From Heartbreak to Empowerment: Three Parent Consultants Team up to Empower Families
By Andrea Brandeis, Marjorie Walsh and Laura DeSisto
Imagine this: Your child begins to struggle in school. S/he can’t read, classroom behavior is difficult, s/he can’t get along with other children, s/he doesn’t talk. You speak with the teacher. Maybe the teacher does not agree with what you are seeing. It is suggested that perhaps s/he could try harder in school and as a family you could work on this at home. Maybe the teacher does agree. She moves his seat to the front of the class, has him work in small groups, keeps her eye on him, lets him go for short walks, involves him in a small lunch group and checks in with him to make sure he understands, and has written his assignments down. You put the pressure on at home, which leads to exhausting, nightly battles. Your student continues to struggle, and begins to act out or becomes anxious and depressed. What should you do next?
If you can relate to this story, then you have something in common with many parents. Families often experience feelings of helplessness and isolation as a result of their children’s struggles in school. Then, once a parent realizes that it is possible to help her child through special education services, she then needs to learn how to navigate an often confusing and overwhelming Special Education process.
“Watching your child struggle in school is heartbreaking. The thought that something is wrong is very scary. It is often more scary when your beautiful child is diagnosed with a learning disability. It’s no wonder that so few of us can get through this on our own.”
– Marjorie Walsh
Many parents walk into their first Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting in a very emotional state. In addition to their emotions, they are often introduced to language and technical terms that are brand new to them. How many parents have heard the terms “Least Restrictive Environment”; “Free and Appropriate Public Education”; “Executive Function Deficits” to name a few?
Fortunately for parents, supports such as those provided by the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN), where a family can call to have questions answered and be referred to trained parent consultants/advocates, can help them navigate through the often overwhelming and confusing system of educational services.
The mission of the Federation is to provide information, support, and assistance to parents of children with disabilities, their professional partners, and their communities. The Federation provides extensive training for parents and professionals on how to successfully navigate these worlds. Some Federation training participants go on to become advocates for other families of children with special needs, and in so doing extend the mission of the Federation. Known as “Parent Consultants”, families look to these trained parents to help them advocate for their children, empower them and assist them in successfully collaborating with their school district.
Marjorie Walsh is a parent who participated in the FCSN’s Parent Consultant Training Institute (PCTI), over 12 years ago. The PCTI is a program offered to parents and professionals that can lead to a career in advocacy. Shortly after taking the training, Marjorie began working as a parent consultant and is now well known throughout Massachusetts for her successful resolution of even the toughest of cases.
Andrea Brandeis also participated in the PCTI and loves to carry out the mission of FCSN, providing clarity and breaking down the process of special education for the families she serves. Preparing and employing appropriate strategies is something every family can do to participate as active Team members. The ultimate goal is for the family to be empowered and to advocate for their child.
In 2011, Marjorie Walsh and Andrea Brandeis joined forces when they opened The Center for Children with Special Needs of Massachusetts (CCSNMA) in Weymouth, MA a new organization that provides support and advocacy for parents. In just their first year, they already have served over 100 families. Laura Desisto also joined the team this past year. Like Marjorie Walsh and Andrea Brandeis, she participated in the PCTI and sought ways to assist other families. As a team, the three have very broad and deep knowledge in the field of special needs and advocacy. As a result, they are able to assist families who have children with needs in many areas of disability. Families get an understanding of the law, and they also benefit from expertise in the most appropriate interventions for their child’s disability.
Together they have created a culture of collaboration that is beneficial to the families they serve and each family receives the highest level of input and support possible. Dr. Richard Robison, FCSN Executive Director applauds this collaboration, which is a key component of the Federation’s work. “Successful advocacy requires a unique set of skills. Parent Consultants must be knowledgeable in state and federal special education law and processes, but the best ones have the ability to build trusting relationships and respect all the players. Parent Consultants who have learned from their own life experience, can be a wealth of information for families. We encourage Parent Consultants to network, collaborate and pool their resources.”
Groups like CCSNMA continue to support families and their children with special needs and extend the mission of the Federation in Massachusetts.
If your child is not making effective progress socially, emotionally, behaviorally or academically, call the Federation to locate a Parent Consultant in your area that can work with you to enable you to effectively advocate for your child.
To learn more about the Federation’s Parent Consultant Training Institute, visit https://fcsn.org/newsletter/2014/fall-2014/pcti/.To contact Marjorie Walsh, Andrea Brandeis or Laura DeSisto, please visit www.ccsnma.com or call 781-331-KIDS.