Monday, February 9, 2015

Aspects of a Special Needs Village: Conflict Management

Anyone who has taken a business course, or in fact has a business degree, will be familiar with many of the concepts discussed in this post. What I have attempted to do is take the ideas inherent in business management and apply them to our everyday special needs village model. Management after all is management, and knowing how to get your team to produce a viable product, in this case creating a workable educational model for your child,  is the sign of a successful business.

Whether we like it or not, in reality there is probably going to be a time when we will not get along with everyone in our child’s village. There will undoubtedly be times when members will clash and disagree about approaches, realities and even proposed short-term and longterm goals. You may even come up against members that have decided not to listen to you and they will do anything they please with your child. EX: This would be the circumstance when the school assigns a particular teacher to your child, against your wishes. Under these circumstances you have no choice but to try to deal with the teacher, the administration and the school bureaucracy. This is also the time when, despite all of your excellent management skills, a good lawyer may come in handy. I had requested that my son not be assigned a particular teacher in high school. I knew that she had no business teaching anyone with autism. They did not listen. By the middle of the school year, when she failed to organize him, teach him study skills and basically follow the IEP, I asked the VP and the special ed director if I needed a lawyer to get her to do what she was supposed to do? They did work with her to get her to support him properly after that. While it wasn't his best year, it wasn't his worst and the school did manage her to make sure she supported him to the end. On the other hand, the next special education teacher (11th and 12th grade) was terrific.

When these events happen it is essential that we do NOT loose our ability to think and act rationally. Easier said than done. I know. It is true that the most difficult part of raising a special needs child is to be able to lift yourself out of parent-bear mode and take a step back. Take several deep and large breaths. Then sit down and plan a realistic form of attack. Now it can be a full frontal assault complete with a shield wall, or a pincer strategy. It really depends on the issues, the number of persons involved, and the level of support your child actually needs to be successful in their day-to-day functioning.

You may also come across those in your village, who think they, and not you, are the lead. They may be of the mistaken belief that they have the ultimate say as to what happens with your child. After all they have the degrees and years of practice behind them. This is when you need to set everyone straight. You need to remember that you still hold the most important degree in dealing with your child; a lifetime of dealing with your child. Their experience is generalized, but that doesn’t mean it will actually benefit your child. And yes, while we want our children to “generalize the specifics” that does not mean that we want generalizations employed when it comes to our children.

As we always see, each autistic child is unique in their own way and even those with similar issues respond differently to different therapies and medications. So it is essential that you always remain the head of your child’s village, no matter what a teacher, psychologist or social worker may think. The reality is that only you can truly direct your child’s future. You are their greatest advocate, until that time when they can advocate for themselves.

Common Issues in Special Education Disputes:
1.     Eligibility: what happens when your child definitely has a disability but the district wont provide support due to legal ineligibility
2.     Failure to Provide an appropriate education: make sure the IEP is specifically tailored to your child
3.     Failure to implement the IEP: when the school fails to provide the supports and services outlined in the IEP
4.     Inappropriate Discipline: “zero tolerance”
 (Adapted From Emotions to Advocacy)
Rules for Negotiating

1.     Listen to what others have to say about your child. (Others may have interesting incites. But never let anyone tell you your child cannot do something-within reason of course.)

2.     Ask questions about problems, programs and solutions.

3.     Talk about your child through examples/storytelling…let them see your child as you see them. It is important that they see the child first, not the disability. This is a flaw in the system. Since they have to identify the child within one of the 13 categories, the idea that your child is a child, sometimes gets lost. It is also important because if they see the disability first, there might be a tendency to pigeonhole your child. The idea has to be, figure out what the child wants, then considering the disability involved, come up with a plan to get them there.

4.     Bring food…it makes the meeting pleasant and less fraught with negative overtones. Food has always been a great ice-breaker, from Biblical times to the present. If you treat everyone with respect you usually get it back in return.

5.     Be respectful. Don’t be condescending and dismissive of what others have to say.

6.     Stay calm. DO NOT CRY. DO NOT YELL. You will be dismissed as a nonserious person. If you cannot keep your emotions in check (yes not an easy thing to do) then if they want to deny your child services, they will psychologically link on to your negative actions as a reason to dismiss your claims about problems, issues and supports needed.

