“$2000?!?!” my husband exclaimed. “Do we really need this for him?” “Become an IEP/Special Education Advocate!” the flyer said.

We were looking at a brochure that my son’s preschool had sent home to parents. It was a 12-week course on how to become a Special Education Advocate. It looked thorough. And, Kevin was a toddler. I’d get a good 20 years out of this investment. I was staring down 20 years of IEP meetings.

Philadelphia eagles IEP advocate Philadelphia eagles Philadelphia eagles.
Not gonna lie! He’s still my favorite advocacy client!

For me, this was an accidental career. I talked my husband into spending the money ($2000 is not chump change to us!) and I got some scholarships and did some volunteer work to bring down the cost.

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IEP Advocate

As it turned out, the bad economy and recession hit, so I was out of a job. Thankfully I was already half-way through the training when that happened. My volunteer hours turned into a volunteer position, which turned into a part-time position. And here I am. A special education advocate with her own home business.

One of the most common questions I answer as a Special Education Advocate or IEP Advocate is “How do I hire an advocate?” Or, “what does an advocate for an IEP meeting cost?” And, despite working as an advocate for over a decade, I can’t believe that I haven’t done a post on this.

Please note, that if you are looking for information on training to become an IEP advocate, I have done a separate post on that.

Making the decision to hire an advocate for your child’s IEP meeting should be a thoughtful one. Since there are no national licensing or certification programs, basically anyone can call themselves an advocate and charge money.

An IEP that is both robust and implemented with fidelity is essential to your child’s future, so proceed with caution.

I have met many fabulous families along the way, and the questions about advocates are some of the most frequent ones I encounter. This should answer all your questions about IEP/Special Education Advocates.

First, I want you to read this snippet from the COPAA website. COPAA is the Council for Parent Advocates and Attorneys.

no national license for advocates

In an attempt to help you be as informed as possible in making this decision whether or not to hire a special education advocate, here is everything I know from being a special education advocate since 2010.

Three women, including an IEP advocate, sitting around a table with laptops.

What is a Special Education Advocate?

An IEP Advocate is a person who has tremendous knowledge of both IEPs and the special education community around you.

For perspective, remember that IDEA was only born in 1975. In the big scheme of things, IEPs are new. So, IEP advocates are new.

But, moms helping moms have been around forever. And, you will find that most IEP advocates are IEP parents too. Most of us just kind of fell into this job or evolved into it.

It is still kinda the wild west out there. There’s no licensing or certification. Anyone can claim that they are an expert or the best. Ask questions and go with your gut. If it’s not going as expected, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and fire the person.

I have done a whole separate post on this, please look here: How Much Does a Special Education Advocate cost?

Four women, including an IEP advocate, sitting around a table in a coffee shop.

What IEP Advocates Do

I can’t even count the number of times I have seen this scenario:

Potential client: We cannot afford an advocate, so we’re just going to keep on going on our own.
Me: Sorry to hear that, call me if you change your mind.

Then, 6-12 months later, I get a desperate phone call, maybe on a Sunday, maybe even on Thanksgiving.

Same previous potential client: We really need your help! ‘Name’ has now been arrested/suspended/302’d.

And then, because the case is so much more complex, it’s more time consuming and more expensive, and perhaps now they even need a criminal attorney.

A woman standing in front of a desk with a laptop, working as an IEP advocate.

Advocate for IEP Meeting

Many parents think they only need an advocate for the IEP meeting. Actually, if this is all you want, I won’t take your family on as a client.

When I worked for a non-profit agency as an advocate, I did sometimes have to attend IEP meetings with just a couple hours’ of notice. It was quite undesirable.

You really don’t want an IEP advocate walking into the meeting without having met you and talked with you about your situation. Without having read the IEP and the evaluation report. And, in some cases, reading the behavior and discipline reports.

Again, I have done this in a few extreme cases, and it was usually manifestation hearings.

But attending IEP meetings is just one small part of what we do. And in my experience, is not really effective advocacy work.

It’s extremely frustrating to work with a client, attend the meeting, and then afterward have them say, “Oh sure, they said yes now, that’s because you’re here.”

Listen, IEP teams don’t just say “yes” because I walked into the IEP meeting room. If that was the case, I’d just do that all day long all over Pennsylvania.

They say yes to me because I know how to use the IEP process to get kids’ needs met. I don’t ask for anything that I cannot support on paper, and you shouldn’t either, as a parent. If you continue to just ask for things that you cannot support with data, you’ll continue to hear no at IEP meetings.

Why You Need a Special Education Advocate

Here are some common arguments I’ve heard from parents during my initial consult with them, in their decision to hire an advocate for special education. These talking points usually come up after I give them my prices.

