By Teachers, For Teachers
As a teacher, having to discuss a child’s deficits with his or her parents can be a very uncomfortable experience. Every parent wants their child to have a successful, happy life and that certainly is possible for students who are challenged with a disability.
Sometimes we are tasked with helping their parents see what wonderful strengths their child possesses. We bring in samples of work that show how much their son or daughter has learned, provide examples of the progress they are making, and speak with pride about their child’s educational victories. Other times, however, we have to discuss what challenges or needs the student is going to require help overcoming in order to achieve that success and happiness.
Often, parents are well aware of these strengths and weaknesses and are happy to work with their child’s teaching team to create a plan to support them, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly.
An IEP meeting (or any parent-teacher meeting) may turn tense in a hurry if a parent:
In these instances, it is our responsibility not only to continue to be honest with parents, but also to find a way to get back to a place where the parent feels like a partner in their child’s teaching team – rather than an unhappy or confused outsider. I have found that this can often be achieved with some very simple communication tips:
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Try to Make a Positive Contact Before The Meeting
Often, parents of students with disabilities have been receiving communication from school for years. And often, it has almost entirely about the problems their child is facing at school. By taking time to call or email a week or more before the meeting with some good news, you are showing the parent that you see the strengths their child possesses, not just their weaknesses. When you sit down at the IEP meeting, parents will remember that.
Especially if you know you will be discussing problems the student is having, make sure you come with ample documentation of what the problem is, what you have tried so far to deal with the problem, and some suggestions of what you would like to try next.
Additionally, make sure you ask the parent what suggestions they have for addressing the problem (especially if it’s a motivation or behavior issue). It is important for a parent to understand that they are an integral part of the team and that you expect them to play a role.
Consider Seating Arrangements
I know, I know, it’s an IEP meeting, not a dinner party. But just like a dinner party, if you put the wrong guests in the wrong seats…everything can go poorly no matter how wonderful everything else has been planned.
Make sure that the parent is not seated on one side of the table while all the teachers, administrators, etc. are seated across from them. This would make anyone feel like they were being ganged up on.
Try sitting next to the parent so you can go over the paperwork and other items together – it will make the parent feel like you are on their side, and that can go a long way to building and maintaining a successful team relationship.
Ask Parents to Participate From the Beginning
I always like to start IEP meetings by asking parents how they feel their son’s or daughter’s year has been going so far. I ask what their child has enjoyed or not enjoyed. I ask if they are aware of any problems or concerns that I might not know about – something they only mention at home. In short, I start by making the parents part of the team.
Yes, the IEP or Re-Evaluation, or Behavior Plan might already be written in draft form, but I want to make sure that the parents know their input is valuable, and wanted. Often, negative feelings begin when a parent feels like you just want them to sign the paperwork and leave. A three-minute conversation about what they hear from their student at home can stop those negative feelings before they have a chance to cause problems.
Check for Understanding
Just like we do with our students, it’s really important to stop frequently to make sure parents understand what we are saying. Often, the paperwork that goes along with a Special Education meeting can be daunting, but so many people would rather be quiet than admit they have no idea what certain terms mean.
Taking a second to say: “Do you understand that? I know it can be a little hard to read the first few times you see it.” This lets parents know that you don’t expect them to understand all the lingo and that you want them to know exactly what you’ve learned about their child.
Ask: "Are You Happy with Your Child’s Placement/with What we Discussed Today?"
This sounds like an odd question, but mediators who deal with Due Process Hearings will tell you that a parent will often leave a meeting acting like nothing is wrong, while silently worrying (or fuming!) that their concerns weren’t properly addressed. By taking a minute at the end of your meeting to ask the simple question – “Are you happy with our meeting this afternoon?” – you may be saving yourself future headaches.
This statement allows the parent to voice and concerns they may still be holding onto allowing you to address it immediately, rather than waiting for it to become a larger problem. It also allows you to document in your files that at the conclusion of the meeting you asked the parent if they were happy with the outcome of the meeting – and document their response. This can help you just in case the parent does decide they are unhappy later on.
In a perfect world, parents and teaching teams would communicate harmoniously about the best way to help students achieve success, unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. The best we can do is make sure that parents know we want them to be part of the team, we’ll do everything we can to ensure they have (and understand) the information they need to be part of that team, and that we want them to be comfortable and happy with all of the decisions made regarding their son or daughter.
What did we miss? Share your IEP meeting tips in the comments section!
Does your school need special education professional development? Book a presenter with the K-12 Teachers Alliance professional development division.