The first time I really lost it at an IEP meeting, David had just started kindergarten. At that point, I already had two-plus years of special needs parenting experience under my belt. David was diagnosed with autism before age 3 and had the dubious distinction of getting the boot from three different pre-K programs by the time he reached primary school.
The Kid Who Didn’t Fit
We had logged many dozens of hours with test batteries and evaluation interviews. I considered myself an expert at reading the pained-yet-professionally-patient expression that crossed an administrator’s face just prior to delivering bad news. A kid who could suddenly transform into a kicking, scratching, biting machine was a kid who didn’t fit anywhere. I wasn’t expecting an easy morning.
The Parent Who Didn’t Fit
Even so, when I walked into the meeting and saw 10 pairs of eyes looking up at me from the conference table, a knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. In this room, I was the one who didn’t fit. Everybody but me wore a plastic ID badge. They seemed to shuffle their piles of paperwork with a breezy air of confidence about dealing with a difficult child. Yeah, but they don’t have to take him home at night, a small voice in my brain whispered sourly. I fought a surge of resentment at their cheerfulness and struggled to put on the concerned-but-cooperative face I had used so often as a pre-K parent.
A Buzzing in My Brain
The meeting began with the usual round of introductions. Principal, special education supervisor, school psychologist, classroom teacher, autism specialist, behavior specialist, this specialist, that specialist. I forgot each name and job title about 20 seconds later. (How to remember people’s names at the IEP table.)
The school psychologist (at least I thought it was the school psychologist) launched into a long explanation of numerical test scores that made less sense to me with each passing moment. (How to listen to test scores effectively.) The sound of her words began to fade beneath the buzzing in my brain. I felt my eyes well up. “Excuse me!” I finally gasped. “I’m-uh—having an allergy attack! Yes! It happens sometimes! I’ll be right back.”
Scratchy Brown School Paper Towels
I scurried out of the room and just made it to a stall in the teacher’s lounge before breaking into sobs. Minutes went by. Slow breaths, I told myself. Deep breaths. Repeat. I threw cold water on my face and blotted it off with scratchy brown school paper towels. I went back to the meeting. Ten pairs of eyes looked up. I sat down and opened my notebook. “Please continue,” I said, in my best calm-and-cooperative-parent voice.
The Pause Button
Leaning on the pause button for just a few minutes made it possible to carry on. It wasn’t the last time I lost it in a meeting—but I gradually learned not to pretend it isn’t happening. Listening to people talk about what’s wrong with your child is hard, confusing, emotional labor. It pays to notice the internal signs that it’s getting to be too much. You have every right to ask for a few minutes of strategic retreat to pull yourself back together. You can even reschedule the meeting if necessary. Most school staff will be glad you did.