A View From the Other Side

Too often, school staff fail to see parents as allies. It doesn't have to be that way.

By Sue Gramling

As an attorney advocating on behalf of parents, as a former speech pathologist who worked on special education teams for 20 years, and as a past instructor of a university-level class on “The Exceptional Child and the Family,” I have a variety of experiences with special education.

I currently represent parents who are in disputes with their child’s school, so it can be argued that my experiences are the worst subset of special education realities. Yet what I have seen happens far too often, regardless of whether it is the norm or the exception.

I believe it is important that teachers and administrators have a better understanding of the view from the other side of the desk, so to speak. Here are some suggestions for school staff working with the family members of special education students:

Don’t label parents and put them in a lose-lose situation.

School personnel often treat parents in a schizophrenic manner. If the parent demonstrates too much interest in their child and challenges school staff about specific incidents or their child’s lack of progress, the parents are often labeled as “overprotective,” “unrealistic,” or, in the worst cases, “crazy,” “liars,” and “troublemakers.”

On the other hand, if a parent doesn’t show enough interest or, heaven forbid, does not show up for an IEP meeting, that parent is often branded as “uncaring, “uncooperative,” or “incompetent.” (An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is required by law to be written for every child receiving special education services.)

In my experience, very few parents fall into either category. As professionals, teachers and administrators are obligated to try to understand why parents might be behaving in a particular way. Instead, too often parents are conveniently labeled.

Accept parents as real partners in providing education to their students/children.

Above all, recognize that parents really do know their child better than anyone else, even if that parent is unschooled in educational methodology and jargon. The best gift to a child is to help that child’s parent be a better observer of their child’s behaviors and to foster the parent’s input into their child’s academic program.

Rarely do I hear questions posed to parents such as, “What do you think we should be working on with your child?” What are your biggest concerns regarding your child’s school program?” “Have you seen your child (insert behavior) at home?” “What do you think leads to that behavior?” “What is the best way for us to get in touch with you?” “When is the best time for us to get together?”

Make the IEP meeting more parent-friendly, and allow parents to disagree.

In too many cases, parents receive a computerized notice about the IEP meeting. The actual IEP meeting is often filled with educational jargon that is difficult for many teachers, let alone parents, to understand. Even the most astute and self-confident parents can be overwhelmed by the inch-thick IEP documents and the number of professionals around the table. Given the alienating atmosphere at many IEP meetings, it is understandable that parents have difficulty formulating questions or offering suggestions.

And when parents do offer suggestions or feedback, too often their views are dismissed.

Teachers are allowed to disagree on teaching styles and techniques, and I know for a fact that discussions in the teacher’s lounge can get quite heated. Yet many times, parents are not allowed to disagree and are lumped into one group. The basic message: Do it like “we the experts” tell you to do it.

In IEP meetings, examine your underlying assumptions and messages conveyed by body language, tone of voice, and even seating arrangements.

I’ll never forget the time I came to an IEP meeting to help the parent of a 10-year-old who had a complicated set of learning disabilities due to lead poisoning as a toddler. The mother was a single parent with four other elementary children in her care; not all were her biological children. Team members made incredible assumptions about the mother’s situation, and one actually said at a later meeting when the parent wasn’t present, “If she is going to have these children, she had better be able to take care of them.”

At the meeting, no one took the time to explain the process. Introductions were made quickly. One person typed on a computer, never explaining why. The mother and I were forced to sit on small children’s-sized chairs while others on the team were on adult-sized chairs.

At one point, I was told that there were limited services at the school for this child and if he behaved badly, he just had to go home. The mom was told that her son wasn’t the only child in the school that needed attention.

Needless to say, it was not a good situation. Ultimately, I helped get the child placed at another school.

For that 10-year-old, the transfer was a good thing. But to this day, I worry about the other special education students, especially those who did not have a lawyer helping to advocate for them, and how they were treated at the school.

Sue Gramling is a private attorney working in Milwaukee, with a special focus on education and low-income issues.