How to Effectively Diffuse IEP Meeting Tension

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Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings can be stress-inducing but come with the territory in school-based therapy. There are a number of articles and checklists for parents on IEP meeting preparation – but not much information on how therapists and special education teachers can appropriately interact with parents who object to information, treatment proposals or methodologies.

In his widely-read book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie highlights 30 human relations principles that special education teachers, speech-language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) and other related services personnel can draw from to make an IEP meeting friendly, collaborative and successful.  Here, we review three:


Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view

For many parents – especially newcomers to the world of special education – the prospect of an IEP meeting can be nerve-wracking.  If only one parent attends the meeting, consider that he or she will be meeting with two to five others – or more, pending on the child’s special needs and identification of required services.  Consider that the prospect of such a meeting often breeds nervousness – and the natural desire for parents to assert the validity of their observations and opinions.  As a therapist or special education teacher, you have a unique perspective on how each student learns in the classroom – but don’t rely on your own insights.  Be open to receive the perspectives offered by parents of K-12 special needs students, and you’ll be trusted.  And the trust parents bestow on you will enhance your ability to guide them through the special education process and therapies with patience and compassion.


Appeal to nobler motives

From time to time, everyone needs reminders of the “why” of a situation – and reminders can serve as powerful conduits of connection.   You can address a parent who objects to an important treatment or methodology by appealing to nobler motives – helping the parent adopt a “big picture” view.  For any parent with a special needs child, the nobler motive is this: wanting the best for the child.

If, for instance, a parent is adversarial towards a critical topic, technique, therapy or education goal, any IEP team member – including school-based therapists and special education teachers – can gently remind the parent: “I understand you want the best for your child, and you have a right to be concerned about how we’re going to deliver the best program.”  Then, assure the parent that you – and other members of the IEP team – want the best for their child too.  Explain patiently the reasons for any methodology or treatment plan aspect in question, and express confidence in the outcomes you anticipate.  If you exude confidence, you’ll help parents be confident.


Use encouragement

During the IEP meeting, be sure to pepper the discussion – when possible – with words of encouragement for parents.  By affirming their vital role in advancing the child’s progress, you will diffuse tension that could, in other circumstances, give rise to expressed frustration – or even displaced anger towards the IEP team. In the negotiations classic Dealing with an Angry Public, Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field acknowledge that anger may arise if a person feels weak in front of others with more power – whether that power is real or perceived.  IEP team members, such as special education teachers, therapists and related services paraprofessionals, can empower parents by relating to them as collaborators and seasoning the meeting with team-based language like “we,” “together we’ll see…” and “as we care for Student N.”

People in certain professions are endowed with an exceptional ability to convey empathy at just the right moment.  Parents of children with special needs can be frequently exhausted – but school-based therapists and special education teachers can feed sustain weary parents with authentic words of reassurance and radiating an attitude that says “we’re all in this together; your child will succeed.”  Learning deficits or physical limitations are not necessarily static – and a condition of the possibility of student progress (or even recovery of an impairment) is a nurturing home environment with mothers and fathers who feel empowered and hopeful.  And your encouragement during the IEP meeting can catalyze precisely that feeling.


Have YOU ever participated in a tense IEP meeting?  If so, and you have tips to share with other school-based therapists or special education teachers, please comment below.

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