As an advocate I unfortunately don’t get to hear about all the good things happening at school very often. Parent’s typically begin working with me when they feel unheard and overwhelmed. I frequently remind them… that isn’t the intention of the school MOST of the time. MOST people don’t get into a helping profession like education because they enjoy being jerks…. but sometimes we forget to include parents or we don’t know how our meetings make them feel, so I want to share some tips on how schools can better include parents, and I want to share it from a parent perspective.
A few months back I took a poll on my social media pages asking how parents felt schools could better include their input and this blog is partially as a result of that. But before we get to that, I need you to hear this parent’s perspective. In order to give you a good picture of how we can all do better, I want to tell you about our worst experience at school.
My oldest son is autistic with ADHD and Anxiety. From a young age I knew he was experiencing the world differently. When he was 3 he was found eligible for an IEP and we decided it may be time for a diagnosis, so we made an appointment. Mason is considered “high functioning” though I hate using that term because it implies life is somehow easier for him and it isn’t. High functioning just means its easier for us around him.
As a former educator, I wanted to lean into my support team at school and asked his preschool teacher to write a letter detailing any struggles she saw for Mason so I could provide the documentation to the doctor we were seeing. I’ll never forget it, but her letter was a page long detailing… how normal Mason was. He didn’t need an IEP, he was just a busy boy and you know… boys will be boys. I was deflated. I didn’t share that letter with the doctor because… honestly it was embarrassing. This already felt like it was MY FAULT and that letter just solidified my self-doubt. But that wasn’t the worst experience we had at school. It was just one of many bad experiences, honestly. I think that teacher meant well. I think she saw my sweet, busy, curious guy and genuinely liked him. I think that because she only saw him for 2.5 hours of the day and he wasn’t exploding or obviously struggling, it was easy to put the focus on his more “typical” behaviors. I think she wanted to make me feel better, so she buttered up the letter so I wouldn’t feel like his behavior was my fault. Except, this whole “we don’t see that at school,” made it feel even more like it was my fault.
But before I get to the bad, I want to focus on the good. This isn’t a blog post bashing teachers, because for all the bad we’ve experienced there has been so so so many good people.
We’ve had SO many amazing resources for my son. One time after my son transferred to a new school and new class, his new teacher and new social worker came to one of his soccer games.
They brought little signs and cheered from the sidelines after school hours, at a place no where close to school. They saw him at school really needing to feel like someone was in their corner, they knew he’d lost all trust in school and he needed someone to show up for him in a big way.
Another time a social worker pulled me aside after an IEP meeting to thank me for standing up for what Mason needed, because she was afraid to speak up in front of the admins. Once I spoke up, she validated my concerns and we made some positive changes to his IEP. But what she said to me after the meeting, made the biggest impact.
I can see how hard this has been for you. You’re doing a good job. He wouldn’t have made this much progress without all the work you have put in for him.
God. I will never forget that. The weight of that statement is immense. Because what you don’t see for us parents is the emotional toll it takes on us to take all the notes, call all the doctors, schedule all the meetings, juggle normal day to day, cancel plans with friends again and again, if we even have friends. You don’t see the isolation or the doubt or the pressure we put on ourselves to do better for our kids. You don’t see us behind the scenes worrying if our child will ever read, or make a friend… if their behavior will ever get better or if they will end up in jail and it will somehow be OUR fault because I didn’t do enough.
Maybe you are a parent too, and you know parenting is hard. Parenting a kid who experiences the world differently is like a whole different level of hard. And you just do it. Because these are our babies. So we are tired and exhausted and we have no idea what we are doing but we just do what needs to be done.
That social worker validated all of those feelings for me with those simple words. She made me feel like an equal member of the team by validating the hard work I was putting in outside of the meeting.
My story about the worst experience ever, may seem extreme, I hope as a teacher you’ve never sat in meetings like these. I’ve left out a lot of details for privacy reasons but I want you to hear me when I say, the way my child was treated at school has forever impacted how he views educators. It has forever impacted the way he views himself. This blog post is about parent inclusive IEP meetings, but I want to emphasize that these kids who are the most challenging, still deserve your respect. They still need to feel liked, wanted and included. Please pause to remember that even the hardest students at their worst are still just children. The way we respond to them will shape the way they view themselves for the rest of their lives.
When Mason was in third grade, he changed. We had always struggled with meltdowns but he became explosive. It was a lot. For all of us, his team at school included. In past years, his team always had funny stories to tell about Mason, they always had positive things to say, but suddenly, it was like walking into a new team. I hate to say this because I don’t want it to be true, but it was like they didn’t like him anymore. And Mason felt it too, which only fueled the situation at school. He came home confused because the people he trusted, suddenly weren’t the same warm and fuzzy team anymore.