7.     Laugh. In truth, sometimes things that your child does, doesn’t do, or circumstances that they get themselves into are just plain funny. You would laugh if they were typical students so why not if they are nontypical? In fact laughing about anything in a meeting is not bad. Laughter is good medicine for breaking the tension and to add to the notion that everyone present is a human being. EX: once in elementary when the school psychologist and special education teacher were relating the outcomes of testing, they told me about some answers my son gave. They were not only par for the course about how he viewed reality, but they were very funny. We laughed about it. Not because we didn’t care about him, not because we were making fun of him, but because his answers were so typical of him. Son was taking the state English exam. On the third day he was supposed to write an essay. Instead he wrote on the top of the page to the State Examining Board: “if you want to know how well I read and write come to my school and watch me.” He walked over and handed this in. The teacher took one look. Told him he couldn’t hand that in and that he was to go back and write an essay. Well he harrumphed and then did what he was told. She kept the paper though to show me. That was just so typical of him. I still laugh ten year later when I think about it.

[Adapted, From Emotions to Advocacy]
Management Styles

The following are types of persons you will have to learn to deal with, within the village. Needlesstosay, many people think the “accommodating” and “avoiding” person should be you, the parent. While at the same time you may have to deal with a "competing" individual who thinks that they will take over and make all the decisions. In truth," collaborating" and "compromising" persons may be able to get some resolution on the table, but the truth is that also may not be where you need to go for your child. There are any number of situations where you will not want to compromise or collaborate simply because you know what you are asking for, for your child, is needed.

On the other hand, being able to compromise and collaborate is an essential part of keeping a positive spin on your child’s education. Remember that many of these people will have a day-to-day interaction with your child and the goal is to keep that all positive. It is essential that you also not dismiss out of hand therapies or accommodations offered. You may be concerned that it will not work or that they need more support than they are given. You are probably right.

However, what you also need to keep in mind is the fact that schools have bureaucracies, laws and rules to follow. It is important to note that for many schools, until there is established under guideline A, a benchmark of success/failure, they may be prohibited from actually giving your child the preferred guideline B. So it is important to stay abreast of all the new laws, regulations and requirements from both the federal government as well as your State Department of Education. Keep yourself informed about what is required of your district and how many hoops they have to jump through as well.

Unfortunately, the negative aspect of the IDEA is the reality that your child needs to be basically failing academically, behaviorally or emotionally, in order to get the help they need. It is also important to remember that simply because your child does not meet the “legal” level of support, does not mean they don’t need some form of help. It is essential at that moment to find out what alternative systems exist within the school district or even ask what outside supports they recommend.

Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person's own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative.

Avoiding: People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely.

Collaborating: People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important.

Competing: People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability.

Compromising: People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and the compromiser him- or herself also expects to relinquish something. (Manage conflict with another person)]

Win-Win Solution

Meanwhile, even though every child does not necessarily fall into an IDEA category, this does not mean that there is not a village out there for them. In fact, your child’s village will still include the teacher, possibly the school psychologist and at times even the special education teacher assigned to their grade. Also you may want to add a private tutor, a therapist or a social worker into the mix.

Most general education teachers want their students to succeed. They do not go into teaching for a child not to learn. So if there are issues it is important that you open up about them right away and discuss what can be done to help your child. Also an important point to remember is, don’t leave the teacher as the only one who is required to “teach” your child. Never mind that today’s curriculum, especially in the younger grades, require parental involvement, truth be told there are any number of parental responsibilities when it comes to interacting with the classroom and actually backing up what the teacher tells you your child may need.

In the meantime, designated or undesignated student, parents should keep these simple rules in mind:

First thing is to decide what is most important for your child: Goals. Why is your child having issues and what can be done about it? EX: If your child is having comprehension issues then you and the teacher need to figure out what can be done about that and how you two can work together to facilitate your child’s education. (This has nothing to do with the goals on the IEP. This is basically the first step in analysis of trying to figure out what is going on with your child and whether you need to step in and request special supports for them.)

