I’d imagine you stumbled upon us on a trying to find connection with other special needs moms like you or you are on a google hunt for more information and education to help your child at school or at home. Truth be told, that is kind of how I ended up here. I’ve always had a heart for the special education community. I’ve always had a desire to really help people, but that didn’t lead me here. My son Mason did, my cousin did, school administration did, my friends and family did. It took a lot of experiences, good and bad, to get to this place where I get to help families like mine every day, to this place where I REALLY love serving others in this specific way. The story is long, and no one wants to hear how long winded I can get, because let’s face it. I love to talk… So here is the short version.
When Mason was about 18 months, he changed. It was like someone turned up the intensity volume on all of his feelings. I guess in hindsight I knew something was different but we were experiencing a lot of changes in our personal life and I hoped it was due to that. I was really confident that with a little help, he would catch up. Fast forward to 3 years old, Mason is struggling with peers, he’s had some loss of skills, his tantrums are out of control, there is no pattern, he’s struggling in public places… I mean the list goes on. I decided to have him evaluated through the school district for special education services. Prior to mommin, I worked in a special education, in daycare, in school districts, basically anywhere I could be around kids. Kids are my thing. I LOVE learning about behavior and child development, so I kind of knew what we were experiencing probably wasn’t typical behavior, but an IEP for my own child was new territory. My cousin is this amazing special education professional (and person for that matter) and she stepped up to help me through the process of Masons’ first IEP. Let me tell you, if it wasn’t for her, Mason would be a totally different kid right now. She had the knowledge, understanding and the special education language to advocate for all the things Mason needed. I had a little knowledge in special education, but still was overwhelmed by the process. I watched and took notes and soaked in all the things she was saying so that I could advocate for him in the future.
Fast forward to third grade. We’ve been through a few bumps in the road, but I had no idea what was in store for us. Mason had the same IEP team for the most part, at the same school, since preschool. I trusted them, we had a great rapport, we communicated well. I sat in meeting after meeting for years, basically agreeing with his team on what they offered, because I trusted they had his best interest in mind and it all sounded great. And you know what? They basically did. The rest of this story gets hairy, but I am confident that at some point, for most of the time, this team was on Mason’s side.
Before I continue, I want to be clear. I LOVE special education professionals. They have a ridiculously hard job of teaching our children, playing the politics of school administration, making parents happy and having to get creative when the funding isn’t there. Most of the people you meet in special education are there because they want to make a difference in your child’s life. That being said, even great people make mistakes. Wonderful people get burnt out. And here’s the thing, parents don’t always have to agree with professionals just because they are the professionals. And in the disagreement… it doesn’t mean anyone is wrong, just different.
When Mason has meltdowns, they are intense. Crying, yelling, awful language, threatening words (with no follow through), sometimes destruction of property. Sometimes he can calm down in a matter of minutes, but sometimes its an hour before he can bring it all back in. In third grade, something changed for Mason. He went from an entire year of no incidence, to day 4 of school the assistant principal calling to inform me of a problem. I’m not sure if it was all the growing he had done or if it was the change in classroom expectations. But from there I did what I was supposed to do, I called IEP meetings, I requested a new functional behavior assessment so that we could identify the source of the problems, I asked for adjustments to his behavior intervention plan. I was in constant communication with the school. Outside of school, we were at doctors appointments, intensive counseling, new medications, we finally got a diagnosis. I trusted that the team was still on Masons side and that they too were working as hard as I was. Looking back, I’m not sure what changed, but the rapport we had was gone. Eventually, the school crossed lines destroying the relationship with our family. Mason went to school everyday and was torn down and let down by people that he trusted. I’m not surprised that his behaviors escalated because he was set up to fail every single day. A child who needs consistency and trust in order to grow, is not available to access their education when the people who they are supposed to trust aren’t available for support any longer. I still get emotional and angry when I think about this traumatic time. It’s not that Mason’s behavior was acceptable or he deserved a pass, because there are consequences for not following the school expectations. It’s that we had identified multiple ways in multiple meetings that he lacked the skills to follow expectations the same as his peers, and the school was treating him as if this was all a choice he was making. It was heartbreaking and I am still traumatized by the entire ordeal.
Thankfully, my cousin was there with us every step of the way. She knew the law better than I did and she knew how to demand that the school do what they should have been doing all along. She was our savior in this situation and I don’t know how things would have played out if she wasn’t there. Thankfully, I had knowledge of special education and wasn’t afraid to say no or stand up for Mason. I understand special education language so I was able to advocate for Mason and assert my knowledge of the law.
But, I got to thinking, what do other families do? What if you don’t have an understanding of special education? What if you aren’t lucky enough to have a cousin like mine? What if because this is your baby that is being destroyed by people who are supposed to support him, you have too many emotions involved to get your point across? My story isn’t the only one. We aren’t alone in dealing with the trauma that we did. There are countless other parents out there doing everything they should be doing to work WITH the school and are met with resistance and a combative team. Guys, it shouldn’t be a fight! I had friends who were struggling with their IEPs, so I stepped in to help. Soon, they were referring their friends to me, so I stepped up to help. And guess what? I freaking loved it. Joining my love for children and education with my desire to help families like mine has been like a dream. I continued to read everything I could, I took all the classes I could find. Soon, I began my training to become a Master IEP Coach and Advocate. I would finish one thing and begin another because I knew THIS is exactly where I was led to be. THIS is where my heart is.
My goal is to help parents of special needs kids feel empowered and educated so that they can walk into an IEP meeting understanding what is being offered and be able to provide their valuable opinion. Here’s the thing that most parents don’t understand, YOUR OPINION IS AS VALUABLE, OR MORE SO, THAN EVERY OTHER PERSON AT THAT TABLE. YOU ARE THE EXPERT IN YOUR CHILD. My role is to give you the confidence you need to own that expertise and get everything your child needs and more.
And so Nicole Schlechter Advocacy was born.