I get a lot of questions about this. Full disclosure: I think I have very positive relationships with Sabrina’s IEP team; however, I can’t take full responsibility for that. Sabrina’s team happens to be wonderful. Nonetheless, there are definitely things that you can do to help those relationships, and much of this could be a result of the fact they know that I am reasonable.
1. Vision Statement | I think it’s very important to know what your goals for your child are. And if they’re old enough, what their goals for themselves are. Read about our vision statement here.
I’ve noticed in the past that staff sometimes assume what your priorities are. In our case, they were originally under the impression that we had certain high standards as far as where we expected Sabrina to be academically. That just wasn’t (and isn’t) so. Yes, we always want them to presume competence, and part of our reason for wanting her involved in the general education curriculum is so that she can be exposed to more, which believe will help her reach her full potential academically. However, we never expected them to bring her up to, or even close to, grade level. That’s just not going to happen. For us, our main goal is that she learn to live in the community and that the community learn to live with her. Once the team understood that, they softened. They relaxed. And because they understand our vision, they understand why we want her in the gen ed classroom as much as possible. Because that’s her *community*. All of a sudden her being in there made more sense.
I pretty much knock people over the head with ours. I start every IEP meeting with it. I email it to every new team member, and I email it at the beginning of the year. I often will plug the important parts in conversations with the team as reminders or “Yes, what’s most important is that Sabrina learns to live in the community, so I love that you are …”
2. Volunteer | Be involved. Don’t be just a “special needs parent” who requests. Be a parent who contributes. Volunteering will look different for everyone. For me, I get anxious being in the classroom sometimes, so I contribute in other ways. For example, I’ve acted as the Chair of the Yearbook Committee, and of the Holiday Store.
3. Smile and Laugh | Let them know you’re a person and that you’re enjoyable to be around. Enough said.
4. Find an ally | Try to find someone who works for the district or school whom you trust and who trusts you.
5. Point out successes | People want to feel good. They want to be appreciated. And they want to feel like something didn’t go unnoticed.
6. Get to know the people higher up | It is mandated by law that all SELPAs have a Community Advisory Committee (CAC). Why people don’t take advantage of this opportunity is something I don’t understand. Well, I do… People are busy. I get that. But it’s a much better use of that time to attend monthly CAC meetings and build relationships than it is to try to repair relationships that were never strong in the first place.
You will have access administrative staff and get the opportunity to build relationships with people in a non-threatening kind of way. If people know that you know people in high places, they’ll most likely treat you differently. Is this fair? Not necessarily. But it’s the way it is, so use it to your advantage.
7. Be honest and transparent | Ask for help.| I’ve been known to walk into someone’s office, sit down, and just be honest. Lay it out there. A “here’s how I am feeling and am wondering if you can help me or have any feedback for me.” goes a long way in starting an open conversation and building.
8. Remember that they get their paycheck from the school/district/SELPA | They may not like certain policies either, but they can’t always really say that. Their silence may not mean that they don’t like you or that they don’t agree with you.
9. Remind them that your child is a child, not just a child with special needs | Do this by telling them a little about who your child is outside of school. A few years ago I shared with the team that Sabrina was swimming on her own. It went a long way in that particular IEP meeting when we were talking about Sabrina’s lack of participation in PE. The mood shifted to “ok, she really can do something if motivated and sets her mind to it.”
10. Remember that it’s not only just about your own child | I once heard Sue Swenson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, keynote at an inclusion conference. She captivated me by the call to action she made to the group: don’t just advocate for your child. If it’s good for your child, it’s probably good for many others, so advocate for those others, too. Yes! Be seen as an advocate, as a change-maker, and ask staff members what they need to make something better for them, so that they can help all kids.
And I left the one that, in my opinion is the most important, for last:
11. Be reasonable | Please. Be. Reasonable. Your child’s IEP team is made up of people, and people aren’t perfect. Things can go wrong and they will. No program is perfect. There are so many components of most IEPs . Sabrina has speech, OT, AAC, modifications, sensory stuff, a behavior plan, then there’s promoting independence, maximizing participation, and on and on an on… I finally came to a point where I had to figure out what was the most important and let some of the rest go (to a degree…). At one point, she wasn’t participating in the gen ed curriculum (via modifications) nearly as much as she needed to be. That’s a big deal and I started to get myself really worked in. Then I told myself “breathe. She’s an important part of the community at her school, in her classroom. She’s loved there, she has friends, her day consists of doing things that are meaningful to her, she’s happy.” Reminding myself of that allowed me to calm myself down, and take steps to improve the modifications in a way that would get results and not alienate people. This is something I’ve really had to work hard on. It’s tough when the mama bear is dying to come out. And, she still comes out. She just comes out in a calmer way now. For the most part.
So when you feel a “freak out” coming on, ask your self this: Are the most important things happening (see #1 above)? Is this really a big deal? If it’s not, you may considering letting it go. If it is, then you need to come up with a way to address it when you’ve calmed down and you’re thinking rationally.