Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Unexpectedly Effective Advocacy #2: The Question


Since learning about my daughter’s diagnosis of Down syndrome and my son’s diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disorder in the early 1990’s I have embraced advocacy skills—the skills of ‘speaking up.’ I have learned about successful advocacy through workshops, books and mentors and I have used these skills to change my kids’ personal situations, to improve systems and to promote public policies that support the recognition of the full citizenship of people with disabilities. Along the way I have picked up a few tricks that aren’t usually mentioned as advocacy skills, yet they work for me. Perhaps you will find them useful as well.

The second unexpectedly effective advocacy technique is the question.

The question is a powerful tool for gathering information—especially when you ask the right question.

One of my friends told me years ago not to ask your child’s teacher “HOW” your child is doing in class. Ask “WHAT” your child is doing in class instead.

She had asked her daughter’s first grade teacher HOW her daughter was doing. The teacher told her that she was a lovely, creative girl, that she got along really well with the other kids and that she was a pleasure to have in class. Imagine my friend’s shock a couple weeks later when she received notice that her daughter was not passing.

She had asked the wrong question. When you know WHAT your child is doing you know HOW your child is doing, but that the reverse is not necessarily so.

This past fall another friend asked how her son was doing in math and was told that he was meeting expectations. Later she asked what he was doing in math and in the discussion learned that he left half-way through every class for a pull-out. She requested a schedule change—if he must be pulled-out she thought it should be during his study hall (where she found out that what he was doing was drawing racecars!) He has been doing much more in math ever since—and he joined an after school art club where they love his racecars!

Questions are also extremely useful for engaging people in discussion. They are also good for re-framing discussions that are difficult or going badly.

Do you remember Columbo? That’s his picture at the beginning of this post. He was a TV detective in the 1970’s. He was known for his dirty brown overcoat, his cigar and his schlunky car. I don’t think there was ever a fight or a car chase on that show—or even any real confrontations until the very end of each episode. He confounded criminal masterminds through the incessant asking of questions.

He was brilliant! Channel him!

There is something about the question mark that people can’t resist. If I state in a meeting, “ The regs state blah, bla-blah, blu, bla-bla-blah…” I will get icy stares, rolled eyes and very little conversation.

On the other hand if I ask, “So how can we tweak this to make it compliant with these regs?” People will answer. Not always happily, but I find if they haven’t shut me out we can usually get to a reasonable place.

I watched a lawyer use questions in an IEP meeting one time and it was amazing. The boy involved was academically gifted and had a significant behavioral disability. The district had removed his specially trained behavior support aide to cut costs. His team wanted her back, but could not say so for fear of losing their jobs.

So the lawyer started asking questions:

How often did Joey have outbursts when he had an aide?
How often did he require intervention from more than his aide?
How often does he have outbursts now?
How often does he require intervention from more than one person now?
Are these interveners trained?
What will it take to get them trained?
Is having the one trained aide and reducing the number of full-scale outbursts really more expensive than the current situation?

He got little pieces of information from everyone around the table, showed that the current situation was actually more expensive as well as less successful and got the district to agree to bring the aide back—all with questions.

Even when a meeting ends with a disagreement questions can be valuable.

Say the committee had agreed on a plan for your child that you know will never work. The committee thinks it’s done its job and you are heading home to figure out what’s next. End the meeting with a question.

Do not say, “I am concerned that this plan will not meet Junior’s needs for academics and appropriate social modeling.”

That is NOT a question (see, there’s no question mark.) That’s a statement. About you.

Instead ask, “How will this meet Junior’s need for both academics and social modeling?” or “How will this help Suzie-Q be more independent?

In the meeting either everyone will look at you and blink like fish, or someone will answer you—talking a bit to loud and too fast. Just shrug your shoulders up without responding further. Leave the question mark alive.

Every time the situation arises where the program does not meet both of Junior’s needs, or Suzie-Q is clearly more dependent your team members will hear your voice in their heads. You may hear from them to revise the program even before you hear back from your lawyer!

Could anything be better?

(Image from here.)

1 comment:

therextras said...

This comment is late but should be here. I sent the permalink for this post to a friend of mine, and she sent back glowing compliments of how much the post helped her prepare for an IEP meeting.

I looked for an email address to forward it directly to you, Terri, but could not find it in the moment. Apologies. Just know that your words are helping.

And sincere thanks for commenting on my blog. Your affirmation means a lot to me.