“My granddaughter, Ella, struggles with attention and concentration. My daughter, Lynn, told you Ella has trouble remembering to turn her assignments in and also studying for her tests on time. We found out that these problems were not due to the car accident but existed prior to that event. We need to help her and it’s the end of the school year. What can we do now? How can we help Ella next fall so she succeeds?”
These are all examples of how problems can negatively affect a student’s ability to access the curriculum in the classroom. These children are clearly struggling. Their problems are frequent, severe, and occur not only in the classroom but also at home.
It is difficult for most parents to know what to do next. Many parents will consult an educational advocate to help them understand their child’s legal rights within a public school system. Others may be asking the advocate to help them in a crisis such as the child who exhibits separation anxiety and does not want to attend school.
Every child has a right to learn! I asked Advocate and Educational Consultant, Gwen Campbell, M.S., LMFT, to educate you about advocacy and how this can help you and your child.
Karen Schiltz, Ph.D.: Thank you, Gwen, for joining this blog. First, what is educational advocacy and when is it necessary? What is the difference between an advocate and a special education advocate?
Gwen Campbell, M.S., LMFT: Thank you, Dr. Schiltz, for the opportunity to participate in your blog. “Educational Advocacy” is a vague term. In an Internet search of the term, most of the results listed are “Special Education Advocates.” Because Special Education Advocacy is neither a federal nor state regulated profession, sometimes labels are used interchangeably. According to Merriam-Webster, an “advocate” is “one that pleads the cause of another; one that supports or promotes the interests of another.” The primary responsibility of a Special Education Advocate is to represent the best interests of students in seeking Special Education supports and services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA 2004), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Dr. S.: What is the standard of training for a special education advocate?
Gwen: Unlike attorneys, no certification authority exists to certify non-lawyer advocates at this time. However, many Special Education Advocates have years of experience and training, and are well suited to advocate for special needs children within the public school system. When interviewing an Advocate, parents should ask about their training and education. They will find that many of the more qualified Advocates have masters degrees in a related field such as psychology or Special Education. Parents should also ask, when interviewing an advocate, if they stay current in their field by getting updated training and education through workshops, conferences, and continuing education programs. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to ask these questions as they make the hiring decision. A word of caution: a parent who has a child with special needs may rely solely on their personal experience to present themselves as an advocate, without the additional education and training that more experienced advocates have.
Dr. S.: When would I use a special education advocate instead of an attorney?
Gwen: I recommend that a parent consult with a Special Education Advocate when they suspect or know that their child has a disability that is interfering with their ability to make meaningful educational progress, and they have not been offered appropriate supports and services through an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or 504 Plan through the public school system, or they believe such a program or plan is not properly developed and/or being appropriately implemented.
A skilled, well-educated advocate is typically capable of assisting parents in planning for and developing a comprehensive IEP plan and settling school-related disputes outside an IEP meeting, through Informal Dispute Resolution (IDR) meetings in most instances. If efforts have failed to resolve differences and disputes with the school district at the local level, it is time for a parent to meet with an attorney specializing in Special Education law to file a legal proceeding known as “Due Process.”
Dr. S.: What types of services can a special education advocate provide?
Gwen: Depending on a non-legal advocate’s knowledge and skill level, they represent a child’s best interests, help parents prepare for, and accompany parents to a variety of public school meetings, including: IEP, Section 504, Student Study Team (SST), Manifestation Determination IEP, and Informal Dispute Resolution (IDR) meetings, and Expulsion Hearings. They utilize a multi-modal approach to learn about the student and make educational recommendations. Advocates review school records, Special Education records, 504 plans, and private assessments and evaluations; they consult with specialists who are knowledgeable about the child and they observe the child in the classroom; they inform parents/guardians of their educational rights.
We empower and educate parents; we help them formulate appropriate IEP goals, accommodations, modifications, behavior plans, and identify appropriate related services such as Speech and Language, Occupational Therapy, Assistive Technology, Adaptive PE, and aide support as appropriate. We provide expert opinions in exploring school placement options ranging from inclusion, learning centers, special day classes, non-public school, and residential treatment programs as appropriate. We draft dispute resolution proposals, state Department of Education complaints, letters, and written requests to district personnel and administration.
We assess each student’s case, and when appropriate, we assist parents in seeking reimbursement for outside services and school placement for past, present, and future educational expenses. When appropriate, we refer our clients to an attorney who specializes in Special Education law.
Dr. S.: Where do advocates work?
Gwen: Some Advocates work out of professional offices, others out of home offices, and some meet with clients in the clients’ homes.
Dr. S.: What is special education?
Gwen: Under IDEA 2004, the term “Special Education” means specially-designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in the hospital, in institutions and in other settings, and instruction in physical education.
Special Education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. This means education that is individually developed to address a specific child’s needs that result from his or her disability.
The education, services, and supports outlined in a child’s IEP do not necessarily cover that child’s entire education. If the child’s disability is not impacting them in all academic areas and throughout their school day, their IEP will only offer supports and services in subject areas that are significantly impacted by their disability.