We had more meetings that year than I can count. I sought outside partial hospitalization, we changed meds, we saw doctors, so many doctors, we tried vitamins… I mean I was doing everything I could to support Mason and the team at school. We would have meetings discussing how the behavior was a part of his disability, yet when he would become dysregulated at school, he was suspended… on a progressive discipline policy and then asked to sign a behavior contract saying he wouldn’t do it again… after our meeting to determine he wasn’t in control of this behavior. He would be suspended, and then fall right back into the same pattern at school when he returned because he couldn’t control his response. I was angry. Not only was I scared for my child, but I was so angry that the team stopped speaking at our meetings, and suddenly the only voices were mine and the admins. Our last meeting at this school, the district admin, told me “Nicole, you don’t have a choice. With or without your consent we will be changing placement. You don’t have a choice and we aren’t leaving until you sign the paper.” Not only was that not true, but I was being bullied by people who were supposed to be on the same team as me.
Now, I’m not perfect. I swore at the superintendent during a phone call with the school once, Mason needs were not being met at the school he was at and that wasn’t entirely the school’s fault. But I was tired of consequences without appropriate action. I don’t place the blame on them for him needing more support than they could offer, but the way they treated my family wasn’t right, and it fueled a fire under me to make sure parents don’t experience what we did and to reach staff members who want to do better for their students.
So how can we create more parent inclusive teams?
Include them in the entire process.
- Give parents a draft copy of all documentation 3 days prior to the meeting. There is nothing worse than sitting in a meeting hearing new information about your child thrown at you like rapid fire. Most parents don’t speak special education either, so they need time to digest it and write down questions before the meeting. I know this may seem like a pain in the butt step, but if you want parents to feel like equal members of the team, this is how you include them in the conversation.
- Tell parents what the purpose of the meeting is, before you get to the meeting. Not just in the notification of conference. Educate them on what the meeting is, why we are holding it, how often we hold these meetings. No one likes feeling blindsided or assuming the meeting held a different purpose.
- Speaking of blindsiding parents… don’t do it. Give them a heads up if there are potentially big changes coming up. Let them know their rights for helping the team make the decision. “We are holding the meeting Tuesday to discuss what level of support Johnny may need right now and that may include talking about different placement options. We will make this decision as a team with you included, here is the draft copy of the IEP so you have time to think about them before our meeting. This draft is currently missing you’re input, so it may change a bit at the meeting.” Placement change can be a sticky situation but let me tell you, it’s easier to navigate positive collaborative meetings even when we don’t all agree if you don’t blindside the parent in the first place. Give them a reason to trust you and they will be more likely to compromise on big decisions. Blindside them and they will be more likely to prepare for battle.
- Parent input statement. For YEARS I had no idea this was a thing. It may say parent input, it may say parent vision statement, but there is a section in the IEP just for parent input. Tell parents about it ahead of time. “At the meeting we will be discussing your input and concerns for Johnny. Feel free to email us a few things you’d like us to know before the meeting so we can add it to the IEP and make sure we address your concerns at the meeting.” Of course during the meeting you will ask for more input, you can always add to it, but parent input belongs in the parent input section. Not in the notes, not in present levels. Why? Because everyone else gets a chance to go around the table and offer up their data and observations. Parents should have this chance too, and many of us, didn’t even know this was an option.
- Actually, listen to parent input. It may take some decoding to determine what a parent is trying to say, but pay attention. Do not ignore concerns because you haven’t seen them at school. Ask more clarifying questions to try to get to the root of the problem. It may be something you CAN help the parent with, even if it isn’t happening at school. For example, how many times have you heard a parent concerned about the amount of time homework takes? Or the after-school meltdown? Sure, Johnny doesn’t meltdown at school, but that doesn’t make this a home issue. Ask the parents what Johnny’s body language is when he’s overwhelmed? Is he a kid who internalizes things? What is Johnny reporting about school to mom? Is there a pattern? Kids who hold it together at school and fall apart at home are often struggling at school but internalizing the struggle because they have a desire to please or a desire to appear the same as their peers. But the pattern of falling apart is NOT a healthy coping skill or life skill. Maybe you take data at home and school to try to identify a pattern, but asking clarifying questions and listening to parent concerns is a HUGE part of helping parents feel like their input matters. Also, if a child is spending 2 hours on one 20 minute assignment at night, that isn’t a home issue and it should be addressed.
