How to become a Special Education Advocate
I never intended to become a Special Education Advocate. I merely took a course because my son was a toddler and I thought that the information would be good to have. Then, the 2008 recession hit, and I found myself unemployed. For me, it definitely was one of those “God closed a door but opened a window” moments. Because PA is a great state for unemployment, once I took out my very long commute and daycare for 2 babies, I was making more on unemployment than when I was working. That time allowed me to volunteer and go to trainings and develop my skills.
Ok, you’ve dealt with numerous issues with your own child. You’ve learned quite a bit about the IEP process. Now you’re thinking that maybe you’d like to help other parents. Sound familiar?
I answer a lot of IEP questions. But I also answer many inquiries a week asking how to become an IEP Advocate. I actually have information in another post about Special Education Advocates, but I think that this warrants its own post.
And just for fun, I’m going to list these items from easiest to hardest. At least in my opinion.
What you need to be an IEP Special Education Advocate
- Training. This one is by far the easiest. You will often hear that many Advocates are “self-taught” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t go to training. The good ones go to lots of training. Every state has a Parent Training Center. You can check with yours to see what is available. Plus, all the big non-profits who support disabilities offer webinars, conferences, workshops, you name it. Check to see if parent scholarships are available. You can also try COPAA or Wrightslaw, both of whom offer extensive training. You do not need to be certified or licensed to be a Special Education Advocate. In fact, as of 2019, there is no national certifying body that is nationally recognized. I often use the Lifeguard analogy. If you want to become a certified lifeguard, you can get your certification through the Red Cross, YMCA, Boy Scouts, Ellis and more. And, depending on who you talk to, they’ll say that theirs is the “best.” That’s up for debate, of course. So you just have to go with what meets your needs and is at least credible and recognized. The various programs out there claiming to be certifications are kind of battling their way to the top, to be considered the best. But this is an area where you’re just going to have to get on email lists and follow Facebook pages and network with other parents to hear about what is available.
- Experience. Great, you’ve got some knowledge! But most of my knowledge came from hands-on experience. Again, you can network with others to see if there are agencies near you that need volunteers. Or, you can become an Educational Surrogate. Start with assisting friends and family. Then volunteer, and build from there. When are you ready to accept money for your services? That’s up to you.
- A business model. After you become a Special Education Advocate, then what? Do you want to be in business for yourself? Or hope that an agency will hire you? What will you charge clients? How will you bill them? If you plan on being in business for yourself, you need a business plan. And the time and knowledge to start a business.
- Writing Skills. If you’ve spent any time with an advocate, you’ve likely heard them say that “it’s all about the paper trail.” Which is true! But many of my clients lack effective communication skills, so I have to help them prepare their correspondence. That takes skill and practice. And it is time-consuming. If you do not like writing, I would say that this may not be the job for you.
- Internet Skills. Every child is different. “I” in IEP, right? For a long time, it felt like I was never encountering the same situation twice. A good training program (see Number 1 above) doesn’t give you all the information you need. That would be impossible. Good programs teach you about what is available and where to find that information when you need it. And it takes a certain amount of skill to know what you are looking for, and the right searches to do. Some of the information that Special Education Advocates use can be pretty obscure and hard to find. It also can be tiring to always be on the learning curve.
- People Skills. I’m an introvert by nature, so a lot of this is difficult for me. I love writing and researching, but I hate meeting people all the time. Well, maybe hate isn’t the right word. It just exhausts me because I have to work hard at it. But I have to negotiate with hundreds of different IEP teams. Parents who are not on the same page, or who maybe aren’t “getting it” as far as what is available to them. The people part can be hard.
- Patience and the ability to not get jaded. There are a lot of egos in this field. People do not like to be told that what they are doing is incorrect. It takes patience. You have to be able to strategize and develop a long term strategy for your client. Once you become a Special Education Advocate, people only call you when there’s a problem. They don’t call you to tell you that their child just attained an amazing goal. So we only get to hear the worst. I am constantly singing Luke Bryan’s “Most people are good” because, in this field, we don’t always see a lot of good.
If I wanted to, I could probably continue this list for days. I think it’s a great idea to have a mentor, but not all areas have special education advocates. I think that you need a support network, but again, maybe not available in all areas. You need a good, reputable law firm who you can call on when you need advice or send a client to that next level. It happens!
Good luck to you, and you should also read What Parents Should Know about Special Education Advocates.