Today was Troy's annual ARD (Admission, Review, Dismissal) meeting.  It is always the longest ARD of the year, and today's was even longer because we had to go over all of the assessment data that has been collected over the last several weeks to reach the determination that he does meet the eligibility for a diagnosis of autism. 
    I won't go into a huge amount of detail about the ARD meeting procedures because that could fill a book and become pretty dry.  If you are unfamiliar with ARD meetings, basically, they are committee meetings made up of parents, school administrators, general education and special teachers, a diagnostician, and any other specialists necessary to discuss the special education needs of individual students.  At today's meeting, for example, we had a large group: Tom and I, a physical therapist, the school principal, the diagnostician, the special education teacher, an adaptive PE teacher, Troy's teacher, a special education counselor, and a school psychologist were all in attendance. We were missing the occupational therapist. 
    Each year, progress on previous goals is reviewed, any new assessment data is reviewed, and new goals are developed. Accommodations and services that the student needs are discussed, and plans are put in place.  Brief ARDs can be held at any time of the year if necessary.  That is the bare bones explanation. If you want further info., please let me know, and I'll do my best to answer your questions. I've sat in too many to count as both a parent and an educator, so I can offer a pretty well-rounded perspective.
    Before an ARD meeting occurs, a draft of the reports and proposed goals are sent home so that parents have time to read through it thoroughly and prepare for the meeting.  When we received Troy's draft, we combed through the data--and there was much to dissect.  I made notes throughout, indicating areas I disagreed with or didn't fully understand. The draft was probably about 25-28 pages long. I agreed with almost everything I read--with one pretty large exception--the occupational therapy portion.  I had serious concerns about that portion of the report.  You may have skimmed over my list of attendees at our meeting today--the OT was the one person I really wanted to be in attendance today, and she wasn't.
    Troy has poor fine motor skills. He always has. He has an official diagnosis of dysgraphia, he can't tie a shoe, he struggles with zippers and buttons, he can't use scissors, etc. His handwriting is horrible -most of the time. He has gotten better and is capable, at times, of good writing, but it is laborsome, and he tires easily and quickly. So, the report that came home said that he had not made progress from his direct services, recommended he use a word processor for his written activities, and completely stop his OT services. It made no sense to me.  I could understand and support the introduction of assistive technology, I agreed that he isn't making progress...but I could not support the discontinuation of the therapy.  It made no sense to me.
    When we got to that portion of the meeting, I was a bit nervous to voice my opinion.  For one, the OT was not there. Also, I was afraid the other committee members were all going to disagree with me. (34 years old, and still worrying about peer pressure?!) I was starting to question myself and whether my concerns were justified. But-I thought about the advice I gave recently (Click here for more on that.) I knew I had to advocate for Troy.
    So, I cleared my throat and inched forward in my seat and said, "I have some concerns with that." Everyone turned to look at me, and I stated my concerns. I could feel my heart thumping a bit harder as I voiced my disagreement. I finished and held my breath for a moment, wondering what they would say.
    What followed could not have been more perfect or comforting! Several of them agreed immediately. They said that they also had those thoughts and concerns when reading the report AND had already discussed their thoughts amongst themselves beforehand. I was told that had I not mentioned it, they were going to! The principal reminded me that we were a committee, and, as a committee, we can determine that that recommendation was not in Troy's best interest.
I must have had a huge grin on my face when I heard their agreement and support of what Troy needs. What a sense of peace I felt at that moment and immense gratefulness that this committee of people does care about my son.
    The meeting finished-eventually, and we all signed in agreement.  The finalized copy of the minutes and IEP goals is 39 pages long! That's quite a bit of information to digest.
    I cannot stop thinking about the importance of advocating for our children.  I am not just talking about my three special needs kiddos--I'm talking about every single parent and every single child--typical or not.  Thankfully, most parents will not have to attend ARD or 504 meetings.  But that doesn't mean all parents don't have to advocate for their kids.
     A co-worker sent me a text message just last night, upset about an app her son was told to download and use for school.  The teacher had very noble intentions, but my friend was upset when she saw some of the other content on the app.  It went against her religious and moral beliefs.  She had written the teacher an e-mail but reached out to me before sending it. What advice did I give? "Voice your concern! You have to advocate for your children." And she did.
   I've been thinking about how nervous I was to speak up in the ARD meeting. I have been in at least 100 ARD meetings-on both ends of the table in the last eleven years. I am comfortable discussing assessment and achievement data and understand standardized testing and can even hold my own when discussing standard deviation. I like the staff that work with my children and believe they are qualified and do care about the kids they work with. And yet-I was nervous to voice my justified disapproval to a room full of these wonderful people.
