Advocacy 101: What Do Advocates Do?

By Pamela Wright, MA, MSW


Special education services are intensive and expensive and resources are limited • If you have a child with special needs, you may have to advocate for your child or hire others to serve that purpose • Understanding the advocate’s role will help you decide how to get started

Advocacy is not a mysterious process. Following is an overview of what advocates do.

Gather Information

Advocates gather facts and information. As they gather information and organize documents, they learn about the child’s disability and educational history. Advocates use facts and independent documentation to resolve disagreements and disputes with the school.

Learn the Rules of the Game

Advocates know the procedures that parents must follow to protect their rights and their child’s rights.

  • They educate themselves about their local school district. They know how decisions are made and by whom.
  • Advocates know about legal rights. They know that a child with a disability is entitled to an “appropriate” education, not the “best” education, nor an education that “maximizes the child’s potential.” They understand that “best” is a four-letter word that cannot be used by parents or advocates.
Plan, Prepare, and Follow Up

Planning prevents problems. They prepare for meetings, create agendas, write objectives, and use meeting worksheets and follow-up letters to clarify problems and nail down agreements.

  • Advocates do not expect school personnel to tell them about rights and responsibilities. Advocates read special education laws, regulations, and cases to get answers to their questions.
  • They learn how to use test scores to monitor a child’s progress in special education.
  • They keep written records. Because documents are often the keys to success, advocates know that if a statement is not written down, it was not said. They make requests in writing and write polite follow-up letters to document events, discussions, and meetings.
  • Advocates are not afraid to ask questions. When they ask questions, they listen carefully to answers. Advocates know how to use “Who, What, Why, Where, When, How, and Explain Questions” to discover the true reasons for positions.
Identify Problems and Propose Solutions

Advocates are problem solvers. They do not waste valuable time and energy looking for people to blame.

  • They identify, define, and describe problems from all angles.
  • They use their knowledge of the child’s interests, abilities, and emotional wellbeing to develop strategies they believe will lead to success.
  • They negotiate with schools for the special education services that will achieve the child’s goals. As negotiators, advocates discuss issues and make offers or proposals. They seek “win-win” solutions that will satisfy the interests of parents and schools.

This article is adapted with permission from the Wrightslaw Website. Pamela Wright is a psychotherapist who works with children and families. She and husband Pete Wright are co-founders of Wrightslaw, the leading resource for special education law and advocacy; they are also co-founders and faculty at the William & Mary Law Institute of Special Education Advocacy (ISEA).

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