A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
The IEP conflict wars
How to proactively prevent conflicts with parents of student learners with IEPs
By Rhea Settles | March | April 2024
“Knowledge, Opportunity, and Access are the Property of All People” — Dr. Rhea Settles
As a career educator, and a civil engagement and human dignity specialist for over 30 years, I wrote the above quote and used it as the class motto in my elementary, middle and high school classrooms. I wanted every student to know and feel like accessing learning opportunities belonged to all of them, no matter how they showed up or their learning style. It was also a way to make sure those student learners with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) truly felt like welcomed, supported members of the learning environment, and that they had the same value as student learners in the general education program. Furthermore, I knew that parents needed to feel and know that their children were safe and in an uplifting learning environment. Parents were always pleased to know that I truly valued their child and that creating the conditions for them to learn and be safe was a priority.
The traditional schooling environment has always struggled to represent its purpose and be an open access learning environment where all student learners are treated as equal and valued members of the learning space. It is well known that a student learner’s assigned value within the traditional schooling structure and systems is determined by if the student learner is innately calibrated to achieve in general education without aid, support or resources. Being any other type of student learner or requiring additional support results in school culture and society labeling that student learner as having something wrong with them and having less value and worth. In 1965, the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was created so schools could receive funds that were believed to standardize learning outcomes and make accessing learning available to all student learners. Most are familiar with the 2001 reauthorized version of this law, No Child Left Behind. The ESEA was presented as providing for all student learners and the panacea to resolving schooling problems. But it was discovered that the ESEA law, like so many others, did not benefit or include student learners with disabilities. Subsequently, in 1975, a law called Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted to provide accommodations, modifications, support services and resources for students with disabilities. The word “handicap” had a negative and demeaning connotation and did not represent all student learners with a disability, so the law was reauthorized and renamed in 1990 as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Although IDEA was designed to support student learners with disabilities, it came with a stigma that student learners with IEPs had less value than those without. Think Star-bellied Sneetches and Non-Star-bellied Sneetches from Dr. Seuss’ most powerful, yet not well recognized story “The Sneetches.” Most parents of children with IEPs found themselves with a greater challenge in caring for their children. They not only needed to make sure they provided appropriate and necessary attention to their disability, but they needed to advocate more diligently at school to ensure their children were receiving an appropriate and a quality education.
Most parents want what is best for their children and certainly better schooling than what they had, but oftentimes they are bothered by the negatives that are placed upon their children with an IEP. Although the IEP is a confidential, legal document meant to benefit the student learner, it is the actions and mindset of some peers, school agents and others that make parents feel like their child will never be viewed as having value, a respected social standing, and the capacity to learn necessary content for achievement and for preparation for life beyond high school. This and more gives rise to conflict wars (when difference is adversarial, competing and/or divisive) between parents of students with IEPs and school agents.
Why is conflict war ongoing?
A major agitator of the conflict wars between parents of students with IEPs and school agents is the societal negative stigma that has been fixed upon these student learners. Consistent messaging that students with IEPs are inferior makes for the ripening of an ongoing conflict war between parents of students with IEPs and school agents. Just the word “special” to reference “special education” has become an insult to intelligence or riding the “special bus” as a comedic episode meant to degrade. This shaming and humor are not funny to the parents and certainly not to the student learner. Sadly, it severely and adversely impacts the student learner who really needs the support and resources.
Another agitator is IDEA itself that calls for parents and school agents to collaborate on the development and implementation protocols of the IEP. However, the law does not provide the ways this collaboration between parents as advocates and school agents as employees should happen. With school agents having the most power over the resources, supports, curriculum, program placement and determining whether a student learner has achieved or not, parents feel like the collaboration is more symbolic than literal. They feel like they are supporting and being a party to failing their child. Often parents complain about IEP meetings: Why attend if their voice is ignored and not factored into the discussion? A sure way to get into a conflict war with parents is for them to feel like their dignity is at risk, fear for their safety, or feel powerless (Settles, 2007). In the words of Maya Angelou: “People will never forget how you made them feel.”
A third agitator is that parents do not see how the IEP is helping their child access learning or serving as an education benefit. This leads to a fourth agitator: School agents are offended by parents’ accusations that they are “harming their children” and “not teaching them,” especially because most school agents believe it is a direct threat to their careers and livelihood. I recall a group of school agents stating they did not feel safe with a student learner’s mother because she constantly threatened to submit a formal complaint and have their licenses revoked.
Although school agents feel like they are doing their best, having to endure being attacked by parents while at work is too much to bear.
There is also a hidden agitator that schools are triggers for some parents. These parents are reminded of how they were wounded and failed by the same schooling systems and school agents, and they do not want this same experience to happen to their children. For example, I remember, a third-grade girl who did not recognize the alphabet sounds/symbols and only knew addition math facts up to the fives. Her father, a man in his 60s, spoke about his school experience, which influenced his opposition to his daughter having an IEP. In his mind, the problem was the school principal telling the teacher not to teach his daughter.
