Sarah Jacobs has two sons, both with a learning disability. Yet she has managed to shepherd them through the New York City school system without ever having to consult a lawyer or an educational advocate.

“I have been negotiating the system for 15 years and have never breathed the word lawyer,” says Jacobs. “I have been really successful getting my sons what they have needed and have helped them to negotiate for themselves.”

Ideally, all parents would like to be able to say the same thing. But advocating for kids in special education is often a grueling task that can lead to court. This fact doesn’t make it easy on parents. The legal route is exhausting both emotionally and financially, so, whenever possible, the best choice is to avoid it — without sacrificing your child’s services.

Raquel Scharf-Anderson, an educational advocate in Arizona, has worked with parents for 13 years, helping them navigate the system lawyer-free. Over the years, she has seen some common issues and concerns that come out of having a child in special education. She has also gathered a raft of useful ideas on how to work with the system to get what your child needs.

Honesty is the best policy

One of the most important things for parents to do, according to Scharf-Anderson, is to be honest about their child’s disability and learning needs. “It’s important for parents to be forthright about their child’s issues,” she says. Many of the parents she speaks to have a notion of special education from 20 or 30 years ago: basement classrooms, stigmas, and a lower quality of education — none of which they want for their child. So they hide information about their child or try to minimize their issues.

Many parents are also in denial about their child’s diagnosis, Scharf-Anderson has found, and that denial makes it difficult to work effectively with the school. “Parents have to come to terms with their child’s issues,” she says.

Jacobs seconds that thought. “As a parent, it can be difficult to accept that your child is somehow less than perfect,” she says. “If your child’s vision were impaired, you would have no problem being sure that they got glasses. Getting help for these cognitive impairments falls into the same category.”

Jacobs has perfected the art of acting charming, funny, and sometimes confused to diffuse many potential angry confrontations. “If need be, I pretend to be stupid,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll say things like ‘I’m confused’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ Even if you know that the person you are speaking to has screwed up royally in terms of your child, blame some other outside force for messing up so they can save face and fix things for your child.”

Parent power

Some of the most powerful allies for parents are other parents. Jacobs always makes a point of getting to know parents with children a year or two ahead of her sons. From them she learns about the best teachers, best schools, and best people to talk to. And, in turn, she helps other parents who are floundering. “The system needs to work for all kids,” she says. “Not just the ones [whose parents] have the time to be super-advocates.”

So how much time does all this take? “There are times when this is a serious part-time job,” Jacobs says. Between volunteering at the school, networking with other parents, meeting with teachers, and juggling specialist appointments and IEP meetings, advocating takes up a good part of her time.

Scharf-Anderson and Jacobs offer these additional tips for parents wanting to get the most from the school system:

  • Have another set of ears at your team meetings. “Parents are emotionally tied to their kids,” says Scharf-Anderson. “An impartial person often catches things that parents miss.”
  • Do not sign anything at meetings, and let the team know that you will be taking the proposed IEP home to review before signing it.
  • Before an IEP meeting, talk to all the professionals working with your child. Be sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of your child’s needs. Raise issues the professionals might not be aware of — worries you might be having, potential problems you are anticipating — before the IEP gets written.
  • Hang around school, and be a good PTA mom. It is a great source for useful information. A family that puts in lots of volunteer time is more likely to get what it needs.
  • Let the people who work with your child know how grateful you are. Write notes to them and letters to their supervisors, showing that you appreciate their hard work.
  • Learn how your board of education and department of special ed work. Make friends with the people who answer the telephone. Often they will connect you with exactly the right person or tell you what you need to do.

When it’s time to lawyer up

Of course, sometimes all the cajoling and advocating in the world still doesn’t get your child what he or she needs. That may be the time to call in a lawyer, says Scharf-Anderson.

“When parents have attended meetings and still feel their child is not getting the services they deserve, consulting with an advocate or lawyer is needed,” she says. “A well-written letter to the school district special education department can move mountains. If that doesn’t work and if services aren’t being provided, parents should take further steps with an attorney.”