Parents of Children With Special Needs: Pick Your Battles

Published on May 28, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

Having represented hundreds of kids with disabilities over the years, I have gotten a first hand look at how frustrating the special education process can be, and often is, for their parents.  It often feels completely unbalanced and unfair.  As an example, I often leave IEP meetings with my clients saying to me “that was the first time ever that they were even listening to me!” or “that was the most we’ve gotten accomplished all year!”   While I’m pleased to hear that I’ve helped, I also know that within a few hours, if not on the way home, the parents will start to get really upset that it has taken hiring a special education lawyer to be heard.

Parents should not have to retain an attorney to be treated with respect by their school districts.

I share the frustration many families feel when they are trying to figure out their rights under the IDEA, and how to advocate for the special education and related services which their child needs.  Especially this time of year, I am often in a different school district every single day, and believe me, I get it!  It often feels like you’re beating your head against the wall trying to convince the school staff that your child needs something more, or something different, than what they are providing.

While it may not be fair, the reality is this:  you are likely to be dealing with these people for a long time, and you had better pick which battles you need to fight, and which ones you don’t.

Your child with special education needs is entitled to services until they 1) are “exited” from services because they no longer require them; 2) graduate from high school; or 3)  “age out” of services.  In Connecticut and many other states, this can mean services through age 21 or 22.   Therefore, if you are starting to become frustrated with your school district when your child is in elementary school, or even earlier, you really need to consider that you might have more than a decade ahead of you of discussing special education programs with your school district.  That’s a long time, and trust me, if will seem even longer if you develop an adversarial relationship.

Unless you plan on moving, it’s time to triage your concerns.

When I am contacted by parents of children with special needs who are looking to hire me, I often ask them this question:  “if I could wave a magic wand, other than being able to make your child’s disability go away, what do you want from your school district?”  Sometimes the parents don’t know, and that’s okay; that’s a good time to get an evaluation to help us.  But often parents have a list of services and supports which they believe are required.  What I often do is go through those requests with them, tell them which are reasonable, which are not, and ask them to consider which they would be willing to forgo.

As an example, if you have been arguing with your special education director over whether they will hire an outside consultant of your choosing to advise the staff, and they finally agree to do it, you might want to consider whether, at the very meeting where they consented to the consultant, you also want to argue over whether the IEP will call for 1 hour versus 1.25 hours of OT per week.  Or, if you have been fighting for a full time 1:1 paraprofessional to be assigned to your child’s case, and the school agrees to do it, maybe this isn’t the moment to push being reimbursed for the software program you purchased for the laptop he uses in the resource room.

Don’t ever forfeit essential services, but do consider whether the battles you are waging are worth having a long term acrimonious relationship with your school district.

It can be really difficult to give up a service that you know your school is required to provide, but I just suggest asking yourself honestly how much your child NEEDS it before you create a “scorched earth” environment.  If the time comes to do so, and that time does indeed come for some, you want to make sure it’s a fight worth waging, because I assure you, it comes at a cost.