Things are good with my school right now: Of course, they are! Things are always good….until they are not. Maybe that “not” will be erected at this meeting. What if it isn’t ok? What if they would have come to the table with the suggestion that they want to move his placement or remove some services? For you folks with high-functioning kiddos, what if at the meeting they stated that they believe that your child no longer needs/qualifies for an IEP, so let’s move him to a 504. And there you are, all alone. No moral support. And now the rug has been ripped out from underneath you and your head is swirling and you are struggling to get concise, meaningful thoughts out. What then? I would also argue that things are not as good as you think, because something in your gut told you to at least investigate and contact a parent advocate for special education.

My spouse is there: Not bad, and what most parents do. But, truth be told, I’ve seen way more dads than moms “lose it” at an IEP meeting than moms. And by it, I mean their temper. Moms cry at IEP meetings. Dads yell. You need someone who can listen and not get emotionally involved at that moment.

I’m a teacher/work in the industry: In IEP meetings, you have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to question college (and Masters/Ph.D.) educated people on their recommendations. Call them out and make them qualify or quantify what they are recommending. Some take offense to this. Do you really want this to be the time you have to go face-to-face with a colleague? I wouldn’t.

No one will advocate for my child better than I can: You’re probably right about this. But, most IEP advocates know the IEP process better than parents. Or even if their knowledge base is the same or less, it is still another set of eyes, ears, and ideas. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by some out of the box thinking and ideas in IEP meetings from people just joining the team. Sometimes a new perspective is all that you need to unlock some successes.

Now you’re thinking, “Ok, great, you’ve convinced me. Now, where do I find one?

IEP meeting

Where can I find Special Education Advocates near me?

First, if you have no desire to become an IEP/Special Education Advocate, you just want to hire one. There are a few places you can look.

  • Start with your state’s Protection and Advocacy group. Call and ask if they have Special Education Advocates.
  • Since the pandemic, many IEP meetings have gone virtual. I have now attended IEP meetings in school districts that are hundreds of miles away, and I never left my home! Ask around, many are doing this now.
  • Call around to other advocacy groups such as the Arc, NAMI, CF Foundation, etc. Many times these groups will be able to direct you.
  • Do an internet search. Some places call them parent mentors, parent partners, parent buddies and so on.
  • Some professional organizations like COPAA maintain a list on their website. I have one here as well.
  • Pennsylvania has a Right to Education Task Forces in every county. By law, these are parent-led groups and often have knowledgeable parents leading them or participating. A good resource to find advocates.

“Ok, great, I found a few….how do I know if they’re good? How do I know who to pick?”

A group of IEP advocates working at a table in an office.

What training should I look for in a special education advocate?

They must have had some training. Every state has at least one Parent Training Center for parents involved in special education. There are multiple webinars available online. Every state has a Protection and Advocacy agency that often provides training, or at the very least, printed information.

Groups like Decoding Dyslexia and others host workshops and trainings, availability varies by state.

But training is available, so I personally would shy away from any advocate who says “Well, I’m all self-taught because there just are never trainings in our area.” Sure, easy for me to say that from metro Philly. But there are a zillion webinars an advocate could do.

A group of women, including an IEP advocate, sitting in a room with laptops.

Where can I find a special education advocate?

First, contact the agencies I mentioned above, that’s a good starting point. Call your state’s Arc and ask. If your family has mental illness issues, ask around in groups like NAMI. If it’s dyslexia, look up decoding dyslexia.

Ask your local children’s hospital if they have support groups for your child’s condition, and ask there. In Pennsylvania, we have these things called Right to Education Task Forces which can be a great place to start because they are parent-led.

This might also be a good time to call in favors. Ask your best friend, your child’s godparents, to step in and see you through this and learn the IEP process with you. It gives you an ally and is no charge.

What questions should I ask an IEP advocate before hiring them?

You want this, wait, no, you NEED this to be a good fit.

You are going to tell this person your most intimate family things going on–as far as what your child does.

So interview them just like you would any other professional you were hiring:

  • What is their training?
  • How long have they been doing this? How did they get started?
  • Are there any districts that they won’t work in, and why?
  • What is their success rate, and how do they define success?
  • After hearing your story, what is their strategy or plan for you?
  • What are their fees and what does that cover?
  • Have they had similar cases to yours?
  • How long do they expect this to take before it is likely resolved?
  • Do they have any references in your district who you could call?
  • As this moves forward, what does the advocate expect from you?
  • What is their history with your school district? (not looking for gossip, but experience)
  • What is their involvement in the local special needs community? (look for volunteer positions, boards, etc.)
A group of women, including an IEP advocate, sitting at a table.

