I don’t think so.
I have never had an adversarial relationship with our public school’s special education department. I’ve been working with them for 8 years total for two kids, so I like to think I have insight into how our relationship is successful. I am 100% certain there are people who are not able to have the same relationship with their school system, absolutely certain. I also know there are people that start the process fighting, when there isn’t even a bad history. I think it is worth a try to build a mutually respectful relationship from the beginning or to start fresh if things go wrong.
Our family (and as a result the kids’ elementary school) has endured our son’s dialysis, both kids’ kidney transplants and recovery during the school year, behavioral challenges for nearly all of the years, and a mental health diagnosis as a result of a compete emotional (and dangerous to him) breakdown, at school. These educators have seen our family at our worst. Our kids joined the school with IEPs in place and they took over to implement them. Over the years I am guessing I’ve had over 80 sit down meetings with them about IEP modifications, emergency changes due to health, and behavior modification program implementation or changes.
I’m often asked about our relationship with this school and special education department and I am the first one to sing their praises. They are a dedicated, caring group of people with whom we would have likely not done as well as a family in crisis without their support. The relationships are built out of mutual respect; their respect for me as the kids’ parent and mine for them as experienced educators. My relationship with them has grown and changed and I’m proud of how well we work together for the kids.
There’s nothing mystical about how well we work together. Like I said, mutual respect for each other. But it’s not been without planning, tenacity, communication, and giving (on both our parts).
What I have done and what do I do to keep our relationship going in the right direction?
- I respect their knowledge. I have not taught children or children with challenges in the classroom. And in fact, could not, so I am not silent about that fact. I often give them sincere kudos for what they do and what they know. Let’s face it, we all like to be recognized for what we know. I also have been known to swallow my pride. As hard as it’s been, I’ve done it for the kids’ best interest.
- If I have a concern I put it in writing and if I feel we need a meeting, I ask for one with the parties that should be involved. I try to have a list of items I’d like to address and I try to send those ahead so they can prepare. I also will bring a list of questions and concerns with me.
-If I have a concern about a certain aspect of learning I ask them for options and I am usually prepared for what is available (but not always!). Perfect examples might be an assessment of some sort like for assistive technology or an psych evaluation.
- I try to make it convenient on them for meetings. I try my best to be flexible, even if that means I have to be there at 7:15am (if you know me, you know I don’t like early morning meetings!).
- I tell the administration about the good work the teachers are doing. I send notes thanking teachers after successes. I have also sent thank you notes after discussions for changes in IEPs and for their willingness to try anything (the number of changes they’ve made for Gage would amaze you.) that might help my kids learn. I thank them often for being open to ideas. I also make sure other parents of kids in the school know about the great work our teachers do.
- I give thoughtful gifts. I don’t spend a fortune. I might make something or buy something small, or include a gift card but it is always accompanied by a heartfelt note from me expressing how grateful I am and sometimes a picture from one of the kids.
- I’m involved in school. There are many ways I could be involved with school but I choose to handle Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s a week-long thank you of trinkets and gifts and lunch and I spend a lot of time planning and executing it (with a co-chair, thank goodness). My work there doesn’t go unnoticed. I am not saying everyone needs or is even able to run a week-long event, but there are many small things you can do all year long for the school…make copies for the classes, distribute mail, cover the front office phones once a week during lunch, just to name a few. Me being up there and visible make it easy for quick conversations. I also try to walk in for pick up or drop off to lend to those quick conversations.
What if you don’t have a flexible work schedule like I do? There are still ways to help…in the morning before school, lunch hour, or Saturday clean up days at the school. From home and evenings you can run their Box Top program or handle their recycling cartridge program; often overlooked jobs but easy to do at night/weekends taking very little time. Better yet, as your kid’s teacher if there is anything you can do evenings and weekends to help.
What do you do if it goes bad?
Have I hit it off with everyone? Not necessarily. Have I rubbed people the wrong way? Um, yes. I always go back to treating them with respect. What about bad relationships? Speak openly and let them know you’d like to start fresh and go from there. I did this and it worked. I also apologized that we had a falling out, even though I didn’t think it was my fault – still don’t – but it was the right thing to do to move on and it worked.
Mutual respect usually gets us through the rough spots and you know there are rough spots.
Julia Roberts, a wife, mom, speaker/writer and business owner, she writes a personal blog at Kidneys and Eyes. A similar post ran on Support for Special Needs.com, a social network for special needs families that Julia founded in 2010. Married 18 years, she tries to have a sense of humor about life, which is why she and husband Julian joke that the first one to leave the marriage has to take the kids.