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Navigating IEP Meetings: How to Handle Conflict with Parents

You wake up and check to see if you have a fever. You think to yourself, "Please let me be sick today. I don't want to go to work and serve the child whose parents say angry, hurtful things, make me feel insecure, and don't appreciate all I do on behalf of their child."

You work exceptionally hard with your student, but his parents don't trust you in whatever you say. They bring in outside people, and they storm out of meetings.

How can we please them?

It is important to remember that this situation didn't happen overnight, and the problem probably didn't begin with you. The parent may have disagreed at the time services were mentioned. Perhaps the parents had a personal relationship with the previous provider, who may have sugar-coated the diagnosis. At any rate, you are not the culprit.

Communication is Key

Once, a parent requested a meeting with me. This parent was intimidating when she accused me of not seeing her child for 17 sessions. Since I had not given her child homework, she somehow thought that no homework assignments equated to my absence. Once I asked if she had seen the stamps on her child's hand, she perked up and said, "Gosh, they are always there." "That was me," I explained. Then I walked her through the activities that we were doing and said that I honestly didn't know how to give homework that didn't involve a lot of explanation. She agreed that she wouldn't have known what to do. An hour and a half later, I had won the mother's respect, and she had converted me into a parent believer. She also said something I will never forget, "I am my child's best advocate. If I don't stay on top of this, no one else will." She also told me that the squeaky wheel gets greased. I have shared this sentiment with parents along the way who have felt that they have no voice.

Another parent scolded me at the end of the year, saying he hadn't received any communications from me except that he had received them from me. Another parent waited until the end of the school year to ask if I shouldn't have been the one to help with spelling as her child had a disorder related to sound management. After those incidents, I told parents at every IEP meeting that I couldn't fix what I didn't know. Providing reports with a specialized communication level isn't easy, especially when dealing with a large caseload.

What Do Parents Want?

· To Be Heard.

Parents are worried. They believe that they are the cause of their child's misfortunes. They sometimes don't recognize simple problems from huge ones. The parent's reactions to news heard at an IEP meeting can be confounding for the teachers and staff as they don't understand why the parent may be overreacting or under-reacting.

When parents seek outside services to get support, often the team ignores the results the parents bring to the table. Talking about the report helps the parents feel that they have been a valued team member.

· Parents want to be assured.

Will their child be a productive member of society? Sometimes the answer is "no." Imagine if someone implied or told you that your child wouldn't amount to anything. Finding ways to assure parents without being unethical provides a working relationship for you and the parent.

· Parents want to know that the people who work with their child care for their child.

Everyone receiving a service wants to think that the person providing the service woke up in the morning thinking about how great it will be to serve the XX Family!

· Parents want some choices.

They want to know your strategies and rationale for treatment. Asking questions about whether their concerns match yours helps give them a voice in treating their child.

· Parents want their children to be as typical as possible.

Parents want to know that you see their child like any other child. Not dismissively, but in a way that shows you value their child. Can you find ways the child you serve is like every other child you see?

Please don't assume that it's Our Fault, but it's Not Their Fault, Either

Once a parent believes the team has given their child poor service, it's challenging for them to be agreeable.

For Parents, an IEP or Evaluation Meeting brings fear about the diagnosis that is about to be announced. If terminology is used, such as learning disability, dyslexia, apraxia, executive function, etc., the parent fears their child's future. This fear can manifest as anger, arrogance, or open hostility. Parents all feel they are to blame if their child needs help in school, and fear of the team prohibits authentic learning about expectations for their child.

Making the Best of the Situation

Once, when working with a difficult parent, some related service met the parent for coffee at a local breakfast place. The team found things to tell the parent that excited them about their child's performance. They found that meetings were friendlier after they had met in an informal setting. You see, there isn't pressure when it's a simple meeting for coffee. For a change to take place, a mindset has to be changed.

At another meeting, a parent felt that the wording on the IEP was too strongly worded and felt that I had insulted their child. I opened the laptop at the meeting and brought up the IEP to show the parent that I would change the wording. The wording was strong, but I didn't know how to explain why I believed the child wasn't making progress. Once I described the situation to the parent and asked how she wanted me to word the problem, she replied to leave it precisely as it was worded. That parent seemed to feel that her concerns had been heard. I had a new ally.

The fear is real. Accept it. Set up a safe environment for the parent to be heard. Chances are that they are afraid. Their fear is coming out as anger directed at you. Show them that their child's well-being is a priority for you.

I wish you all the best in the IEP Season ahead.

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