Parent Empowerment

Four women look ahead during a training. One women is wearing sunglasses and appears to be blind. Another women holds a young child on her lap.


Parent participation in the education of children with disabilities is a core concept of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the U.S. civil rights law that requires schools to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities.

IDEA recognizes that family involvement has a profound influence on how children do in school and in life, and for that reason the law gives parents a voice in their child’s education. Under IDEA, parents are considered to be equal members with school staff on a team that makes decisions about the services and supports a child receives at school.

IDEA provides for parent involvement and empowerment through two main mechanisms: 1) procedural safeguards that describe and protect the rights of parents and children; and 2) Parent Training and Information Centers whose mandate is to assist parents to understand IDEA and become effective advocates for their children.

1. Procedural Safeguards

Throughout the special education process, IDEA gives parents specific rights and protections. These rights and protections are called procedural safeguards, and they are key to parent involvement and empowerment.

Elements throughout IDEA provide opportunities for parents to be involved in their child’s education, as well as participate on a systems level so that the voices and perspectives of parents are part of the local, state, and national conversations about how to improve educational systems for all children with disabilities.

IDEA’s parent involvement requirements can be organized into four broad categories:

1. Communication: School to Families

Prior Written Notice

Schools must provide written notice, in language that is understood by the parent (for example, parents who only speak Spanish have a right to materials in Spanish), when the school proposes to take (or refuses to take) action that relates to:

  • A child’s identification as a “child with a disability”;
  • A child’s evaluation;
  • A child’s educational placement; and
  • The school’s provision of services to a child with a disability

Procedural Safeguards Notice

Schools must give parents a list of their rights and responsibilities under IDEA. This Notice of Parents’ Rights, which is a full explanation of all procedural safeguards under IDEA, is given to parents at least one time each school year, and the first time their child is referred to special education, or when a parent requests an evaluation.

2. Student-Level Decision Making and Planning

Parent Consent

A school must obtain written consent from a parent before it evaluates a child to determine whether s/he is eligible for specialized education. Parents must also consent to the provision of special education and related services, or a re-evaluation of their child for special education services. The school must make sure that parents have been fully informed about, understand, and agree in writing to the special education services for their child. Parents’ consent is always voluntary and they may revoke their consent to special education at any time.

Eligibility for Special Education

Qualified professionals and the parent of the child determine whether the child is eligible for services based on the results of any evaluations that were conducted with the consent of the parents.

Parent as a Member of the Individual Education Program (IEP) Team

Schools must ensure that the IEP team for each child includes a parent of the child.

Parent Participation in IEP Team Meetings

Schools are responsible for ensuring that a parent is at each IEP team meeting or are provided the opportunity to participate by an alternative means such as conference call or Skype. The school must notify parents of IEP meetings early enough to ensure that they will have an opportunity to attend and must schedule IEP meetings at times and places that the parents agrees to.

3. Information Access

Opportunity to Examine Records

Parents must be allowed an opportunity to inspect and review all education records with respect to identification, evaluation, and educational placement of their child.

4. Systems-Level Decision Making and Planning

Local Community Advisory Committee (CAC)

Education law in the State of California requires that local school districts have a Community Advisory Committee whose membership is made of a majority of parents of children with disabilities. Other members are teachers, school administrators, and sometimes service providers. The CAC is mandated to work with the schools to develop a written plan to deliver special education and advises the school district on policy affecting students with disabilities and the provision of specialized instruction and services in school. CACs often arrange for training for families (working with their local PTI) and students. Other States have groups similar to California’s Community Advisory Committees. (See CAC Handbook attached.)

State Advisory Panel

A State advisory panel that provides policy guidance with respect to special education and related services must include parents of children with disabilities. IDEA mandates that each state have a State Advisory Panel with parent representation.

2. Parent Training and Information Centers

In 1984, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) across the nation. They are charged with helping families and schools to understand the law and how to use it to benefit children with all disabilities.

Before IDEA:

  • Children and young adults with disabilities often did not receive appropriate education services
  • Many were excluded entirely from public schools or the general curriculum
  • Undiagnosed disabilities prevented children from succeeding in school
  • Inadequate resources in schools forced families to seek education services outside the public school

Because of IDEA:

  • Children and young adults with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment
  • Most students progress to postsecondary education, employment, independent living, and being part of the community
  • Students and families can look to the future with hope

The IDEA changed the world for American children and young adults with disabilities. Parent Centers are an integral part of its success.

Parent Centers — Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs)—provide training and assistance to families of children with disabilities. PTIs are funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Every state has at least one Parent Center, and those with large populations may have more. There are just over 100 Parent Centers in the United States.

Parent Centers serve families of children with disabilities from birth to 26. Parent Centers assist families via one-to-one technical assistance and through trainings. The majority of Parent Center staff and boards are parents of children with disabilities, so they are able to bring personal experience and expertise when working with families.

Specifically, Parent Centers help families to:

  • Better understand their children’s disabilities and education needs
  • Communicate more effectively with school and related professionals
  • Understand their rights and responsibilities under the IDEA
  • Obtain appropriate services for their children
  • Resolve disagreements with the school or other agencies
  • Connect with other community resources that assist children with disabilities

Parent Centers work collaboratively to improve outcomes for children with disabilities. They collect and share data from their work experience that leads to improved practices in serving children and youth with disabilities and their families.

Parent Centers provide direct assistance to parents and professionals through telephone calls, emails, letters, home visits, and meetings. The information helps parents learn about special education laws and procedures, find appropriate services for their children, and communicate with schools and other agencies.

PTIs also serve professionals: school administrators, teachers, social workers, healthcare providers, and employees of organizations that serve families of children with disabilities. Professionals use information from PTIs to understand specific disabilities, special education laws and services, and parent-professional communication.

Examples of Parent Empowerment trainings from the U.S. include:

  1. An Overview of IDEA by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (PowerPoint attached)
  2. Family Navigator Training from Family to Family Network in Virginia (PowerPoint attached)
  3. Skills for Effective Parent Advocacy by the PACER Center (curriculum attached)

Other Resources:

  • California Community Advisory Committee Handbook (See Appendix D, page 86 for sample Bylaws for creating a Community Advisory Committee), PDF download below
  • Parent Empowerment Program Training (PEP) (Description from Families Together in New York State), Link below

PEP Basic Training is designed for family peer advocates. Family Peer Advocates are parents or caregivers of children with significant social, emotional, and behavioral challenges whose role is to work directly with families whose children are receiving services to support, empower, educate and advocate with and for them. PEP was developed over a number of years through the collaborative efforts of researchers, practitioners, parents, parent advocates, and policy makers.