- Do not minimize parent concerns. I see this happen ALL the time. And you know what? 100% of the time, there is no ill intent from the staff member doing the minimizing. However, good intent does not excuse bad behavior. Remember all of those things I said in the beginning about the things you don’t see us parents doing? All the blame we are placing on ourselves. When you say things like “well we don’t see that behavior,” or “I don’t agree with that diagnosis.” Or “Johnny is a typical boy, he’s fine…” what we hear is, “this is all in your head, it’s not as bad as you see it, this must be your fault.” And then we shut down. Meeting over. We nod our heads and agree with everything else because our concerns don’t matter. Be mindful of how you are responding to parent concerns, offering outside support like a referral is welcome, but not when you couple it with, “this isn’t a school concern.”
- If a parent makes a request, and you don’t agree, ask yourself if it’s a big deal to implement. Often times parents are asking for additional accommodations or something small, is it hard or expensive to implement? Compromising on those kinds of requests can hold a lot of weight for parents who want to provide input and feel like they are being heard.
- Be aware of cultural differences. We live in a time in society where ignorance over ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds is no longer acceptable. How does this culture view disability differences? Are there cultural influences that impact how the IEP is implemented or what needs to be added to the IEP? Do you need to translate the documents ahead of time for families to be able to have meaningful participation?
- Don’t rush families in and out of meetings. I know you all have your plates full and the IEP meeting schedule has to run on tight ship sometimes, but the parents still deserve to ask all of their questions, without feeling like you’re tapping your pencil and checking the clock. Asking for parent input ahead of time and offering the draft will eliminate some of the need for questions and help the meeting run efficiently, but don’t rush parents out.
- Explain the communication process. Yes, some IEP’s need a full out communication plan, but some just need to know when to expect progress reports or who their point of contact is if they have questions. I can’t tell you how many parents I talk to that don’t know to look for progress reports! It’s written in the IEP as quarterly or bi monthly or 3 times a year, but in parent terms…. What the heck does that mean? Speaking of progress reports… writing in the report “making sufficient progress” with no other details or data is not updating parents on progress. Take a few extra minutes to discuss data or observations. Remember parents want to feel like a part of the team, so making sufficient progress means nothing to them.
- Be positive. Even with the hard kids. Please, and not just in the way you speak at the meeting, but in the way you write in the IEP too. If you picked up a new IEP and it said things like “Johnny chooses not to complete work, Johnny frequently interrupts others and cannot play nicely with peers….” You’re not excited to meet Johnny. The way you write about a child in the IEP impacts how other professionals view them. But also, as a parent, even when the team is nice and friendly and well meaning… hearing about all the things your child can’t do, all of the challenges they are facing, hearing how differently they are experiencing school from their peers sucks. Just to put it bluntly, it sucks. It hurts your heart. Most days we don’t think about it, this is just our lives, so to hear the challenges from other people’s mouths is hard. Be aware of how you are wording things. Saying something like, “Johnny is working hard on mastering the skill of waiting his turn during a conversation,” sounds much more positive than “Johnny frequently interrupts peers.” When speaking about a student’s struggle try sandwiching it with 2 positives. Positive, struggle, positive. It’s a lot easier to hear negative things when they are worded nicely or surrounded with positives.
- After the meeting send the parent a copy of the IEP notes, ask them to review the notes for any inconsistencies and let them know you want their feedback to finalize the IEP. Most parent’s aren’t reading the notes even if they should be, but including them in this process really seals the deal on parent inclusion at IEP meetings.
Years after leaving my sons school and our traumatic experience, I have repaired relationships with a few of those team members who left me feeling alone, who left my son feeling like he wasn’t a good kid. We’ve all grown from that situation and I think it’s appropriate to say that none of us were at our best back then. We all make mistakes, it happens. Learn from those mistakes and do better for the next child.
We need you. You might not hear it enough but we need you. Parenting kids with a disability is lonely and we need to feel like someone is on our side. Sometimes it just takes 1 of you on the other side of the table to make a difference for us. That social worker in that meeting I told you about earlier, she was afraid to speak up but she did because she knew what I was asking for was what my son needed. And once she spoke up, the vibe changed. It was no longer me against the team, it was like closing the circle to bring us all back to a place of student focused decision making. Don’t be afraid to ask parents what they need from you outside of the IEP meeting, offer to explain even the mundane things, and please don’t be afraid to speak up when you agree with us. It just takes one person from the school to make sure we are all sitting on the same side of the table.