It’s not unusual for differences to arise when dealing with issues related to your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP). Yet many people are uncomfortable with conflict; when faced with it, they either back down, or become overly aggressive. When that happens, the result is likely to be a meeting “gone bad”—one in which voices are raised, tears are shed, and issues are left unresolved.
It’s important to realize that conflict is likely to occur at IEP meetings; it’s how you handle it that matters.
Following are strategies to help keep you and your child’s team on track when conflict arises.
Control the emotional temperature in the room
For the same reason you wouldn’t shed tears at a business meeting, you should avoid crying at school meetings. As soon as the waterworks start, you relinquish your authority in the discussion.
But what if a team member cries or lashes out at you in disagreement? Instead of responding with emotion, try this: “Your reaction shows that you clearly care about my child and his program. Maybe we need to take a break?”
Have a “Plan B”
Don’t allow yourself to get boxed into a corner. For example, you may have your heart set on a particular instructional program. You’ve done your research, and have the data to show that this is the best way for your child to master this year’s IEP goals. Other members of the team do not agree with your choice. Rather than dig in, postpone a decision on that particular issue until you can learn more about the alternatives.
It is never wise to have only one solution to a problem; if there is disagreement around the issue you have nowhere to turn and nothing else to offer.
Know the rules of the game
Understanding your child’s rights under the IDEA, will enable you to navigate your way through a conflict. Here are examples of how a savvy parent can effectively handle some common disagreements in an IEP meeting:
The school says: “We are required to try strategies via Response to Intervention before we consider an evaluation for special education.”
The savvy parent response: “I’m glad you brought that up. This is a common misunderstanding, and here is a memo from the U.S. Department of Education that states the opposite. Let’s read through this together and then talk about what John’s evaluation will be comprised of.”
The school says: “We cannot agree to five hours of speech/language support weekly until we get approval from the special education administrator. We’ll get back to you.”
The savvy parent says: “My understanding is that at every IEP meeting there must be a representative from the district who is knowledgeable about the availability of resources in the district. If that person is not present, can you get them on the phone now? If that is not possible, and you refuse this request, can you please provide in writing that your reason for refusal is that the district did not have a person present who could speak to the availability of resources.”
The school says: “Here are the evaluation reports. We are sorry we couldn’t get them to you before the meeting. Let’s review all four documents at today’s meeting and also plan for next year.”
The savvy parent says: “While I appreciate the amount of time it takes to write reports, I can’t contribute to a discussion about how to use the results when I am only now seeing the information for the first time. Can we use our meeting time today to review the reports and to ensure my understanding of the results? And then we can have a second meeting where I can contribute to the planning of my child’s program and fully participate as a member of the IEP Team.”
Strong emotions come with having a child with special needs, but try to keep them out of the meeting room. When conflict has rendered you or an IEP team member too emotional to be productive, call for a five-minute break so that everyone can collect their thoughts.
Research alternative solutions that will enable you to reach the same goal. Is there another reading program that would work? Is there an option that the school district is proposing that you should consider? Determine the breadth of your “wiggle room” before you walk into a meeting.
Know your child’s rights, and use this information to handle IEP meeting conflicts in a positive and productive manner.
Ann McCarthy has experience as a special education advocate and is the former Managing Director of The Southfield Center for Development.