I am “that parent.” My clients are “that parent” (or “that grandparent”).
You know who I mean – the parent of the student with special needs who is always asking questions, constantly pushing, and who never seems satisfied.
The parent who inspires aggravation and admiration.
Teachers, therapists, and school administrators can struggle to understand and relate to “that parent” – leading to frustration and litigation (to say nothing of the increased wine consumption!).
Here are three (3) suggestions, from across the “other side” of the special education table, for respecting and responding to “that parent.”
1. Remember My Why.
In my experience, some school team members believe the parent is the problem. They assume "that parent" is simply disagreeable and argumentative by nature and/or is engaged in attention-seeking behavior (“Munchausen by proxy”).
This is considered the real reason for the parent’s concerns, which are then dismissed or discounted.
In my view, this is almost always an oversimplification that leads to unfair and inaccurate assumptions.
It is also toxic. People’s motivations are complicated and difficult to parse (even for the person themselves). You are unlikely to solve many problems, or achieve good outcomes, if you assume the worst about the other person’s motivations.
So whether this theory is true or not, in whole or in part, frequently or rarely, it is certainly not helpful to think this way.
The reality is more like this:
All good parents worry about their children. But all worries are not created equal.
School success is important for all students. We want every child to be safe in school, to learn and make friends, and to build skills for personal and professional flourishing.
For “typical” students there is a safety-net of accomplishment they will very likely achieve, almost no matter what happens in school. This isn’t to say that good schools aren’t important for all students, but that, for most students, there is no real question that they will (eventually) live independently, get a job, and have friends.
Not so for students with disabilities.
For many, these outcomes are impossible without skillful, sustained intervention from the school team. The failure to provide proper supports and services turns dreams of independence and connection to nightmares of limitation and isolation.
For example, most kindergarteners don’t need to be taught to talk (in fact, just the opposite!). For a non-verbal student with a disability, she can’t appropriately express her needs, share her feelings, or engage with her education unless the school team creates a functional communication system and teaches the student (and the family) how to use it.
Most students will make friends and feel connection “organically” (albeit with varying degrees of success). A student on the autism spectrum may struggle to understand the emotions and reactions of others and may never form friendships unless he receives mindful support in building social skills, making connections, and facilitating interactions.
Students with disabilities are also more likely to experience bullying, abuse, and isolation at school, and may lack the skill or ability to cope with, respond to, or even report such problems.
In sum, the educational stakes for students with disabilities are simply of a different magnitude.
Parents of students with disabilities know this all too well.
Combine the natural human instinct of concern for your child with literally life-changing stakes and, voila, you have “that parent.”
So, why am I “that parent”?
I am “that parent” because I love an extremely vulnerable child with all my heart. I am “that parent” because I spend school days somewhere on a spectrum from fairly worried to scared out of my mind. Too much is at stake (and too much has happened) for me to ever be completely calm about school.
I am “that parent” because I do not have the luxury of assuming that my child will be able to engage with the world, effectively express thoughts and feelings, and live a life of meaningful work and connections.
I am “that parent” because I need your help. If I feel you are failing, if I don’t think I can trust you, if I see my child suffering, I push, I protest, I become “that parent.”
When that happens and I seem to be rude, pesky, or pushy, please remember my why.
2. Remember It’s a Relationship.
The relationship between parent and school is just that – a relationship. Relationships run on trust and communication and break down when these are lacking. So we need to apply the skills we employ in all our important relationships to this one.
Trust is built over time and rests on promises made and kept. If you say you are going to do something, you need to do it.
We know you are busy, but if you tell a parent that you are going to order an evaluation, follow-up with a therapist, or get back to them, and then don’t do it (or you don't do it correctly), they are going to lose confidence in what you say. Some will start to assume you tell them things to placate them in the moment, with no intention of following through, and/or that you are unwilling or unable to do your job.
This is true even for basic things you might consider trivial or clerical in nature (e.g. changing a phone number on the IEP, giving advance notice of a fire drill, providing promised documentation).
If you show the parent you can’t/won’t reliably attend to small details, do you expect them to trust you on the big questions? So, as simple as it sounds, keep track of your promises to parents and do your best to keep them.
Communication is critical. Parents should have a very clear sense of when, how, and with whom they should communicate their concerns. If you prefer phone calls to e-mail, let the parent know. Also, give the parent a sense of how soon they can realistically expect a response to questions and then create/implement a system that keeps that promise.
If the parent is sending e-mails too often and/or too long, share that information with them and provide an alternative forum to address the concern(s).
Not answering e-mails is a sure-fire way to create a super-aggravated version of “that parent.”
For some students with complex needs, a “point person” should be designated, with the responsibility for communication and coordination across the entire team, including (of course) the parents.
In my experience, many school teams become reluctant to communicate with parents when the relationship has been damaged. If the school knows the phone call with the parent will be painful, or that their e-mail will generate a lengthy, angry response, the temptation is to avoid the call and curtail the communication. This is counterproductive in almost every circumstance. Certainly, brainstorm whether more effective communication is possible and consider whether some trust-building, relationship-mending work needs to be done, but definitely don’t stop talking – you’re very likely just making the problem, and "that parent,” worse.
Relationships are complicated and fragile things. You can build a positive bond over a long period of time, only to see it shattered in seconds, fairly or not. So, no easy answers – except to say that, in my view, it is helpful to remember you are in a relationship with the parent and to ask yourself whether what you are doing (or not doing) is building a better relationship – Is it fostering trust? is it facilitating honest, productive communication?
Remember that the skills you need in your other important relationships (patience, understanding, respect, grace, forgiveness) apply to this relationship as well.
3. Remember Our Expertise.
As a matter of law, parents are entitled to “meaningful participation” in the development of the student’s individualized educational program. But apart from avoiding lawsuits, you should seek out parents’ participation because we are experts about our children.
Admittedly, our perspectives are influenced by our bias (it’s our child after all) and are impacted by differences in culture, education, and experience. But, we are knowledgeable about our student’s strengths, deficits, and particular disability.
We also have a unique view of the student over time and across settings. We have spent more time, in more places, with this person than anyone else – that’s a lot of observational data. We often have good insights into what works (and what does not work!) in terms of supporting the student.
Lastly, think of bias as a two-edged sword. Surely, our affinity blinds us in some circumstances to the student’s true needs or intentions. However, our love helps us see the student’s best and imagine her potential. It also drives us, provides us with patience and strength, and inspires us to advocate.
So the next time you are frustrated in dealing with “that parent,” please remember our why, work to build trust and open communication, and seek our input and expertise.
The adults in the relationship will be better for it and so will the student.
(Hat tip to my good friend Charmaine Thaner for gifting me the mug in the picture!)