It is not surprising that these negative and hurtful stigmas and traumatic experiences create a ripe environment for parents of students with IEPs and school agents to fight each other. It makes it critical that parents of students with IEPs and school agents receive tools and resources to proactively avoid conflict wars in the IEP process so that school can work best for the student learner.
It is well known that a student learner’s assigned value within the traditional schooling structure and systems is determined by if the student learner is innately calibrated to achieve in general education without aid, support or resources.
Avoiding conflict wars To proactively avoid conflict wars in the IEP process and ensure that students with IEPs are accessing learning and the schooling experience is serving as an education benefit (Settles, 2003), the following are necessary elements and resources to include in the process: 1. Balance the power. It is easy as school agents to forget that parents also have a role in the IEP process and that is to advocate for their children’s education entitlements. Since much of the power and influence around program placement, instructional minutes, related services minutes, and resources, supports, accommodations and modifications are in the hands of the school agent, the school agent has a greater responsibility to balance the power. For example, include a simple Check for Understanding (CFU) during the IEP meeting. As each provider communicates the findings, offer an explanation of what the reports and data mean in order to make the experience more pleasant and welcoming for parents. 2. Change “special” education language. I have known for a while that the word “special” to represent the education resources and supports a student with an IEP needs and receives, has too many negative and demeaning attachments. For example, rather than “disabled student,” use “differently abled student” or “uniquely statused student.” Rather than “special education,” use “individualized education” or for student learners with autism, use “twice-exceptional.” 3. Close understanding gaps and connect the dots for parents. Parents do not understand a lot of the education jargon used in IEP meetings and can feel intimidated sitting in them not knowing what is meant by terms and acronyms like “present levels” and “BIP,” to name a few. So, most of the time they sit and listen without asking what these terms mean for their child’s learning. Others will go on a tangent, not revealing that they really don’t understand. School agents must be willing to explain the concept and action along the way. Yes, it takes more time, but it is worth it to build a healthy collaborative relationship with the parent. Also, if the parents are English language learners and need the IEP documents interpreted in their primary language, make that happen as well as have an interpreter present at the meeting. 4. Recognize and consider parent concerns and questions. There should be continuous communication with the parents to address concerns and/or questions they have, not just in the IEP meeting. For example, consider establishing a communication log or weekly check-ins with parents to see if they have any needs and to make sure the parents are seeing artifacts and evidence that their child is learning. 5. Promote special education and IEPs as value-added and a benefit to students. As I stated above, “special” education needs a language change. Special education has too many devaluing associations. It is time to promote this individualized education as a value-added and benefit to student learners with IEPs. For example, “Individualized Education” or “Uniquely Designated Education,” and having access to aid, support and resources to access learning is to be celebrated rather than diminished. 6. Offer civil engagement and human dignity training and coaching for employees and parents. All people can benefit from learning how to share spaces and resources and engage with others without causing harm or being harmed (Settles, 2003). For example, provide training, tools, and resources for parents and school agents on how to collaborate on behalf of what’s best for the student learner without tearing each other apart. They will also learn how to communicate and engage with each other within their respective roles without either being harmed. 7. Utilize an external Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for Special Education service. When people are in conflict war, they need an external unaffiliated and skilled conflict resolution practitioner to help them resolve and gain relief. For ADR to benefit both the parent and the school agent, and ultimately the student, it must be provided by an external ADR service provider, and parents must have a voice in selecting this provider. This means that the ADR provider cannot be an affiliate or employee of any school institution, including SELPAs. Two resources for finding an external ADR service provider with skills in special education are Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution (CADRE) and Seeds of Partnership: Alternative Dispute Resolution. Some peacebuilding services that can be provided are communication coaching for parents and school agents, facilitated IEP meetings and conversations (Settles & Sidime, 2021). For example, ADR worked well for the student learner mentioned above; the father finally agreed to an IEP for his daughter. Parents of student learners with IEPs and school agents having a healthy relationship, where they collaborate in its true sense, will only create the conditions for the student learner to access learning and the schooling experience to serve as an education benefit. With this purpose being met, this should be reason enough to celebrate and proactively prevent conflict wars in the IEP process. Resources Settles, R., & Sidime, O. (2021). How an Impartial Education Liaison Service Helps Education Leaders Effectively Manage Special Education-Related Conflict. Journal for Leadership and Instruction, 20(2), 32-36. Rhea Settles, Ed.D., M.NCRP, is an educator, a liberator, and civil, engagement and human dignity specialist. She is the founder of The Civility Zone, creator of Mindful Civility®, and clinical faculty at a California State University, School of Education, Department of Educational Leadership.