares a mainstream classroom with typical kids? Ask if you can read a book about your child’s differences to his class at the start of each school year, like the mom of a boy in my daughter’s class does each fall.
Take every little opportunity to teach the kids, school staff and administers you encounter on your child’s campus about diversity. Read books, sing songs, have conversations and continually focus on how people who seem somehow different are in fact unique, special and worthy—just like everyone else.
4) Encourage your community to promote acceptance and diversity: As I’m often reminding my son, “Observe.” Look around you, and listen, too. Do parents and other adults in your community use words of acceptance when they talk to or about others? Do they use the “R” word or racially derogatory language? Are they actively singling out kids from sports teams who are awkward or clumsy? Or are they inviting the child with autism or Down Syndrome to join their team (like my son’s coach has done the past 2 years)?
Align yourself with parents who embrace similar values, and encourage them to help you approach parents who are not modeling appropriate behavior on the field and in the community.
5) Don’t let your advocacy stop with your kids: You’ve probably picked up some great skills as a parent advocate for your child with differences. If you’re like me, you’ve learned to be both proactive and patient, persistent but professional.
Now put those skills to work beyond your own offspring. Reach out to parents in your community, start a support group (like the neighborhood group I started last fall, KDDs – Kids with Differences & Disabilities), attend IEP meetings together, approach your school administrators, local newspaper and state legislators. Ask for the changes that you want to see in your school and your community, and ask with a loud, educated, consistent voice.
Like our mothers used to say, “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.” Parents of kids with differences have an amazing amount of power, and that power grows exponentially when like-minded parents join together for a cause that is not only worthy, but about which they are passionate to their very core – the education, health and safety of not just our kids, but all kids.
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