Advocating and Partnering for Students with Special Needs
Anyone involved in the education of a child who needs special accommodations or services for a learning difficulty or disability should read the Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book, by Rich Weinfeld and Michelle Davis, Prufrock, 2008. The authors define students with special needs as “children with learning difficulties, children with disabilities, and gifted children.” However, in addressing the needs of gifted children, the authors point out that neither a free and appropriate public education nor services and accommodations are required by federal law for gifted students.
Weinfeld and Davis are explicit in their approach that all students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the United States’ public schools, and they provide an in-depth treatment of all the aspects and processes involved in acquiring one for students with special educational needs. Topics covered include effective advocacy, the features of an outstanding classroom or educational program, an overview of pertinent educational laws and the steps needed to meet their requirements, the IEP (individual education plan) process, educational options within and beyond public schools, the dynamics of school meetings, and effective implementation and evaluation.
Although the book's cover conveys the idea that its contents are for parents “to advocate for” their “exceptional child’s education,” it is better suited for individuals who are interested in becoming—or are already—professional educational advocates. Even though parents may be advocates for their children, the authors emphasize that the services of a professional advocate are necessary because of the special knowledge and experience they have, including:
- knowledge of the definitions of disabilities, how special needs are evaluated, and how they are legally determined;
- familiarity with federal and state statutes, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), as well as case law;
- ability to gather and interpret information objectively from various sources and through direct observation;
- skill in providing accurate and thorough documentation;
- knowledge about appropriate curriculum, accommodations, and services that can be provided;
- a network of educational, legal, and behavioral practitioners, etc.;
- an understanding of the mind sets and motivations of each of the individuals involved in the child’s education and how their approaches may help or hinder the process; and
- an understanding of group dynamics.
However, just because this is a handbook best-suited for consultants does not mean that it does not address the concerns of parents and teachers. The book describes how parents can participate in advocating for their special needs child and how teachers can work with parents to meet those needs. In addition, the book includes call out boxes that bring attention to tips, key concepts, examples, and implications for parents or schools to consider.
The authors sensitively relate the role of each person who may be involved in identifying and meeting the needs of a child with learning difficulties or disabilities. The advantages and disadvantages each individual brings to the process are fully described:
- The parents’ approach is centered on the child’s needs and may carry strong emotions, but parents also have special, detailed knowledge to share about their child.
- School personnel’s concerns are about limited resources or precedents that may be set, but how they also have expertise in identifying and serving special needs students and have knowledge of resources that are available within and outside of the school.
- An attorney is involved in drafting documents and attending meetings; they also have expertise beyond that of an advocate and can provide advice for the student’s protection and potential consequences if a lawyer’s opinion or services are not obtained.
- Experts (psychologists, therapists, etc.) provide testing, testimony, and counseling.
- Student can contribute to the process by giving their perspective or attending meetings as is age appropriate.
In chapter 6, “What does an Advocate Need to Know About Evaluating a Child’s Strengths and Needs?” the focus is centered on students’ needs and not much on strengths. More could be said about these strengths; how they can be spotted; and how they can be nurtured to assist in meeting other needs.
Although gifted children are not mentioned much, this book would be quite helpful for students with special needs in addition to their giftedness. This issue of the Duke Gifted Letter also addresses a recent Office of Civil Rights letter that states that services and accommodations for students with learning disabilities may not be withheld just because a student also is receiving gifted programming (See Civil Rights for Gifted Students with Disabilities).
You may purchase the Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book, by Rich Weinfeld and Michelle Davis, Prufrock, 2008, at the Prufrock Press Web site.