Being a Successful Advocate

Written by:
Jennifer Price, M.S., Academic Coach
Learning Foundations, Academic Coaching
Teach study-skills, Mentor self-advocacy skills, Coach ACT/SAT test prep skills. Specialize in ADHD, Dyslexia, EFD, and CAPD.

The educational world of IEP/504 accommodations is foreign to most, but it is easy to master if you approach this process as a reciprocal relationship of accountability between the student and the school.  The school will provide accommodations for the student, while at the same time, it is the student’s responsibility to use them appropriately.  Just as in any healthy relationship, this is an agreement of give and take.  A good advocate needs to understand:
•    The Response to Intervention (RTI) process
•    Appropriate accommodations for specific learning challenges
•    Appropriate accommodations for given learning styles

The first step is understanding the protocol or procedures that teachers, principals, and learning specialists use to measure a student’s needs, which is called Response to Intervention (RTI). RTI takes a comprehensive look at a student’s performace developmentally, in the community, at home, and in school.  This approach measures how the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ applies to your child.  Doctors provide a developmental and physical perspective, teachers and educational specialists provide a school perspective, while parents and students provide input about the student’s performance at home. Altogether, these reports indicate how the student struggles across environments.   In simple terms, it really does take a village.  Be prepared to enter a world of  educational language that often feels negative to parents and students (because of labeling), yet can be necessary for student success.  RTI can be a process of t-scores, standardized assessments, and measurable goals that require scientific interpretation, but don’t worry, the school will provide specialists in the meeting to translate results.  As an advocate, ask questions about how the data presents challenges in time, memory, organization, socio-emotional needs, and classroom knowledge. 

Once it is determined that a student needs accommodations in the classroom to be a successful learner, it is important not to focus on the student’s “lack of something”. Instead, focus on how the student can demonstrate their knowledge to their highest potential.  Students with “learning challenges” do not lack intelligence so accommodations should not be viewed as a means to lower the expectations of student performance. Accommodations are not shortcuts for the student, but are instead suggestions on how to widen and deepen the traditional education box the student is asked to perform within.  For instance, a student with slower processing speed is challenged by “time”, which is a traditional means of measuring knowledge.  Two students can get A’s, but the “time” that it took those individuals to get there can look very different. In this case, both students perform well, yet one requires triple the amount of time to get the work done.  While the performance appears adequate, the issue of time is taxing on the student and needs to be considered as a “challenge”.  Timing shows up in reading, timed math tests, writing, taking notes, hours of homework, and completing tests “on time”.  Appropriate accommodations focus on “time based solutions” such as, extended time on tests, having notes provided ahead of time, extended deadlines or shortened reading assignments. 

In addition to accommodations based upon standardized measures, like timing, make suggestions based on how the student learns. Everyone can learn and every brain is wired for learning, but not everyone learns the same way.  A student’s learning style is critical to learning because it is how the student receives, organizes, and processes information.  Research shows that teaching to a student’s preferred learning style increases their motivation and success, while deepening their knowledge.  Therefore, teaching instruction should be multi-sensory: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and relational.  Traditional teaching presents well for visual learners but multi-sensory teaching provides a number of different ways for the student to comprehend the information.  One of my favorite outcomes from these meetings is knowing that these learning style accommodations benefit every student in the class.  When instruction is delivered to all of the human senses, learning is engaging, relational, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, and teaches to 100% of the class.  A few commonly requested multi-sensory accommodations include:  audiobooks, a key bank for Spanish words or English vocabulary, verbal queues for homework reminders, homework listed on the board to copy, notes to follow along in class (and add to).

If at all possible, students should be engaged in the process. The more a student understands their strengths and weaknesses and can explain how the accommodations help them to engage in learning and perform better, the easier it is for teachers to help the students. Students who can advocate well are received well, so preparing the student to explain some of their strengths and weaknesses will provide insight and personalization to this process.    In addition, students that participate take ownership of their accommodations.  Students can advocate for themselves by presenting clear examples of how their learning is affected by “the challenge” and make suggestions based on their learning style.  If possible, they should provide examples that work at home and set realistic expectations of their ability to perform.  Keep expectations high and attainable so the student doesn’t feel underestimated.  Teachers already have a lot on their plate, so it is key that students take responsibility for their accommodations. Student accountability and well-defined measures will breed a successful win-win situation for everyone on the student’s academic support team. 

While I authentically feel that everyone in the room has the best intentions for the student, it is very important to go into the IEP meeting with a collaborative attitude and ideas for accommodations/solutions. These meetings are staffed by educational specialists who care about the student’s ability to perform and achieve.  Everyone is there to support the student. In fact, I have participated in several meetings that have helped kids feel more supported and less stressed.  After all, every student deserves to perform to their highest potential, so every advocate should know the most successful components of advocating for the best outcome.