Red Flags when hiring an IEP/Special Education Advocate

Things that would send up red flags for me, if I was talking to an advocate and considering hiring them:

  • tries to impress you by using lots of jargon and legalese
  • just generally talks way above your head, rather than trying to make you feel comfortable
  • talks about “getting” the school personnel, as in a gotcha or revenge of some kind, rather than getting what your child needs
  • does not present themselves professionally
  • avoids questions on training
  • or, conversely, repeatedly reminds you of how experienced they are (thou doth protest much)
  • no community involvement–no volunteering, doesn’t belong to any groups, etc.

Hiring an Advocate for Your IEP Meeting

So, should you hire an advocate for your IEP meeting?

This is the main reason that parents reach out to me and hire me. The “I have an IEP meeting coming up.” And, that makes sense.

However, while I am an IEP parent myself, I think like an advocate, which varies slightly. And my advice to you is this–I don’t want to be your advocate for just one meeting. Because the IEP process is much more than one meeting.

In fact, in the whole IEP process, the IEP meeting is actually the least important part. Shocking, right?

But it’s true. Most of the heavy lifting or groundwork for an IEP meeting is done in the weeks and months leading up to the meeting. And, your parental participation during those components is equally if not more important. I want to help you with those portions so that you learn the process and don’t need an advocate. Yes, this is possible!

Here are just some of the things a special education advocate or IEP advocate can do for you and your family.

  • My main goal is teach you how to become a better, more effective advocate for your child. My goal is for you to not need my services again. You should ask your advocate if they are going to do things for you or do things with you.
  • A special education advocate should know the federal and your state laws pertaining to special education services. Ideally, they also know policies and procedures used in your school district (or where to find them).
  • IEP advocates usually have a good working knowledge of resources available to families. Including but not limited to: Medicaid or medical assistance, respite services, wraparound behavioral health and more.
  • Some have a good working knowledge of things like the juvenile justice system, since it disproportionately involves our kids. Ask, if that is what you need.
  • A good special education advocate can explain the laws and policies to you in a way you can understand. And, will understand the special education “climate” in your area, as well as private placement options, independent evaluators and more.
  • An IEP advocate should be familiar with different kinds of IEP assessments and reports and explain them to you, or where to find that information (since there are 1000s of different evaluations).
  • Your advocate should recommend IEP evaluations that might be helpful to obtain. And, know good IEE evaluators in your region.
  • A special education advocate can refer you to private service professionals who conduct Independent Educational Evaluations (IEEs) and which ones work for parents and which ones work for districts.
  • Advocates can and should do a thorough record review, including evaluations and testing, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and progress reports.
  • Advocates for special education students should know about services and supports which may be helpful for your child and what is available in your geographic area.
  • We can objectively analyze the quality of your child’s education program to determine if your child’s needs are being met.
  • A special education advocate can help you organize your IEP materials so that you can stay organized and be a better advocate.
  • An IEP advocate can help you prepare for meetings related to your child’s special education program – especially meetings to discuss reevaluations and IEPs or Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs).
  • A special education advocate can help parents write appropriate IEP/IFSP goals and objectives and suggest appropriate supports and accommodations.
  • An IEP advocate can accompany parents to meetings and assist in the negotiation process between parents and the school. We usually do not work in our home districts.
  • A special education advocate can review important documents, such as the IEP/IFSP or PWN before you sign them.
  • I also help parents draft letters and written requests to your school, or ghostwrite the letters for them.
  • A special education advocate can assist you in understanding dispute resolution procedures, can help you assess the strength of your case and understand your school district’s “climate” as pertains to disputes.
  • I always refer you to a special education attorney when needed.
  • I also will help you identify ways for your child to become more independent and able to advocate for him or herself.
  • A good IEP advocate will admit when they don’t know something and will either refer you to someone who does, search for that information.
Three women, including an IEP advocate, sitting around a table in an office.

Ok, I hired an IEP advocate, now what?

  • Ask them. Ask them what they want you to do.
  • Respect boundaries.
  • Unless directed otherwise, only contact them during normal business hours. I once had a client texting me her concerns on Thanksgiving.
  • Do not communicate with the school unless you’ve discussed it with your advocate. They need to be kept in the loop of everything going on.
  • Get your data that you have and make copies for them.

You have to be an involved, active and professional participant in this process. An advocate will help guide you through the IEP process, but  no one knows your child like you do. This is not a matter of “Well, I hired an advocate, so now they do everything….” You still will have things to do, calls to make, emails to send, but you will be doing it with their guidance and knowledge.

Wrapping up, of course this is something I wish we didn’t have to do. I often joke that “Special Ed Advocates are people who truly wish that their jobs would become extinct!” and I mean that.

I wish that there was no need for this. But there is. Good luck to you and join our online chat group if you have any other questions.

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