Tag Archives: Parent advocacy

Have a Business Relationship With Your Team, Not an Emotional One

craggy-clouds-8-textYou should always strive to treat IEP meetings as if they were business negotiations, not a friendly get together or a hostile confrontation. In an earlier article we wrote about the etiquette of dealing with your Team members. One caution we wrote about in particular, that parents should always maintain a courteous demeanor toward their Team even if that courtesy was not reciprocated, seemed to cause controversy among some parent groups on the Internet. Many wrote complaining that we were being too easy on teachers and that they felt entitled to vent their frustration at Team meetings when they thought necessary services were being denied.

Team Members Are Not Your Friends or Your Enemies

Displaying common courtesy, however, should not prevent you from critically questioning the Team’s decisions regarding your child’s education and examining your child’s IEP as if it were any other business or legal document before you sign off on it. In fact, your child’s IEP is a legal document.

This was something that we did not understand during our early years in special education. We felt so grateful for the help we were told our son was getting, that we regarded our school Team members as friends rather than as professionals. We would give Team members home baked bread for the holidays and send thank you notes each year at the end of the school term.

In one particularly egregious example of being overly familiar, we began our fifth grade IEP review with the announcement: “It’s so great to see you all at this meeting. It feels like a family reunion.” This created a warm and fuzzy beginning to the meeting, but it also signaled to the Team that we were trusting and not going to critically question their decisions. The result of our complacency was that our son went into the sixth grade without adequate supports and had a disastrous year. This was the result of what we have come to call “blind trust,” and it is something that we warn parents against.

The Problem with Blind Trust

Our experience is an example of what can happen with blind trust. We had not questioned the school staff because we assumed they always made decisions in our son’s best interest. We were wrong. Over the next difficult year we were fortunate to find Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy. Reading it made us aware of the reality of special education in the public schools: budget constraints, a school culture that places a premium on job security over the needs of students, and invisible Team members who make decisions outside of the Team meetings. This book was a major wakeup call.

We then hired an advocate who discovered many procedural violations in our son’s educational history. Of course we were angry and upset. We focused our frustration and energy, however, on learning about the state and federal special education laws and understanding the rights they gave us. We learned to regard our Team members in a more business-like manner as we worked to collaborate with them about our son’s educational needs. We also focused on the details of school documents with a new understanding. We always remained polite with our Team, but we were no longer overly friendly.

As our advocate helped us focus on our rights, we realized that this knowledge is power, so we put our energy into strategy and negotiation, and steered away from having an adversarial relationship. Finally, we learned that for many school districts, special education is a calculated business, something we write about in the Introduction of our book.

A New Awareness

One of our discoveries was that we learned that Team members are, first and foremost, school employees. Their bosses, the people who write their annual reviews and decide on the school budgets, regard special education as a business expense, even though the law is clear that services must be provided on the basis of need and not cost. Your Team members may be fond of you and your child, but they know that services cost money and they must act in accordance with the district’s budget. Parents are at a disadvantage when they don’t realize this agenda, which is never mentioned in Team meetings. The natural emotional ties parents feel toward their child makes it difficult to see that the Team decisions are ultimately business and not educational decisions.

What Parents Can Do

As hard as it may be, you need to understand the school’s business approach to special education. Here are some suggestions we have to help:

  • Learn to express your emotions outside of a Team meeting or in school correspondence. Realize that you can be firm and take a stand, but keep a cool head. Being polite with your Team members does not mean that you have to accept inappropriate behavior from them.
  • Study the federal law and your state’s law for special education. Understand your legal rights. You may be surprised at the rights the laws give you and your child, and even more surprised that school personnel generally do not know these laws as well as they should.
  • Realize that school districts regard special education as a business with budget constraints and a legal transaction for school personnel. Focus on advocacy and negotiation as you try to collaborate with your team.

Knowledge is power.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Follow us on Facebook
Please visit our Amazon page

After the Diagnosis, Then What?

sunset-2-textParents who realize their child is struggling, who suspect something is amiss, will seek out the advice of a pediatrician, a psychologist, or perhaps another professional. At first, parents don’t want to notice that their child isn’t perfect. They may suppress their feelings, but eventually, if their child is not achieving the usual milestones, some professional they know may suggest testing. That person may diagnose a disability, which leads to the question: “Now what?”

Varied and Complex Reactions

Receiving a diagnosis of a learning disability or a developmental delay can be devastating and surprising news. Some parents deny that there is a problem and will not accept the diagnosis. Other embrace the diagnosis and research everything about it. Some will share it with other parents and some won’t.

The reasons for these varied reactions can be complex.

For some parents, a diagnosis of a disability brings out fear and shame. They refuse to let their school know about the diagnosis, believing that there is a stigma to having a child in special education. Fearing the label “disabled,” they refuse to explore the option of special education services, hoping their child will get by without additional help.

For other parents, a diagnosis brings a sense of relief. Once they understand what is behind their child’s issues, they can begin to plot a course of action to help their child more forward.

Grief, Disappointment, and Acceptance

For most parents, there is an initial grieving process. Their beliefs about their child may be challenged. What if their child won’t be able to go to college and achieve in a similar fashion to themselves? What if the diagnosis means a new way of life and a change of plans and expectations?

Grief and disappointment are common reactions.

Some parents even feel anger toward the professional who made the diagnosis. Others blame each other for being the cause of the disability. Fatigue sets in as parents struggle to understand what professionals are telling them.