Now that you have established goals the question is what have you got to Trade in order to make this happen? And yes, while if you have a designated child the school has to help them. However, it doesn’t hurt to show an interest in what is happening in the world around your child either. 

In most classes there is only one teacher and anywhere from 20-30 children. They could use an extra pair of hands. Offer to volunteer in the class. Show that you are concerned not only about your child, but also about the class or school as a whole. You want the school to go out of their way for your child, offer to go out of your way for the school. Showing interest in what others think is important can get you everywhere. (Note: I worked for years for the PTA. In fact the only PTA committee I refused to serve on was the special education committee. Not only did I want people to see beyond the boys’ disabilities, I wanted to show the school system and the teachers that I cared to make their entire jobs easier and provide support district wide. Interestingly enough, when I ran a writing support program for students in the elementary school, most of the parents involved had IDEA designated children. )

Again, unfortunately at times you need to come up with Alternative approaches.  It is important to have several different plans laid out about how you want to tackle any issue that presents itself. It is fine to try to work with the classroom teacher, however, if that doesn’t work out, can you go to an administrator? Can you go to the district director if it gets really bad in the classroom? What is your relationship with the school district personnel including psychologists, social worker and therapists? 

Who has the power in the relationships and how does it effect their interactions with your child? It is very interesting that understanding your districts political machinations can’t hurt. EX: In 5th grade when the special education teacher and general education teacher were fighting over control of my son, I went to the VP of the middle school and demanded he do something as my son was just acting out because of the absolute confusion he was dealing with. The VP tried to get me to understand the situation he was dealing with. I told him to tell his people to grow up. In the end the district ended up bringing in an outside consultant and switched the teachers around.

While you do not want to rock-the-boat with the people that are directly responsible for your child on a daily basis, you also want to ensure that your child is getting the appropriate support and respect that they deserve. You will have to decide if it is better to ride out the rainstorm, or cause the destruction of a hurricane. Consequences are important to keep in mind. Remember though, building after a hurricane is usually better, stronger and more formidable once everything is finally hashed out. 
In the end when dealing with issues, the question will become do you eventually need to find your child a good lawyer? Is this the only way to get your child the education that they deserve and are legally entitled to, or can you negotiate your child’s way into an acceptable situation?

This is a cost-benefit approach. What are your Expected outcomes for your child? What Possible solutions, based upon all the relevant information given is to be expected? How can you reach the outcomes that you want in the best way possible for your child? Also does it pay to hire a lawyer? Is it worth the angst, emotional upheaval and drawn out friction with the school district? What will you achieve? Is it better to take that money and provide the therapy privately or buy the needed software or laptop on your own? These are just some questions you need to ask yourself in this situation.

Remember that ultimately it would be good if everyone wins in any situation. Unfortunately that is not always possible especially  if you are dealing with a teacher or a district that refuses to compromise or negotiate a different solution for the issues your child faces. 

[Adapted from (Negotiating Skills)]

Common Parent-School Problems
1.     Problem: different views of the child
You may actually be presented with different versions of your child. Take to heart what other people see as obstacles or problems that your child may be having. Of course, it is always difficult hear negative things about our children, but remember that most professionals are not trying to be mean. What they are trying to do is simply relay information about what issues need to be addressed. The trick here is not to let them get away without fixing the issues. Don’t let them tell you that your child has problems, therefore they cannot learn, they cannot achieve and they cannot have dreams.

2.     Lack of information about your child
We may not realize it, but not everyone in the village shares or knows all the relevant information about your child. In order to avoid any conflicts based on a lack of facts, make sure that everyone has the same information and is on the same page when it comes to short and long term goals.

3.     Lack of Options
Try to get as much information as possible about programs, therapies and solutions to your child’s problems.  It is true that not all districts have every kind of program. Not all districts want to spend the money to send your child to an out-of-district expensive program. Remember, your child is only entitled to an appropriate education, not the best education ever devised by humankind. So it is at this juncture that you would want to come up with some ideas that not only benefits your child, but can benefit the district as well. EX: our sons were entitled to ESY, but there was no appropriate out of district summer program. But there is a town camp. A group of us parents, went to the district and asked if they would negotiate a program through the town camp so that our children would attend and would also get ESY. It was a win-win for the town and for our children. The district saved a fortune on placement fees, the town who had to let our children into the camp and accommodate them by law (ADA) now had the district providing the support, and our children received an appropriate summer program among the community in which they live. The ESY also consisted of all therapies, educational pull-outs and one-to-one paras for camp as well.

