If you continually wonder how you can untangle the convoluted web that is special education, you might start with that old axiom, "Take a walk in my shoes." Sometimes we are so caught up in the details of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), contentious litigation, and compliance that we forget how bewildering special education is to the parents of children with special needs.
The average parent enters the IEP process at a disadvantage. This is apparent when you walk into a typical IEP meeting, where school staff outnumber parents. Special education is exceedingly complex, with specialized jargon and undefined federal mandates that educators can hardly decipher, never mind parents. Parents also have to deal with the deep emotional issues of having a child with a disability. No wonder the meeting can become an emotional and financial battleground.
As the IEP process has become increasingly adversarial, many districts are taking steps to reach out to parents and to seek alternatives to confrontation. For example, the Pasadena Independent School District in southeast Texas, like all Texas school districts, convenes an Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) committee to discuss each student's placement as he/she enters, continues, or exits special education services. Unproductive IEP meetings and fractious interactions with parents prompted the district to contract with Spectrum K12 to provide staff development for teams in the facilitated IEP process.
The primary focus of IEP meetings at PISD had been on legal compliance rather than the needs of the child. Site principals have now been trained to facilitate the IEP meeting, and district staff no longer attend. Staff development helped move the focus of meetings to the needs of students. As a result, team members have incorporated communication strategies that are inclusive and that focus on consensus-building approaches to making decisions. Cathy Sartain, special education director, reports that IEP meetings are more efficient and student focused, and parents feel included in the process.
Mediation and due process hearings are stacked against schools, as there are so many ways to make a procedural misstep that an attorney can use to turn the tide against a district. It makes sense for districts to work with parents, especially in the early elementary years when trust is first established.
In reaching out to parents, it is important to see the IEP process from their perspective. As a principal in many IEP meetings, I learned to truly listen to parents and try to understand their concerns. This empathy helped to resolve many tricky situations to the ultimate benefit of students. Consider the following points as you bring parents into the fold:
- A parent sitting across from you in an IEP may be in shock, denial, or angry at the world. It is important to be empathetic and supportive.
- Parents of children with disabilities have first hand experience with the lack of awareness and sensitivity of others.
- Parents want to know if their child is making progress. They want facts, not subjective opinions.
- Many parents enter an IEP meeting with a nervous knot in their stomach. They are confused by jargon and appreciate straight talk.
- Parents want to know that their child is getting what he or she needs to be a functioning person in society.
We know that there are parents who push the meaning of the term "appropriate education" to a limit way beyond the pale and that a legion of lawyers is there to help them. This costs money and is partially responsible for the encroachment of general education budgets. However, there is a higher ground; reaching out to parents is the right thing to do.
Eamonn O'Donovan is director of middle school support at Capistrano Unified School District in California.