This is the season for intensive interactions between parents and schools. Fall, unlike any other time of the year, is a period where trust is either built or eroded. In most contexts one would think that the increased contact would mean people are being brought closer together, sharing information and strategizing successfully. There are a million groups and blogs for strictly parents or strictly professionals. What if we all need to grow in the SAME way at the SAME time? Let me explain...
The irony in Special Education is that more contact often means less trust, increased distance and competing perspectives and perspectives about information. For many, both professionals and parents, the Fall is stressful and to some extent “hollow” in that there is a lot of talking but little accomplished.
As I write this I am thinking of families who I am hearing from this year who are now returning to the IEP process in the coming months. Many have told me stories of being stonewalled or at odds with their school team. It led me to ponder if the idea of “team” inclusive of the family is possible.
Is being a team just a dream- I tend to think not and here’s why…
In the world of political correctness and fiscal restraint it is quite easy to assign blame to systems for all parties. The sentiment that parents are “ nuts” or “demanding” is frequently what I hear from school administrators. That schools are dishonest and poor stewards of resources is what I hear often from parents. It would seem to me that perhaps this issue is more about team dynamics and how roles function within the IEP process than it is the actual IEP legislation and policy that binds it.
We value teams in many other aspects of our lives. We get married- two individuals become a unit forging forward together; in sports strong teams win games or receive recognition and in the business sector team structure drives organizations. It would be entirely appropriate to think these same concepts apply to parents and professionals working together during the IEP process. Where does it fall apart?
In all other areas of life, roles are very easy to see as important aspects of TEAM: You do, I do, We do…there is an assumed aspect of respect and value assigned to each member of a team. This is the first failing in the IEP collaboration- failure to acknowledge the legitimate roles on the team. It will forever be the role of the parent to stand up for a child. That is what should happen. There is value in that and it keeps teams centered on the key reason they are gathering- to support a child.
There is also value in the classroom teacher’s perspective of how the child fits into the dynamics of the group. I hear a lot of criticism of teachers for failing to connect to kids. As a mother of three I can say that’s enough of a load for me- to have to connect with 30 children is a role that must be acknowledged as being as complex and as important as the parent. And still there will always be someone on the team who has the big picture of the school’s system in mind. Budgets, resources and the like are always going to be a part of the conversation. We may not like the reality but we must respect the individual who bears that information as a part of their role. Understanding and VALUING each person's role is critical to collaboration.
Setting goals in the IEP process is complex. Teachers must be compliant to Ministry expectations and that may look like they are disregarding the information brought forward by the parent. There is nothing that erodes trust more than to produce an IEP that does not represent strong collaboration. I find that openly listening for solutions is very difficult because goals appear to be competing. How can the teacher meet their goal to deliver content to the group while also honoring the individual needs of a child with an IEP? The solution is not to relegate programming to support staff or simply not do it at all. The answer is to openly consider all the information and look for collaborative solutions. When team members shut down internally in the information sharing process- collaboration stops dead in its tracks. Which leads me to my next point...
Respect for Others
Bar none- this is the biggest piece that I have encountered to be problematic for parents and professionals when they work together. The idea that the IEP is adversarial comes from systemic and pervasive issues of lack of trust and respect. The underlying assumptions that we must “fight” for the right s of the child or “ meet industry standards” for administrators and teachers puts us at odds with one another. This mindset has perpetually cut off genuinely caring team members from even trying. It leads to apathy for both families and schools; “our system is so broken its not worth even trying”. What I have seen over and over is that the need to manage stress, and clamor for purchase around limited resources means it’s a dog eat dog world within the team itself.
In my 20 years of supporting both professionals and families through IEPs I am convinced that the entire process needs an infusion of healing, empathy and listening. I am not so certain that the system is so broken we are without recourse or consideration of NEW solutions and DIFFERENT ways of finding common ground. Regardless of whether you are a parent or a professional consider that your frame of mind, your expectations and your beliefs about people on the team and the process itself ar far more influential than anything else that is in the room. It does not matter WHO begins the “reset” of trust- it just matters that it happens.
I can count on one hand the number of times that a meeting began with transparent statements of how people are feeling and a desire to connect with one another. Those few meetings were so powerful and so different from what I typically saw I can tell you- they were a joy to be a part of. This tells me that we CAN collaborate- it's just going to take some work and a huge mind-shift for all.
- Consider your definition of advocacy- are you coming to the room expecting a fight or a collaboration? Expecting a fight will lead to competing goals and perspectives. Take a few minutes to “Reset” before you enter the engagement. Are your assumptions part of the problem or a part of the solution?
- Are you prepared to listen? You must be open. In your heart and in your mind to the possibility that the team may find a path unlike anything you have tried in the past. Give some legitimate consideration to each suggestion. If you aren't comfortable with what is being suggested say so early and clearly and respectfully.
- Did you deal with your own emotions prior to the meetings? Tension in the room will cut you off at the knees- think about the triggers you might encounter and process the depth of that before you go into the room. Do not be the one to derail the conversation with big and potentially volatile emotion.
- Come with ideas, suggestions and feedback. Teacher, parent and administrator. Sitting passively and then having to renege or decline a plan that was agreed to will lose you credibility. Be prepared to be recognized in your role and to contribute without being defensive or offensive.
- Be honest and open. You can share your responses and you should share them in the context of the IEP. If you find that you are feeling a certain way- you should share that- especially the professionals. If you are afraid, worried, scared, hopeful or excited- put that emotion in the room so the team can support or celebrate where you are at. I have frequently on behalf of teachers turned to an administrator to say “surely you have some way of supporting this member of your TEAM”. Often it is only the parent who shares honestly how they feel- sometimes that’s part of the problem because this emotion isn't engaged by the rest of the team and this leaves parents feeling violated. However, if professionals were transparent about the place they find themselves we would have far more authentic IEPs- with goals people were excited to accomplish because we would be hearing the obstacles and addressing them instead of swallowing them and failing to engage over time.
I recognize that my suggestion to work towards collaboration is a big task. I'm not blind to the challenge I have proposed. Nonetheless I am convinced that a revolution of healing; despite the history of pain; that the IEP process is able to be what it is meant to be- the collaboration of parents and professionals. I do not believe that the IEP is parent vs school despite the history to exactly this end. I believe that teams with BOTH parents and professionals can function strongly- it just takes the small adjustments that YOU make for YOU to turn the team around.
Let's dig deeper. I am here to help. Contact me at email@example.com and let's build/rebuild your ability to collaborate on teams.
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