4.     Hidden Issues
Keep updated on your child’s progress. It is quite possible that as therapy, education, and  support services continues, additional problems will need to be addressed. Now districts can add services without a formal IEP meeting, as therapists and teachers can address newly formed problems as well. (Note: services can be added without a committee meeting, but services cannot be taken away without a meeting of the special eduction committee.) It is important that everything be documented and in writing for all future reference.

5.     Feeling devalued
There are times that we tend to feel devalued by “professionals.” Unfortunately, this is not an unusual occurrence. Here is the rub: if your child is getting what they need, this is not about you. Suck it up. Let someone else think they are the hero for a moment. If on the other hand, this negative attitude goes hand-in-hand with your child not receiving the services and the quality education they deserve, then …see above for negotiating, management tactics. The truth is that we need to remember, that while we are the real lead in our child’s special need village, that village is not about us.

6.     Communication issues: being lied to, no follow-up, intention vagueness, intimidation
Here is the real problem in management and negotiating. The only way to get passed this issue is to require everything in writing and document, document, document. Take your own notes at all meetings, see if you can tape-record the proceedings (not necessarily  a legal right so be careful, don’t do it without permission). Make certain that if a program or support is offered have it spelled out for you exactly what the procedure for receiving that support means and how the district will go about procuring it. Stay on top of the people responsible for the service. Be a nag if you need to be, but be a nice nag. Don’t be intimidated. If you or your child is threatened report it to higher ups, or to your counsel. 

EX: we wanted to put into our oldest sons IEP that he will need support for after school activities in the high school. I mentioned this to the head special education teacher at the high school. Instead of saying “sure, of course.” He threatened my son that he wouldn’t allow any support for him and that he wouldn’t do any after school activities for special needs students at all.  I walked out and went straight to the guidance department and reported it to the head guidance counselor.  I told him the issue and then said, “This man is  now your problem. I expect something done about him.” In the end, they forcibly retired that head teacher that year. Also in college, we had one professor who also threatened our oldest son for asking questions. It turned out he had done the same to numerous students. There were students who had even put in formal complaints against this professor. The upshot was that the college asked him to leave mid-semester. One thing you need to keep in mind is that if your child is being threatened, if you are being intimidated, if your child is not receiving their appropriate educational services, then chances are there are other students in the same boat. Never be afraid to bring it to the attention of the persons with the power.

Now in the end, extreme conflict does not have to occur.  You never have to get to the point that you have to hire a lawyer. This is not necessarily due to the management and negotiating skills discussed here, but quite frankly, most teachers, therapists, psychologists, social workers, are there to help and not to hurt your child. However, if in the end all the tools discussed above come to naught, it is time to remember that noone has a right to let their ego stand in the way of your child's success. When all else fails, it is time to hire that special education lawyer.

[Information in this post adapted from the following webpages, articles and books.]
August Turak, “The 3 Secrets to Conflict Resolution,” Forbes, 9/10/2012

Jason Fried, “Managing Conflict,” Inc., July 2010


From Emotions to Advocacy, Pete Wright and Pam Wright, Harbor House Law Press, 2011

From Parent to Partners, Janis Keyser, Red Leaf Press, 2006

Partnering for Children with Disabilities, Janice M. Fialka, Arlene K. Feldman, Karen C. Mikus, Corwin Press, Inc, 2012

Relationship-Centered Practices in Early Childhood, Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., Gail L. Ensher, David A Clark, 2011

The School-Home Connection, Rosemary A. Oleander, Jacquelyn Elias, Rosemary D. Mastroleo, Corwin Press, Inc, 2010
Also it is important to click on the Book Review page of this blog for additional books that are recommended as a place to begin your journey.

Check Practicality Page on Raising Asperger’s Kids
Check Advocacy Page on Raising Asperger’s Kids