Parents and the Special Education Process: Three Keys to Productive Relationships
Parents are a vital part of the IEP development process, yet how often do we reflect on how we might more effectively build relationships with parents that will lay the groundwork for productive team meetings? No, I'm not referring to bringing cookies or becoming personal 'friends' with parents. Rather, I mean actions that build a meaningful foundation upon which effective working relationships can be based. When this firm foundation is not in place, the teamwork that is essential to the special education process can break down.
How can professionals in the field of special education do their part to promote positive parent relationships that will facilitate teamwork? They can work to build understanding, collaboration and trust. On the surface, this may seem obvious. Unfortunately, the actions of schools are sometimes (even if unintentionally) counterproductive in relation to these core necessities.
Let's face it: special education is complicated. No, it's really complicated! Professionals in the field have to work hard to keep up with changing regulations and translate them into practice. It's our job to understand these things and carry them out, but guess what? It's not the parents' job!
I've known some extremely intelligent and cooperative parents who have made a real effort to understand special education regulations. Despite their efforts, they continued to find the special education process confusing. Parents who don't work in the field of special education should not and cannot be expected to fully understand the special education process and the many rules associated with it. They certainly should not be expected to understand the philosophy behind it all.
This is our field; we are paid to be in this profession. Therefore, it is the responsibility of professionals to fully and clearly explain the special education process, and other required actions, to parents in ways that are coherent and easy for anyone to understand. This requires a conscious effort to banish 'assumptions' about what team members understand (or not) and explicit explanations that are oriented to the parent. It reminds me of a saying by Albert Einstein, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". Professionals in the field of special education should consider this quote, and work to deepen their understanding until they can easily explain any aspect of the special education process to a parent.
We all know that collaboration is the cornerstone of the special education process, but have you ever thought about how authentic your collaboration is? Simply having a parent in attendance does not guarantee that a meeting will be collaborative. Too often busy (even harried) professionals inadvertently make collaboration at team meetings seem perfunctory, and not real. An IEP, or some other type of special education proposal, is too quickly reviewed. In many cases, the schools appears to have already 'made up its mind' about what will be offered to the student. From the perspective of the parent, it may seem that his or her input isn't valued.
Another scenario is when a parent continues to raise a concern, but the concern is not directly discussed or addressed by the team. For example, a parent may repeatedly raise concerns that a child's communication is not progressing well. If the school continues to offer status quo services without discussing the concern fully and explaining the reasons behind the therapist's proposals, the parent will not feel heard.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word collaborate as "to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something". If parents are not given much chance to share their perspective, or the issues they raise go largely unexplored, then they will not feel like a full-fledged collaborator. All great educators know we need parents to work with us to serve kids better. In relation to the special education process, professionals need to go out of their way to draw parents in when having collaborative discussions. That includes asking things like, "What do you think?", What is most important from your perspective? and "Do you have any other concerns for your child's education?" Once the questions are asked, the answers need to be fully discussed and considered. It is the responsibility of professionals to make sure that parents can be real collaborators whose views are valued as much as those of any other team member.
Trust is one of those things that is extremely important but rarely discussed. Without it, even the best laid plans for a student can go awry, and the team process can be stopped dead in its tracks. In relation to special education and related services, what does trust mean and how can we work to build it?
From my perspective, in this context, trust means the parent believes that the school will do the right thing for their child. Once catch: the school must do the right thing for the child before the parent asks them to! In order for the parent to have trust in the school system, he or she must have repeated positive experiences with the school. The parent must see that the school provides quality services, identifies difficulties as they arise, then addresses them effectively and in a timely manner. Not only that, but challenges must be faced constructively. For example, disciplining a child can build or erode parent trust depending on how the situation is framed by the school.
Trust is easy to talk about but not as easy to promote. How many times have you seen a case where a student wasn't doing very well, and the school did nothing to address the situation until the parent requested it? Unfortunately, in some schools, solutions to problems are not proposed until a parent complains. What does this tell the parent? It tells them that the school will not do what is best for their child unless they intervene (and sometimes they intervene in a way that's not so cordial). Professionals in a school have the responsibility to monitor student performance and progress and to bring issues to light so that they can be readily resolved in a timely manner. Over time, this promotes the trust that is needed for effective school-parent relationships.
Sometimes there are factors beyond your control that influence understanding, collaboration and trust. Parents may have had bad experiences with other schools or staff members who came 'before you'. Perhaps their own school experiences were negative, they have difficulty with language processing, or they have their own personal struggles that interfere with their ability to establish and maintain good working relationships with you. You can change these things, not should you worry about them. What you can do is make a real effort to help the parent understand the special education process and how the school will help their child. You can go out of your way to solicit their ideas, seriously consider them, and make sure the parents are treated as important team members. You can also, in good faith, be proactive and communicative with parents. If you show them that you will always do what is in the best interest of their child, and explain why your actions are in the child's best interests, trust will begin to grow. Promote understanding, collaboration and trust and you'll lay the foundation for productive working relationships with parents that will strengthen the special education process and serve students better.
Tina H. McCoy, Ed.D. - Executive Director
McCoy Educational Consulting, LLC