An IEP meeting isn't about you; it's about the student and ensuring that he or she receives the best education available."

Strategies for IEP Dispute and Conflict Resolution

The parent-teacher relationship is a delicate one and conflicts can arise. Hopefully, you will never have a dispute, but if you do, understanding the special education conflict-resolution process and following some basic principles can help you be heard and achieve your goals.

The Special Education Conflict-Resolution Process

Before you begin, remember: The best offense is a good defense.

You will hear this again and again, but the best way to resolve conflict is to avoid it in the first place by communicating regularly. It is much easier to voice concerns to those involved in your child’s education if you already have a history of open communication and have previously established rapport.

Let’s say that you have been communicating regularly, and you still don’t agree with the other person. It may be time to begin a formal conflict resolution process.

Step One: Request an Informal Parent-Teacher Conference

If you have a concern that you feel is not being properly addressed, meeting face to face is a good way to work on a solution. People are usually much more willing to work collaboratively when they have to look one another in the eye. Face-to-face meetings also eliminate the risk of miscommunication, which is more likely to happen over email or the phone. Come to the meeting with clear intentions and goals. Be willing to listen to one another, and try earnestly to solve the conflict there.

If you are still dissatisfied with the situation, or you feel that your concerns are still not being addressed, it may be time to request a formal IEP meeting.

Step Two: Request a Formal IEP Meeting

Since the IEP meeting will be more formal and requires a number of attendees, it is important to have an action plan ready to go. An outline listing your concerns and goals for the meeting can useful in helping you organize your thoughts. Also, be clear about ways in which you can compromise. Be able to express what you need, what you want and what are you willing to give. In addition, it may be beneficial to ask that a representative from the district special education administration team be present.

If you would like to see evidence that the IEP team is providing services and/or working on goals, let the appropriate team members know ahead of time so that they can bring work samples, time logs or other pertinent information.

Step Three: Request a Formal Mediation

If you have unsuccessfully tried to work with the teacher and the IEP team, it may be time to request a formalized process through your State Department of Education, Exceptional Children Division. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004 required all states to provide three dispute resolution processes to solve disputes and conflicts.

The three options are:

  1. Undergo Mediation: In this process the parent and the district have to agree to attempt mediation or it will not be scheduled. Professionally trained mediators, either contractors of state employees, will meet with both parties, district and parent, and hear their sides of the story. They will then try to find a happy medium that both parties can agree to. When they agree, the action is binding.
  2. File a Formal Complaint: This is the most common dispute resolution option. Dispute resolution specialists in the state Department of Education will help the parent (or another concerned citizen) complete the process. In most states it can be done via mail, phone or online. The parent or concerned citizen simply fills out a form that describes how they believe the child’s rights are being denied. The process begins and typically within 60 days a decision is rendered by the office of dispute resolution. The mandates are binding.
  3. Request a Due Process Hearing: While this is not a trial, it looks very much like most legal proceedings. The case is presented with the district using legal counsel. Parents can attempt this process without an attorney, but would be at a disadvantage because a school district never goes into a due process hearing without legal representation, which is usually a highly trained educational attorney. An Adjudicated Law Judge (a lawyer with special education law training appointed as temporary ALJ for this case) hears the case and is solely responsible for the decision. This option should be a last resort, as it has a similar effect as any other court case: feelings may be hurt and relationships strained. However, when a child’s right to a Free, Appropriate Public Education is being denied, it may be worth it.

General Conflict-Resolution Guidelines for Parent-Teacher and IEP Meetings

No matter where you are in the dispute process, it is always helpful to follow some basic conflict-resolution principles.

1. Be respectful. Come to the meeting on time, smile and be ready to work together. Do not speak over one another or use disrespectful language. Stay on topic, and never, EVER personally attack any member of the team or threaten him or her in any way. If you feel yourself getting upset, take a coffee or restroom break.

2. Be empathetic. Does this sound the same as the first principle? It isn’t. Having respect for someone and having empathy for him or her are two very different things. Being empathetic means that you try to understand the other team member’s position by imagining what he or she is feeling. If you are a parent, try to imagine how overwhelmed your student’s teacher is, and just how many responsibilities he or she juggles on a day-to-day basis. If you are a teacher, try to remember that most parents are unable to discuss their children objectively, so it is completely understandable that they are emotional during IEP meetings.

3. Be prepared. Come to the meeting with an action plan that lists your goals for the meeting, as well as your position on contentious issues. If you bring supporting documents such as test results, work samples or psychological reports, have them organized in a binder and labeled so that they are easy to find. If at all possible, provide copies to each team member so that they can review the documents themselves.

4. Be willing to admit past mistakes. Be prepared to show how you will fix the damage caused by these mistakes, and how you plan to avoid making them in the future. Be honest with your team members, and be willing to accept the consequences for any errors you’ve made. Never try to cover up a mistake or blame someone else.

5. Always treat each other like experts. Remember that every team member is an expert and has valuable input. This is especially important for teachers and parents to keep in mind about one another. The teacher is an expert in education, but the parent is an expert on his or her child.

6. Accept that there will be differences of opinion. You don’t have to agree on every item in the IEP. Instead, try to work together to ensure the same results, even if the plan to get there is somewhat different than what you expected. If you are a parent, you should only refuse to sign the IEP if you feel there is an unacceptable lack of services offered, and that the absence of these services will directly harm your child.

7. Remember that the meeting isn’t about you. The purpose of an IEP meeting is not to win an argument or one-up another person. In fact, the meeting isn’t about you at all; it’s about the student and ensuring that he or she receives the best education available. As long as the team members all keep the meeting student-oriented, it should not matter who has the best or worst idea.

8. Know your student’s needs, but be willing to compromise. Compromise is at the heart of conflict resolution. You should not just be willing to compromise; you should come to the meeting expecting to compromise. That said, you should never make a compromise that you feel will hurt the student. Take some time before the IEP meeting to really think about the needs of the student. Is there a service that he or she can do without, or can he or she make do with less? Being willing to compromise on these items helps your case when you need to insist upon a service that is an absolute necessity.

9. Know when to table the discussion. There is no set time limit for IEP meetings, but if the meeting has dragged on for hours and a compromise is nowhere in sight, it may be time to take a break. It is perfectly acceptable to say something like, “I feel like we have made good progress today, but maybe it’s time to take a step back and review our feelings about this topic. Let’s plan to reconvene in one week.” You should also table the discussion if a member of the team becomes angry or disrespectful, or feels attacked.

10. Bring snacks. Seriously. Start the meeting off right by bringing doughnuts or candy. It’s hard to feel animosity toward the person who brought you a bear claw.

Beth Katz

About Author: Beth Katz

Beth Wenbourne Katz is an education consultant and freelance writer. She holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education from San Diego State University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from California State University, Chico. Beth has taught in the California public schools, working primarily with students with learning and behavioral needs. Beth is an outspoken advocate for education equality and for the rights of minority populations. She lives in Sacramento with her husband, Andy, a pediatrician, and her beautiful daughter, Juliet. Follow Beth on Google+.