I’ve been to hundreds of individualized education program (IEP) meetings and have sat on both sides of the table—as a parent of a child with a disability and as a special education teacher. Some meetings went well, others not so much. The meetings that were more successful tended to be ones where the parents were authentically included, not just brought in to sign off on decisions that had already been made. When teachers and parents have a relationship built on respect, trust, and the shared goal of meeting the special education needs of the parents’ very important and much-loved child, the work doesn’t have to be contentious or hard.
Federal Law and the Individualized Education Program
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that parents be afforded a legitimate, authentic opportunity to participate in the decision-making process for their children and should be encouraged to be active participants. In fact, the words parent(s) and parentally appear over 350 times in the law. Parents can collaborate with teachers in many ways, including providing informed consent for assessments, sharing valuable information about their child, and helping to write the IEP. But often, parents don’t feel authentically included, and teachers may see parents as hindering their ability to do their jobs.
How Can Teachers Improve Collaboration?
First and foremost, remember to be kind, listen to (not just hear) what parents have to say, and don’t judge them or their decisions. Parents are sharing with us the most precious thing they have, and we often, in our haste to stay on time with the meeting schedule, may forget that and focus on the difficulties the child is having and how we intend to identify and fix them—a deficit model. Instead, remember to acknowledge the child’s strengths and positive qualities, focusing on what they do well and how you plan to build on those strengths while still addressing areas in which they need additional support.
Be mindful of the curse of knowledge: As teachers we are knowledgeable and proficient in our discipline, both in our content areas and in the special education policies and practices of our districts. When we know something well, it’s very hard to remember what it was like not to know it. We can easily and inadvertently make erroneous assumptions about parent understanding, especially with terms like “least restrictive environment,” “severe discrepancy,” and “negative educational impact.” Be sure to use terms that all parents understand and explain those that could be confusing. I will never forget the parent of a child with a mild speech impairment asking at the end of an IEP meeting when their child would be “sent to the special school.” To the parent, “special education” meant “special school somewhere else”—and we had neglected to state what was obvious to us, that the child would continue to attend the same school.
Be cautious with advice: Advice often starts with “You should…” or “If I were you…” If you offer advice and it doesn’t work, you may end up losing the trust and respect of the parent. And if the advice does work, you run the risk of the parent becoming dependent on you when they really need to be empowered. This is their child, after all. Instead of advice, offer information from several different sources (e.g., one or two books and a couple of verified websites) and empower the parent to be confident in making their own decisions about their child, while still providing them with needed support.
How Can Parents Improve Collaboration?
In my experience, both as educator and parent, I’ve found that most teachers and administrators are trying to do the best they can. Just as teachers don’t always understand the experiences of parents, parents are often not familiar with the experiences of the school personnel, the policies they must follow, or the restrictions they have. Until you have concrete reasons to believe otherwise, assume that the teachers and administrators are operating with the best of intentions.
Exercise your right to participate in the process: Most teachers with whom I worked were happy when parents were actively involved, asked questions, and stayed engaged. It’s frustrating for them when they feel that parents aren’t actively participating in their child’s IEP process. I wanted parents to participate but was not always as proactive as I could have been in inviting them to engage in IEP development or strategy brainstorming away from the IEP table—but if a parent had initiated that contact and suggested we work together to consider IEP content, I would have been thrilled.
Don’t get in the weeds of the process: On the other hand, it’s important not to get in the way of the teachers doing their jobs. Don’t micromanage the process, monitoring dates and questioning the qualifications of assessors and the validity of the assessments or interventions (all things I have seen happen). Again, unless you have concrete reasons to believe otherwise, trust that the professionals working with your child are just that: professionals. They know what to do and how to do it, not just for your child but for all the children for whom they are responsible. While your child is your priority every day, and rightly so, your child’s teachers are responsible for many children and sometimes need to prioritize based on immediate need.
Thriving collaborative processes will not magically eliminate a child’s disability or dissolve any potential conflict, but they can provide a strong foundation for the people who care about the child the most to build a relationship that will nurture success.