Three days into the first week of my first job at the bottom rung of a publishing company, the boss called me into her office. I was quietly stressing over a deadline, and apparently, it showed. “The difference between you and me,” she said gently, “is that you get stressed and feel like the walls are closing in. When I get stressed, I move the walls around.”
At the time, I took this as a strong incentive to work my way up to her power level in the organization. Much later, I learned that we can rearrange more walls than we might realize, especially in times of stress.
Three Pipelines to Empowerment
Families of children with special needs encounter so many frustrating barriers to getting services for their children that it becomes easy to ricochet between anger and defeat. Somewhere between these positions are three important pipelines to parent power:
(1) You have the power to negotiate for services because people in authority need you to sign legal documents that control services;
(2) You have the power to do a time-sensitive favor for somebody in authority who needs you to sign documents;
(3) You have the power to convince people in authority to care about your problem, so they work with you to get better services for your child.
The Power to Collaborate
Bottom line: You have the power to collaborate. That means you have the power to help your child while helping others (such as school staff) achieve their own goals. That means you have the power to build relationships that make your child’s service providers treat you as an equal partner. How do start using that power? Read on:
See the IEP in 3-D
Try this strategy described in the “Classroom-Treatment Connection” chapter of Family Road Map: We call it “3-D: Deal Directly with the Decisionmaker.” No matter how many people are gathered around an IEP table, remember: There are only two individuals in the room who have the power to sign the legal agreement that provides special education services to a child or youth. One person is the school system representative (sometimes called the Local Education Agency Representative, or “LEA Rep” for short). The other person is the parent or guardian. Use that power! You can do this without seeming obnoxious or alienating school staff.
Deal Directly with the Decision-maker
Everybody else—the classroom teacher, special education teacher, speech therapist, school psychologist, etc.—signs on the front page of the IEP document to indicate they attended the meeting. Their opinions as school staff are only opinions. Your opinion as a parent/guardian amounts to 50 percent of the decision. Before the meeting, ask who will be serving as the system’s representative. (This question tends to put people on notice that you intend to be a full partner.) Sit at the table where you can always make direct eye contact with that person. Listen politely to all, but when making an important point or request, turn to this person for a response. (“Mrs. X, would you agree that…do you think it is possible to…”)
Do a Time-Sensitive Favor
Every three years, the IEP must be reviewed, updated, and signed so the school system gets state and federal dollars to pay for those services. If a school misses the deadline—no money and a major black mark on the record for school administrators. When this annual review falls close to the deadline (often because the school must process many IEPs in the spring or fall), the staff is really motivated to get those documents signed. Your cooperation (for example, by waiving the 10-day requirement for written notice of meeting) des a time-sensitive favor that costs you nothing but can build a stronger relationship with school staff.
Use “Our” and “We” Statements
When barriers appear, you can ask, “What are our choices? How can we solve this problem?” Note the “our/we” statement. You reinforce a strong relationship by stating problems in a neutral way (no blame) and recruit people to get invested in solving your problem by soliciting any possible ideas (no shame). Result: You have the combined power to move walls around.
At Get There Project, we look for family-tested strategies. Believe me, I’ve personally used this strategy more times than I can count. It really works!
Have you found other “our/we” cooperation strategies in dealing with schools or other agencies? I would love to hear about your family-tested strategies and share them with our readers.