By Emerson Dickman, J.D.
Parents advocate for the welfare of their child. Educators advocate for the welfare of all the children in their school. To be effective, both groups must contribute to an atmosphere of collaboration so all parties can achieve a sense of comfort that their responsibility to the child has been satisfied. But why, then, is there so much conflict in the field of special education? The answer is relatively simple. Conflict in education is usually driven by inadequate information as to the character of the disability involved and the appropriate response.
The following tips will help advocates, families, and educational professionals benefit from the knowledge gained from each perspective. The goal is for everyone involved to understand as much as possible about the child in order to assess how each participant can best address the educational needs of the child.
1) Watch the attitude
It has been said, “10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion. 90% are due to wrong tone of voice.” I agree. Parents must treat every educational professional as a lifetime learner whose chosen profession reflects his or her love of children and teaching. The educational professional, in return, must treat each parent as an indispensable resource of information about the child.
Parents need assurance as to two principal concerns. First, they are not responsible for the problems faced by their child. Second, they will never need to look back and say, “I wish I had….” Mistakes are inevitable; regrets are avoidable. Free a parent from the burden of guilt and regret, and the educational professional will have a friend for life.
2) Sprinkle Cecil Dust
It is hard to dislike someone who is happy. When Cecil Mercer, author of Great Leaps, asked, “How are you?” it was not a perfunctory greeting; he was genuinely interested. In return, Cecil told you how he was feeling, how he expected to feel that afternoon, and possibly how he might be feeling the next day. His current status and expectations for the future were always optimistic and full of positive thoughts, making everyone around him feel happy. Happiness, goodwill, and trust are contagious. A sprinkling of Cecil Dust should begin every meeting.
3) Avoid fighting words
Don’t start sentences with words that polarize: “You’ve got to understand. …” or “To tell the truth….” These are verbal defenses that interfere with the understanding and acceptance of the comments to follow. Educators talking to parents about parenting skills are like parents talking to teachers about teaching skills—not appreciated. Use person-first language (e.g., a child with a disability is not a disabled child any more than a school for students with dyslexia is a dyslexic school).
4) Pay attention to power positioning
Where participants sit makes a difference. Parents feel vulnerable at meetings; they are usually outnumbered and lack the expertise of the professionals in the room. Those who feel disempowered may feel defensive and reluctant to trust. The authority of the professionals should not be reinforced by seating arrangements.
5) Practice active listening
All participants, parents and professionals, should be made to feel that they are contributing to the consensus. When someone else is making a point, let him or her finish, ask clarifying questions, and paraphrase to show an understanding of the other person’s contribution before responding.
6) Take notes
Taking notes conveys that you value the other person’s input. Parents bring a lot of emotion to their comments; it is immensely reassuring to them that they are being taken seriously enough for their thoughts to be recorded in writing.
7) Remember, the finger of blame does not point to solutions
It is natural for parents to see the child’s difficulty as the school’s fault and for the school to see such difficulties as the parents’ or child’s fault (see self-serving bias below). Finding fault is not a meaningful pursuit and does not advance the need to address the child’s difficulties. Understanding this dynamic can help change the tone of the discussion.
8) Change but to and
“Jim has a lot of potential, but he is unmotivated and doesn’t make the effort.” Parents will interpret this as meaning that their son is lazy, doesn’t care, and is a loser. Both professionals and parents should avoid using the word but. It is much more positive to say, “Jim has a lot of potential and, with a little more confidence, his motivation will improve.” When parents say something like “He can’t read,” the response could be, “Up until now, he has been unable to read, and we are going to….” Focus on solutions instead of problems.
9) Be aware of meta-meaning
Parents are emotionally involved when it comes to discussing their child’s weaknesses. When a comment is made that is challenging or triggers a defensive response, the professional should consider what is really being said. When parents observe that they have triggered a defensive response, they should retreat, rethink, and rephrase to get their point across and regain focus on the child. Parental concerns that are not articulated in the heat of the moment or not addressed at the meeting will invariably be recalled in the parking lot or on the way home. Unasked or unaddressed questions may result in imagined answers spiced with mistrust and invalid assumptions.
10) Keep the child in the room (figuratively)
It is not about the school, the parent, or the past; it is about the child, the child’s needs, and what should be done going forward.
Discussing what the parent or the school is doing or not doing is tangential to the issues that need to be resolved. An attack results in a defense, and the needs of the child become lost. It is not about the school, the parent, or the past; it is about the child, the child’s needs, and what should be done going forward.