     I started to think about all my fellow parents and the never-ending stream of situations that come up that require us to speak up for what we believe is in the best interest our children. 
It is sometimes difficult and even scary to do so, and, yet, we do it. 
    If you are a parent, I know that it can be exhausting and time-consuming and stress-inducing and even terrifyingly nerve-racking to advocate for your children.  Do it anyway!
    You don't want to wonder what would have or could have happened if you had said something.  Believe me when I say that I worked professionally with incredible educators and specialists who genuinely care for the kids they work with. As a parent, I'm thrilled to see it from this end, too. That being said, even when they're doing their best, they don't know your child the way you do. Remember that, and speak up when you feel you need to. I think you'll find that you will be listened to, and you will feel a sense of peace, knowing that you have done your best as a parent.
    Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a family member that I have not yet had the pleasure to meet.  She asked me to call her because she wanted to pick my brain. So, of course, I did.
    We only talked a short while, but she shared some concerns about her step-son and wanted some advice.  Much of what she described mirrors my son's behaviors. I told her that in my unqualified, unprofessional opinion, it sounded very much like an ADD scenario.  In the discussion, I sensed that she was feeling a bit alone in her concerns. However, her step-son's teacher is noticing his struggles and reporting them as well.
    I gave her two pieces of advice: 1) Follow her gut.  If she knows in her heart that something is atypical or different with her step-son, and it is truly causing her concern, she should trust that instinct. I suggested that she seek a qualified, professional opinion. I recommended that he be assessed by specifically trained and highly qualified individuals. If he tests "normal," she'll have peace of mind. If he doesn't, they can seek help.  2) Advocate for his needs. In her particular situation, she needs to advocate for him to family members and people very close to the situation to convince them to agree to seek appropriate assessments. Then, she needs to advocate for his needs in the school and community settings.
    We had the conversation while I was driving home from work.  We hung up just moments before I pulled into my garage.
    I walked into the house, and the first thing I saw when I entered, before even putting my purse down, was a letter from the school principal.  It explained that the 2nd grade classrooms were overcrowded and that a new teacher had been hired. She was requesting volunteers from each class to move into the new classroom.  If enough volunteers do not come forward, a lottery system will be put in place to fill the new class roster. 
    Note the date--It's November. The kids have been in their classrooms for almost three months. Routines have been established. Relationships have formed.  I knew that it was highly unlikely that volunteers would fill that classroom. 
    I thought about Troy, and I panicked.  With his various special needs, especially his anxiety, social interaction struggles, and the problems he has adjusting to changes in routines, I knew it would be disastrous for him to be forced to move. 

    On the other hand, I felt like those were selfish thoughts and that my child should be treated like everyone else. That is what is fair, right?!
    No! Fair is not always equal. I flashed back to the advice I had given literally moments before. I knew I had to take my own advice and advocate for what I believed was best for Troy.
    After dinner was done and the kids were in bed, I wrote the principal an e-mail. A long e-mail. (Shocking, I know!) I revised and edited it and read it aloud several times. I wanted it to be just right. I asked her to exempt Troy from the lottery because it would be detrimental to him. I have spent many, many hours with the principal in ARD meetings and various school functions.  We get along well, and I have great trust in her leadership. I know that she cares for all of the students and wants what is best for them. Still, I was scared to hit "Send." Would I upset her with my request? Would she feel like I was being a typical, overprotective, entitled parent? Again, I flashed back to the advice I had given to my family member.  It didn't matter what she thought of me--I had to advocate for my son. I sent the e-mail.
    In about five minutes, at 9:30 at night, the principal responded. Her simple response to my predictably lengthy, impassioned e-mail: "I agree."
    Tom and I laughed at the speed and simplicity in her response to my fervent, lengthy petition. When the giggling subsided, I reflected on the situation.  Knowing that Troy's needs were taken care of, I
felt immense peace of mind and gratitude that he is in a school that truly nurtures and fosters his growth and success. 
    Eventually, my mind went back to my conversation with my relative.  At the time, I believed that my advice was really not that helpful.  I truly felt bad that I didn't have something better or more profound to offer her.  However, it seemed like much more than a coincidence that the advice I gave her, I needed to hear just as badly.  So, to her, I say, 'Thank you for helping me-without even knowing you were doing it. And thank you for loving that little boy enough to follow your gut and step up to advocate for him.'