School-aged children, ages 3 to 22, who are identified as disabled, are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) until they receive a high school diploma or until they reach their 22nd birthday.
Dr. S.: What is an IEP?
Gwen: An IEP is a legal document that is required to be developed by public school systems to describe exactly what Special Education services a student will receive and why. It will include the student’s Special Education Eligibility, related services, supports, goals, objectives, and possibly a Positive Behavior Support Plan (BSP) or Transitional Plan. The IEP document is developed at an IEP meeting. The document must be designed to meet a student’s unique range of educational needs. The services, accommodations, and/or modifications are put in place to help a student achieve the goals and objectives in their IEP, to make meaningful educational progress, and to support the student in accessing state educational curriculum.
IDEA 2004 mandates that particular procedures be followed in the development of the IEP. Each student’s IEP must be developed by a team of knowledgeable persons and must be reviewed annually.
Dr. S.: What is a 504 Plan?
Gwen: A 504 Plan is a legal document, which is used to provide a child with a disability equal access to education. The child typically receives accommodations and occasionally modifications, and under certain circumstances, related aides and/or specialized services.
Contrary to a student with an IEP, a student with a 504 Plan will always receive their education solely in a regular classroom setting on a public school campus, unless their behavior is so disruptive that this is not possible.
Dr. S.: Does a student need to have a medical disorder and a disability in order to qualify for special education?
Gwen: This is a great question, as this topic is a frequent initial source of confusion to parents and professionals serving school-age children. The answer is “no.” Specifically, school districts under IDEA 2004 are unable to diagnose medical conditions through their assessment process. A doctor does not have to diagnose a medical disorder or a disability in terms of a medical disability in order for a student to be found eligible by the district in one of the thirteen eligibility categories under IDEA 2004. Nevertheless, the district has to consider any private assessment reports (such as Neuropsychological) that provide pertinent information, including but not limited to medical/psychiatric diagnoses that may negatively impact a child’s school performance. Students found eligible for Special Education have been assessed by their school district and have met one of the thirteen categories of disability as listed in federal law, with variations to be considered among states. In order to qualify for Special Education, a student must be deemed in need of specially designed instruction that only Special Education can provide in order to make meaningful educational progress.
Dr. S.: I have been discussing the case of Lynn and Ella since December 1, 2011. Ella has problems with memory, attention, and concentration. Her grades in three subjects declined to D’s as of the third quarter. Ella attends public school. Is there still time to explore how she can be helped as school ends mid June?
Gwen: Assuming Ella’s mother has not already requested that the school district assess her daughter for Special Education or a 504 Plan, it is important that she do so, in writing, immediately. Although the school district may not be able or required to complete necessary assessments and hold a meeting before the first day of school in the fall, it is still important for Lynn to initiate the assessment process as soon as possible.
A school district has 15 days to respond to a parent’s request for assessment, Once the parent has signed and returned the district’s proposed assessment plan, the district has 60 days (excluding holidays that exceed 5 days, and excluding summer) to assess and hold a meeting to review those assessment reports and to determine if a child is eligible for an IEP or 504 Plan.
I would suggest that Lynn consult with a Special Education Advocate to move the process along as quickly as possible. The Advocate will help her determine whether it is appropriate that Lynn further pursue an IEP or 504 Plan. In the meantime, she should request, in writing, that the school assess Ella under IDEA 2004 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Revised 2008) in all areas of suspected disability, including in that letter Ella’s current medical/psychological diagnosis, educational struggles, and how they are impacting her educationally. Lynn should ask the school to convene a SST meeting to address her concerns and put some informal accommodations into place to help Ella while the assessment process takes place. In preparation for her meeting with an Advocate, Lynn should collect copies of all documents pertaining to her child, including all school records, private assessment reports, and pertinent communications with the school.
Dr. S.: Thank you, Gwen, for your time in answering these important questions. I know that parents will be relieved to know there are specialists like you to help them navigate the law and, most important, help their child access learning in the classroom. Can you please tell us about your background and private practice?
Gwen: Dr. Schiltz, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to participate in your blog. As for my background, I hold a Bachelor of Science in Education, and a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology. I have taught both as a Special Education teacher and Adaptive Physical Education teacher, in a variety of educational settings, to students in all categories of disability, after which I worked in private practice and in psychiatric treatment facilities as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I have extensive training in mediation and dispute resolution, and currently work as a Special Education Advocate and Educational Consultant in Private Practice from my office in Westlake Village, California.
Dr. S.: I will be continuing our discussion on evaluations on June 1. Many parents seek out evaluators in the summer. This is a good time to also seek out interventions and enhance educational skills.
Karen L. Schiltz, Ph.D.
Psychologist (CA PSY 9508)
Private Neuropsychology Practice of Karen Schiltz Ph.D. and Associates
Associate Clinical Professor (Voluntary)
Medical Psychology Assessment Center
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA