From the November 2017 issue

Support for Families of Kids in Special Education

Discover how Michigan Alliance for Families, a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center, provides all the tools you need to navigate Michigan's special education system.

Most parents want their kids to have the best education possible with good teachers, a robust curriculum and tutoring and educational guidance to help them be the best they can be.

But for parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs, figuring out how to provide their children those educational opportunities can be extra challenging.

And that’s where Michigan Alliance for Families comes in.

The Michigan Alliance for Families, which is an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Grant Funded Initiative through the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education and the Parent Training and Information Center (PTI), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and the Office of Special Education Programs, work together to connect parents of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities with information and resources so that they can speak on behalf of their kids and navigate the special education system, too.

“The project was born out of the idea of a couple of advocates who had been working for parents that had kids that needed special education,” says Clare Brick, the Regional Parent Mentor in Southern Wayne County. “Parents would come back with the same issues, so they decided to train parents to advocate for their kids.”

To do this, each area of the state was assigned a number of regional parent mentors based on the population in each area.

“We have three regional parent mentors in Wayne County,” Brick explains. “The further you get away from Wayne County the population goes down, so we might have one that handles four counties, or in the Upper Peninsula one handles the west and the other the east.”

Each of these parent mentors has, or has had, a family member that received special education to ensure that they have firsthand experience with the special education system. Brick, for example, has four kids, and her youngest has Down syndrome. She taps into her own experience to act as a sort of guide to parents who currently have students enrolled in the school system.

“I talk to parents on the phone, exchange emails, meet with them (and) go through paperwork,” she explains.

Michigan Alliance also offers workshops on special education topics with statewide trainers and training partners that can last from one hour to a whole day; plus webinars on topics including how each child learns, behavioral issues and support, transitioning from high school to the real world and preschool prep.

It also provides information about other resources in the community that may offer services that families may benefit from.

“I think the main thing we do for families is give them information and confidence when speaking to their schools,” Brick says. “Parents don’t know what they don’t know. When it comes to special education, there are a lot of different players at the table with that parent. It can be intimidating. We want the parent to know that they are an equal partner at that table.”

It was this concept, coupled with a quick and professional response, that drew Jennifer DeRoch of Taylor to Michigan Alliance for Families back in 2015.

DeRoch has four kids, two of which are on IEPs, and started her search for help after getting fed up with the lack of resources she was finding on her own.

“I had found a couple other websites, but they weren’t local,” she explains. “I put in a Google search and got immediate great feedback (from Michigan Alliance) and didn’t need to look any further.”

Since then, DeRoch has tried out Michigan Alliance for Families webinars, workshops and personal parenting events with great success.

“I went through it alone without their process before and it was a scary, overwhelming and frustrating experience, because I realized you can’t do this alone,” she explains. “(Michigan Alliance for Families) makes me feel more equipped and a functioning member of my kids’ team.”

Best of all, because Michigan Alliance is grant funded, all of the services, workshops and information it provides is absolutely free to families and is open to eligible kids from birth to age 26.

“Any parent that I meet, if they’re a parent of a child with special needs, the very first thing I ask them if they are connected with Michigan Alliance,” DeRoch says.

Parents wanting more information on the Michigan Alliance for Families can get it through their school, disability program or on the center’s website at michiganallianceforfamilies.org.

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