Fighting Problems with a School's Special Ed Program

Parents can take action to ensure schools meet their children's needs

Parents of children with learning disabilities can take steps when they feel a school's special education program has problems or isn't working effectively. Typically, parents of special needs children have conflicts with schools when they disagree on individualized education programs and services provided for children. To successfully manage school conflicts, parents should prepare ahead of time and learn negotiating skills that keep the focus on children's needs.

Parents Should Bring Concerns to Special Ed Teachers

Teacher talking to parents at parent teacher conference
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When disagreements cross the line and become conflicts, parents and teachers are usually both frustrated. Parents understand that conflicts are not just unpleasant but can also affect the child involved. To resolve the conflict, parents should:

  • Focus on your child's needs and not the emotional tone of the conflict.
  • Ask questions about your concerns. Try to avoid making assumptions.
  • Emphasize facts rather than who's right.
  • Know your rights under the IDEA.
  • Begin with areas of agreement and work from there; and
  • Separate people from the problem. Avoid personal criticism.
  • Ignore inappropriate staff comments and address them later with administrators.

When Parents and Schools Disagree on Children's Needs

Disagreements are typically rooted in conflicting opinions, emotions and communication. Listen carefully to others' arguments to try to understand their point of view. Ask questions with the intention of understanding. Even if you disagree with a teacher's opinion, polite questioning encourages all of the IEP team members to think about the points of disagreement and may help both sides reach a compromise.

When Conflicting Perceptions and Opinions Cause Disagreements

If teachers' perceptions are inaccurate, inform them without being critical. Teachers and parents bring important and necessary perspectives to the IEP team. To encourage open communication:

  • Allow each person to express opinions without interruption.
  • Ask questions to clarify points.
  • Be mindful of your body language and comments. The more poised and professional you are, the more your position will be respected.
  • Ask for or current data such as test scores, work samples, observations or other resources to promote understanding.
  • Present information from outside resources such as a doctor or therapist who works with your child in settings apart from school.

Control Your Anger and Frustration

To prevent emotions and stress from derailing resolution, recognize and understand educators' emotions as well as your own. Get to the root cause of the problem by talking about your feelings. It can be helpful to state your concerns in a way that focuses on the problem and not the person involved. For example, "When I saw Susan fail in math, I felt very confused and angry because I had not been told she was doing that poorly," is preferable to, "You are not sending me reports on my child's work." The latter statement sounds accusatory and may cause defensiveness. The more focused the statement, the more likely it can be addressed.

If There is No Communication, There is No Conflict Resolution

Improve understanding and reduce conflict by:

  • Being a good listener. Ask questions for clarification and reflect the message back to the speaker. Ask if your understanding is correct.
  • Speak clearly and efficiently. Make brief notes to remind you of the points you want to discuss. Ask questions to ensure your points were understood. Try not to wander off topic.
  • Speak for yourself and your child. Say how the problem affects your child, what you have done to correct it and what help you need from the school to address the problem more effectively.
  • Be open to other opinions on what may help. Be willing to try other options when possible.

Your Grievance Rights Under IDEA

In most situations, effective communication strategies will help you resolve conflicts with your child's school, and grievance and complaint procedures will not be needed. If negotiation fails, there are alternatives for you. Discuss the problem with your child's counselor or principal. If you cannot resolve the problem, contact your school district's or state's special education administrators for assistance. Mediation programs are often available to assist in conflict resolution. Your state level administrators also have formal complaint and due process hearings procedures available, should negotiations and mediation sessions fail to resolve the problem.

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