As a special education teacher, I was privileged to be a member of many effective and talented IEP teams.Most of the IEP meetings in which I participated were positive and productive. Additionally, I've been in more than one IEP meeting where things did not run as smoothly. There are several things both parents and schools can do to help make the IEP process run smoothly and remain focused on the best interests of the student - this article is meant to help all parties remain calm and cooperative, even when having difficult conversations. As with the other articles in this series, the information contained within should serve as a basic overview rather than a rule book. Good communication between families and schools should start long before members sit down at an IEP meeting and continue between meetings. Regular classroom visits, phone calls, emails and notes can go a long way in establishing a great working relationship. For students with intensive support/intervention needs, this is especially critical. The following tips can help make this communication flow work more effectively.


1. Find the positives. Many parents of children with disabilities have spoken to me about communication from school which only focuses on the challenges their children face, without acknowledging their child's gifts and successes.As a teacher, it can be easy to fall into this trap, especially if the challenges a student has are pervasive. Remembering to spend time focusing on a child's strengths can go a very, very long way in establishing a good relationship with parents. We all have strengths and challenges, and none of us wants to be defined only by our perceived shortcomings. My rule in any communication with parents was to balance each challenge with a positive, and to address the positives first. For example - "John has really made progress on his math goals! He can complete his work with very few reminders, and has been doing a great job of getting his math homework in on time.I'm really proud of how hard he's trying. He is still struggling with reading assignments, I'd like to revisit how we're addressing those challenges and what we can do to support him." Compare that to "John is failing reading and refuses to do his work."Which one sounds like a more complete picture of John's performance and which sounds like a complaint?


2. Put yourself in the other side's shoes. This works for both school staff and parents, even if you are at odds with each other. It's not always easy - especially in high stress situations - but taking a minute to try and see the other individual's perspective in a conflict can help you understand their motives. Teachers, remember that parents are in this for the long haul, not just the current school year.Parents, remember that teachers have many students who need their attention and help as much as your child does.


3. Stay calm, no matter what. Nothing will shut down good communication faster than anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is. Shouting, threatening team members, insults and defensiveness have no place in communication between school and home, and the effects of such actions can be extremely detrimental to your child/student and his or her education. Very few of us can make solid decisions when we're extremely angry - if you feel your temper begin to flare take a minute to calm down. You'll be able to express your thoughts and feelings much more effectively, without the risk of shutting down the conversation all together. If faced with other angry team members, your calm approach can be contagious and may even help diffuse an otherwise volatile situation.


4. Prepare in advance. If facing what you think might be a hostile meeting, do your homework beforehand. Gather data to support what you say, write down the important points you want to address and review your rights.


5. Don't play "Gotcha." For teachers, this means not surprising parents with unexpected information in an formal meeting setting. One of my favorite principals put it best - report cards and IEPs should tell parents what they already know, because they've been included and informed from the beginning. On the other side of that coin, parents shouldn't use the IEP meeting as an opportunity to attack the school or its staff. No one likes unwanted surprises, and either of these 'gotcha' moments will do little more than make participants defensive or even unresponsive.


Next week, we'll look at the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and what it means for schools, parents and students.