Special Education Etiquette

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Special education can be both rewarding for parents and a source of frustration when things don’t go the way they should. While some experts believe that conflict between parents and schools is normal and inevitable,1 it is too easy to become frustrated with the special education system and take it out on the individuals in the system you encounter most often.

The Individual is Not the System

It can be unfair, however, to confuse the individual with the system. Teachers and other professionals who choose special education as a vocation usually do so out of a genuine interest in helping students and can be as frustrated by the system as parents. Whenever you are tempted to display your anger and frustration, our best advice (paraphrasing investor Warren Buffet), is to remember these two rules:

  1. The special education experience is not about you, it is about your child.
  2. Never forget rule number one.

What we mean by this is that no matter how many violations of the special education law the school commits and no matter how angry that makes you, do not take the situation personally. Always do your best to maintain a cordial relationship with the people who are teaching your child, providing services to your child, or administering the program your child attends. You need their help for your son or daughter to get an appropriate education.

Seek Appropriate Remedies, Not Confrontation

Confrontation only makes school personnel defensive and less cooperative and puts your child in the middle of an uncomfortable situation. To quote one expert: “Unless you are prepared to remove your child from public school forever, you need to view your relationship with the school as a marriage without the possibility of divorce.”2

If necessary, you can seek remedies for problems in a due process hearing, but if you do, the hearing officer will want to know that you first have made every effort to cooperate and try reasonable suggestions that school personnel offer. It is fine to point out problems and seek to negotiate solutions, but if you go to a hearing with a history of confrontation and lack of cooperation, that will inevitability be factored into any judgement the hearing officer makes.

What Can You Do to Maintain an Appropriate Relationship?

In short, there is no downside to being polite, even if you feel that the courtesy is not reciprocal. To that end, we have the following suggestions to help you maintain an appropriate relationship with school personnel:

  1. Treat the people working with your child as you would like to be treated. What you perceive as lack of cooperation may be the result of being overwhelmed by having to work with too many students or being hamstrung by lack of resources, rather than an intentional slight. It doesn’t help to be rude or dismissive of people who are doing their best in less than ideal circumstances.
  2. Don’t assume that school personnel understand all the details of your child’s disability. Be willing to spend some time educating Team members about your child’s particular needs. Sometimes parents mistake a lack of understanding as a lack of cooperation.
  3. Prioritize what is most important for your child’s education and do not make a habit of complaining about small procedural errors or trying to control all the details of your child’s school life. Save your energy and credibility for the important problems. Ask yourself if you would rather be angry or get appropriate services for your child.
  4. Find a forum other than a Team meeting to express anger or frustration. Use a spouse or trusted friend for animated discussions about things you feel the school is not doing appropriately. A trained advocate can be a good sounding board for your concerns as well as a source of advice for how to proceed when you encounter roadblocks.
  5. Keep an open mind at Team meetings and consider all suggestions thoughtfully, even ones with which you might disagree. If you find a discussion over a disagreement becoming too heated, or if a Team member starts to lose emotional control, ask for a short break or, if necessary, ask that the meeting be reconvened at a later date.
  6. Even if your school is not following the letter of the special education laws, your job is to insure that your child gets the help he or she needs, not to point out the school’s failures, or worse, try to get the school to admit its failures. School districts, like all bureaucracies, will hardly ever do that. To this end, concentrate on the solutions to problems, not on the failure that might have caused the problem.

None of this means that you have to accept improper behavior from school personnel or not stand up for the rights of your child. Your goal is to create a positive working environment in which you can advocate for your child and successfully negotiate for appropriate services and supports.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above article is adapted from Chapter 2 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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1. Wright, Pam and Pete Wright, From Emotions to Advocacy, Second Edition, (Hartfield, VA: Harbor House Press, 1999), p. 41.
2. WrightsLaw, “Parent/School Relationship: Marriage Without the Possibility of Divorce.