11) Recognize bias
- Fixed Pie Bias: Inability to talk about issues not on the agenda. Parents and educators are not enemies. School personnel should be prepared to discuss any issue of relevance. A need to caucus or schedule another meeting to discuss unexpected questions or concerns negates transparency and undermines trust.
- Self-Serving Bias: Inclination to attribute successes to internal forces and failures to forces beyond the individual’s control. Parents are prone to see the child’s difficulty as the fault of the school; the school is prone to see the child’s difficulty as the fault of the parents or the child. This bias is powerful and needs to be recognized if its impact is to be negated.
- Fundamental Attribution Error: Tendency to overestimate internal factors when explaining the behaviors of others. We interpret the behavior of others as being for the purpose of satisfying their self-interest (e.g., to save money, avoid effort, place blame). Seeing the actions of others as selfish or self-aggrandizing is common, but often unjustified, and it can become a barrier to effective communication. For instance, parents may assume that educators’ decisions are for the purpose of saving money.
- Confirmation Bias: Tendency to interpret what you hear to confirm preconceptions. For instance, if the educational professionals believe that the parents are too permissive, their questions to the parents may be constructed to confirm that belief.
12) Think out of the box
There are never enough trained personnel or sufficient time, space, or money to provide the ideal for each and every student. However, if the school is straightforward about the availability of resources, and the parent recognizes the need for a cost-efficient approach to problem-solving, an acceptable solution often can be devised. For example, perhaps a struggling student could be the practicum student for a teacher being trained in an evidence-based method of instruction. The ability to brainstorm solutions is impossible if the resource deficiency is not acknowledged.
13) Incorporate reflective practice
Reflective practice is a process of self-evaluation that helps one to understand how certain actions prompt reactions in others. Evaluating how others may perceive one’s actions engages theory of mind and results in a meaningful understanding of the perspectives of others. If things are not going as you might like, first look to yourself for the answer.
14) Understand how the letter of the law can undermine the spirit of the law
If a parent brings an advocate to the meeting, the school may feel the need to respond every time the parent says something inconsistent with the law. In this case, the well-known impediment to consensus is the failure to meaningfully engage by responding to interest with position. When parents say that all they want is what is “best” for their child, the conversation may be interrupted by a comment that “best” is not the responsibility of the public schools, as they are only required to provide an “appropriate education.” Another frequent position expressed by educators is to tell parents that the school cannot do what they ask until this, that, or the other thing is tried first. The message then is that the child’s current failure is not sufficient; he or she must fail repeatedly to assure that the school is not capable of providing a “merely appropriate” program in a less restrictive environment. When the parent articulates an interest, educators may respond by articulating a policy or position that is at cross purposes with the parent’s comment. Although the school’s comments may not be without some legal merit, they are tangential to the discussion, threatening to the parent, and unnecessary.
15) Prepare for success
School personnel should take time to prepare parents to participate appropriately in a meeting where decisions regarding their child are likely to be made. The admonition of Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
- Rehearse: What is the parents’ role at the meeting? What is the purpose of the meeting? Who will lead the discussion?
- Review and observe: Parents should review the file, any new reports, and observe any placements likely to be recommended.
- Make notes: Parents should make a list of strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, any questions they should not forget to ask.
Helping educational professionals and parents understand the causes of conflict and encouraging collaboration toward sensible solutions is a pro-active approach to meeting the needs of the child. Ultimately, parents will only be satisfied if educational professionals demonstrate an awareness of the child’s needs and can describe how those needs can be met. The purpose of the advocate, whether for the parent or the school, is to inform and educate rather than intimidate and litigate. A merger of common interests has exponentially more potential for a successful result than the surrender of one party to the will of the other.
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Emerson Dickman is an attorney and has been an advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families for more than forty years. Among the cases he has handled are leading precedents (New Jersey Supreme Court) protecting the due process rights of pupils in special education (Lascari) and the constitutional rights of adults with developmental disabilities (J.E.).
Emerson is a past president of the International Dyslexia Association and a former IDA representative to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. He is currently a member of the Professional Advisory Boards of the Center for Development and Learning and The Children’s Dyslexia Centers. In the past, he has served as secretary of the Arc of New Jersey, a member of the Professional Advisory Board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (six years), a member of the Learning Disabilities Roundtable sponsored by the Division of Research to Practice of the U.S. Department of Education, chairman of the Protection and Advocacy Agency for the State of New Jersey (five years), and a founding board member and secretary of the Alliance for Accreditation and Certification (for Structured Language Education). Emerson has received numerous honors including the 2012 Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Dyslexia Association.
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