Mom and daughter meet the new teacher with a friendly handshake.
Maria Blanco
May 7, 2024

Preventing Conflict in Special Education

Preventing conflict in special education is possible with these few tips! (Hint: kindness and communication are the keys!)

In my 17 years engaged with the special education system as a mom, there were many positive experiences and also some conflict. What factors made a difference and helped prevent conflict? I can boil it down to two things: kindness and communication

“Be nice or leave.” This ubiquitous phrase can be seen in many places around New Orleans, including by my kitchen door. Kindness and respect go far in preventing conflict everywhere, including in special education. Being kind can be harder than it sounds. Parents’ feelings about school may be influenced by their own difficulties in school and they may walk into the building with their own negative associations.  

A parent may be perceived as a ‘helicopter parent’ who wants ‘special treatment’ for her child, or conversely, she is viewed as unengaged because she never participates or responds to school communications. Special education can add an entire new level to the often-complicated parent-school relationship.

Special education can create strong negative emotions for families. ‘You think there is something wrong with my child.’ ‘My child won’t be successful.’ ‘I am a bad parent’. Fear, indignation, guilt and sadness are emotions a parent might have when their child is identified as needing a referral for special ed services. Showing a parent kindness and respect can start to change how they experience special education.  

There are many ways schools can show kindness and respect:

  • Be empathetic and not defensive. Demonstrate curiosity about a parent’s actions or comments and try to understand where they are coming from.
  • Don’t dismiss a parent’s expectations and dreams. Every parent has high hopes for their child; that doesn’t mean they are in denial. Establish mutual goals based on what a student needs now to help them move towards those long-term goals.  
  • Acknowledge a parent’s expertise and ask for their input. My daughter’s first special education teacher asked for my support on the first day of school. She had been a special education teacher for over a decade, and my daughter was her first autistic student. She was honest and told me she would do her best and would count on me to help her figure out how to make it a successful experience for everyone. Right away, I became part of the team. In the many difficult days that followed, Ms. Sue’s vulnerability and honesty helped prevent conflict and made me more empathetic and appreciative of her efforts to ‘figure it out’ with me. 

Good communication is one of the most effective ways to prevent conflict in special education.

Here are some strategies to strengthen communication with families:

  • Speak the same language. Special ed is full of acronyms and terms that may be unfamiliar to families. Make communication easier by using accessible language.  
  • Listen. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” What is said or unsaid? Use your eyes to listen, too. What is nonverbal communication telling you?
  • Restate what you heard so the parent knows that you get what they are saying.
  • Use a teach-back to ensure the parent understood what you said. (This means you ask them to repeat what was said or decided, in their own words.)

Being kind and communicating effectively can help prevent conflict in special ed. Both of these strategies can be particularly useful during what can often become a contentious experience: the IEP meeting.

How do you handle conflict that arises during an IEP meeting?

The best way to handle conflict in an IEP meeting is to prevent it. Recognize that parents experience IEP meetings very differently than the special ed personnel. For parents, IEP meetings are a relatively infrequent event and it can feel intimidating to walk into a room of ‘experts’. Unfortunately, when schools perceive that an IEP meeting may be challenging, they may invite even more special ed representatives to the meeting.

There are some simple ways to prevent conflict in an IEP meeting:

  • Set up the meeting at a time that is most convenient to the parent so they can be present and not hurried. 
  • Help the parent be prepared. Ensure the special education teacher and related service providers communicate with the parent before the meeting to discuss any proposed changes to the IEP, and provide a draft for the parent to review before the meeting. 
  • Create a team atmosphere at the meeting that includes the parent as an integral part. For example, sit around a table, not across from the parent. Be sure the parent knows who is in the room and what their purpose is for being at the meeting.
  • Ensure parents understand the purpose of the IEP. Restate the shared goal of helping the student access the curriculum and make educational progress.
  • Share data using accessible language. Encourage questions and make sure the parent understands the data and how it informs the IEP.

Sometimes, in spite of everyone’s efforts, conflict will arise during IEP meetings. There are strategies that can help promote a positive resolution.

  • Acknowledge feelings on both sides. IEP meetings can feel like a negative experience to a parent and a reminder of their child’s limitations. Be sure to celebrate successes.
  • Focus on the intended outcome. What do we want to achieve?
  • Define the problem without assigning blame.
  • Don’t jump to a solution. It is a team problem to solve. What ideas are on the table?
  • Be willing to reconvene. No parent wants to feel ‘forced’ into signing an IEP. Be sure the meeting is scheduled with enough time to allow for multiple meetings if there are significant changes proposed or challenges to work through.

Preventing conflict in special education is indeed possible if you keep in mind the key factors: kindness and communication!  

Remember that even if a parent seems unengaged or combative, the child and parent have the most at stake. Allow parents time to process information. Recognize that you will be part of the child’s team for a few years at most, and the parent is on that child’s team long after they exit school. Special education teams can help equip parents to be effective advocates by showing them kindness and respect, and developing open lines of communication. Everyone wins when parents are engaged.

  • Maria T. Blanco, M.Ed

    Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans

    Maria has over 20 years of experience providing parent education, early intervention, teacher training, and professional development to early childhood providers. Her work focuses on increasing equity and access to high quality services to all children and families. Maria is the mother of two adult daughters, one of whom has autism.

    Profile photo of Maria Blanco
  • Enjoying our content? Sign up for our newsletter to receive useful information like this and updates from Exceptional Lives, straight to your inbox.

    Or Call844-354-1212

    Enjoying our content? Let's stay in touch!

    • Expert disability advocacy & parenting tips.
    • Customized to your needs.
    • No selling your information.
    • No Spam, ever.
    What's your relationship to the disability community?