Receiving a diagnosis for a child is a hard experience, but accepting the diagnosis can eventually lead to a positive outcome for your child.

Working Through the Confusion

Because there are a variety of diagnoses that a child can receive, the process becomes confusing. Parents hear terminology that they have never heard before and feel even more confused. People they have never met before will be delivering complicated news about their child. Many parents wonder if they can trust the opinion of a stranger who doesn’t know their child the way they do. Fortunately, there are things that parents can do to help them work through the confusion and put them on the road to becoming an advocate for their child’s education.

What You Can Do

  • Locate a Parent Training and Information Center: Each state in the United States has a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center. These centers can advise you of resources in your area. Go to The Yellow Pages for Kids at the Wrightslaw website to find a center near you.
  • Ask for a Referral to Special Education: Contact the special education department in your child’s school district to request assessments in all the areas in which you suspect a disability. As long as your request is in writing, schools must comply with your request within a specific timeline set by your state’s department of education.
  • Build a Team of Independent Professionals: Seek out independent experts who can do a comprehensive and objective assessment of your child’s special needs. Relying only on school testing can lead to a narrow view of your child, sometimes with important information missing.
  • Understand the Terminology: Parents will hear many new terms for different disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Cerebral Palsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Be sure to ask the professional who gives you the diagnosis to be clear and explain the term so you can understand it.
  • Locate Parent Support Groups: Seek out groups of parents who have children with disabilities. Other parents can be a great source of trusted information. Find local groups of national organizations that are pertinent to your child’s disability, such as such as CHADD or the Autism Society.
  • Do What You Can in the Moment: We have discovered that mindful living is especially helpful when you have a child with special needs. It is pointless to project many years into the future and worry about your child’s well-being then. It is easier and healthier to focus on what you can do today, this week, or this month to help your child.
  • Remember That You Are Not Alone: Thousands of parents have children who get a diagnosis of special needs every year. Consider family members, friends, neighbors, and clergy as sources of support. If you belong to a faith community, ask if there is a special needs ministry. Many churches have them to create accepting communities for children and teens with special needs.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Follow us on Facebook
Please visit our Amazon page

A New Kind of Book Club

mountain-clouds-8-textWe recently had an idea that we would like to share with parents whose children (or grandchildren) are in special education. Have you ever considered starting a book club to read and discuss books on special education? We recently read about a parent group that was reading Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy. That was our first book on special education and it really opened our eyes to the reality of special education and advocating for our child.

Instead of joining a book club to read the latest fiction, why not join with like-minded parents to read and discuss books on special education or any other books that would help you advocate for your child’s education? At the end of this article, we’ll suggest some of the most useful books we have come across.

How to Begin

Once you choose a book, your group can plan to read one chapter a week and discuss it at the next meeting. Books by Pete and Pamela Wright and also our book, have a lot of important information and ideas for parents, so it is important not to try to cover too much in one meeting. The weekly discussion could also include a brainstorming session about how you can use the information from that chapter to improve your child’s experience in special education.

Here’s an example: In Chapter 11 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, we write about transition planning and graduation. This is a topic that even parents of middle schoolers need to start thinking about, since effective transition planning should begin in the IEP meeting preceding a student’s entering ninth grade.

In this chapter, we explain why planning ahead is important, and we discuss the details of transition planning and services. We also describe what we call “the graduation game,” which is how some school districts give inflated grades and overly optimistic progress reports to ensure that a student will graduate easily and on time. Many parents don’t understand that for schools, graduation ends their obligation to provide special education services, so there is a great incentive to graduate students, whether they are prepared for the next step in their lives or not. We end the chapter with eight points describing what parents can do to prepare for transition planning and graduation. This section can be a good starting point for a group discussion.

Some Book Suggestions

You may already be thinking of some books that you would like to read and discuss in your book club (Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work is a good place to start!), but in case you would like some suggestions, here are a few of our favorites, and why we like them (we’ve provided Amazon links to these books for your convenience only; we have no financial interest in selling them):

  • From Emotions to Advocacy by Pam Wright and Pete Wright. The Wrights are in the forefront of helping parents understand and deal effectively with special education. This is one of their best books for parents. The Wrightslaw web site is likewise one of the best Internet resources for parents.
  • Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives by Barbara Bateman and Cynthia M. Herr. This is a clear and concise guide to one of the most important parts of the IEP. It contains useful examples that you can follow.
  • Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids by Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos. This book provides clear explanations of how psychological testing works and how testing can identify specific learning disabilities. The authors go into the issues of interpreted scores, deciphering jargon-filled reports, and making sure that a report contains useful recommendations. There is also a discussion of how to choose the right professional to conduct tests.
  • How To Compromise With Your School District Without Compromising Your Child by Gary Mayerson. This is an engaging and candid text, written by a special education lawyer who is also the parent of a child with special needs. The book is full of first-hand accounts of dealing with school districts. Many of these accounts read like verbatim descriptions of encounters we have had with our school district, illustrating how the problems in special education are universal.

Coming Together to Increase Your Power

These are just a few examples of books that you may find helpful in increasing your understanding of special education and advocacy for your child. By reading and discussing such books with other parents, we think you will find that there really is strength in numbers and discover a great source of emotional support. We hope this idea will work for you!

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Follow us on Facebook
Please visit our Amazon page

Special Education Etiquette

beach at sunset text

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.

Follow us on Facebook
Please visit our Amazon page

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.