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Special Education Articles: Traumatic Brain Injury Articles: Communication vs. Conflicts: Helping Parents and Educators

Communication vs. Conflicts: Helping Parents and Educators

By Marilyn Lash, MSW

Too often, communication between educators and parents becomes an adversarial relationship rather than a partnership. Parents often complain that they are viewed as “...overprotective, demanding, unreasonable and worst of all, unrealistic about their child’s future...” when advocating for special educational services. Adding to their frustration is the frequent difficulty of even reaching educators who are in class much of the day and not readily available by phone or e-mail.

On the other hand, teachers, especially those in special education, have voiced their frustrations with the demands of extensive paperwork, expectations of parents that exceed available resources, and the pressures of too many students and inadequate staffing. The Council for Exceptional Children reports that many teachers feel overburdened, devalued, and undercompensated. Long meetings, extensive time required for documentation and a complex bureaucratic process are among the major reasons that special educators leave the field.

Set for conflict
It is easy to see how the stage is set for conflict. The above concerns have been expressed by parents and educators of children with various disabilities. They are not unique to students with brain injuries. But brain injury brings a constellation of special factors that makes communication between educators and parents especially challenging, and often difficult.

Unlike the family whose child is diagnosed with a disability or chronic condition shortly after birth or during early childhood, most parents of students with brain injuries enter the “special ed system” midstream when ongoing “normal” development is interrupted. Already emotionally traumatized by their child’s brain injury and exhausted by the hospital vigil, families entering negotiations with the school system are frequently ill prepared. They can be readily overwhelmed by the new terminology and unfamiliar process of determining eligibility, negotiating IEPs and communicating with a multi-disciplinary educational team. For those families of recently injured teenagers, the pressure of passing time as graduation nears heightens concerns about the student’s readiness and the school’s response.

The brain injury of a child can temporarily destabilize even the most intact family and permanently change or even destroy others. Interactions with school staff can be supportive or be another source of stress. It is helpful for educators to know about a family’s...

  • Previous experience with crisis
  • Family dynamics and major issues
  • Coping style
  • Resources (information, education, money, time, supports)
  • Knowledge of the special education system
  • Knowledge of brain injury and its impact on education
  • Pending medical issues and treatment

Sitting down and talking with parents, formally in a meeting or informally by phone, is the beginning of understanding what this child has gone through, helping families cope, and preparing them for the special education process. While these families may have become quite knowledgeable about brain injury during their child’s hospital or rehabilitation stay, special education is literally like entering a foreign land with its own language, procedures, and personnel.

Learning Curves
Parents experiment with communication methods and advocacy techniques as they try to mobilize resources within the school system and by insurers. Initially, many parents assume that the school will know what is needed and move quickly to put together a plan and program. However, educators inexperienced in brain injury may be unsure where and how to begin. The expertise of medical and rehabilitation staff becomes less available to educators and families just as the student returns to school. Parents’ reactions to obstacles in the process vary; some withdraw, others get angry and some even threaten lawsuits. When gentle advocacy is ignored or doesn’t produce results fast enough, many parents feel they have no alternative but to become more assertive.

Unlike many conditions that affect learning, yearly reevaluation planning meetings and periodic testing are not sufficient nor effective for students with brain injuries. These students need continuous evaluation and educational program modification in the first 1 to 2 years post injury.

Tips for educators to help parents with the IEP...

  • Develop a strategy for helping parents learn about the IEP process.
  • Encourage parents to share what they have learned about behavior management and compensatory strategies with teachers and administration.
  • Include disciplinary accommodations that make sense to the student with a brain injury.
  • Think beyond customary IEP accommodations; be creative to find solutions that really fit the student’s needs.
  • Carefully consider when it’s appropriate for the student to participate in the IEP meeting.
  • Plan for all transitions ahead of time, even little ones.
  • Make sure that parents know that you have heard their questions and requests.
  • Work out a plan for regular communication with parents.

Responding to anger
When discussions get heated, emotions tend to run high. Fatigue, frustration, stress, impatience and most of all, concern about their child’s education and future, contribute to parents’ anger. Educators and team members are often the target of this anger. Sometimes it is with good reason, but oftentimes staff are captives of a bureaucratic system that is designed to be comprehensive, but is not always readily responsive or efficient. In comparison to the initial rapid response of health care providers after a child’s injury, the school system seems slow and often cumbersome to parents.

When conflicts arise, it is important for educators not to be drawn into the conflict but to emotionally step back, look at what is going on, diffuse the anger and work from there. Otherwise, the conflict is likely to continue to escalate and it is the student who loses.

Tips for educators on communicating when a parent is angry...

  • Stop and consciously relax your body (a deep breath usually helps).
  • Give them your FULL attention.
  • Listen…really listen…to what they are saying.
  • Validate their feelings…there are no right or wrong feelings.
  • Avoid the temptation to defend yourself, others or the school.
  • Avoid blaming.
  • When they finish, tell them what you believe you heard the problem to be.
  • When you have agreement on the nature of the problem, begin to talk about a solution.
  • Avoid labeling the parent.
  • Decompress and vent, but not with other school personnel; avoid biasing how others perceive the family and student.

Educating parents about special education
While teachers and others members of the educational team change frequently as the student progresses and matures, parents remain the constant link for information and communication throughout their child’s education. Educators can help parents become more skilled and informed by providing them with information that will help them become effective advocates and negotiators. This is a challenge faced by all parents of students with special needs. Fortunately, the Web is a rich place to gather this information, learn from other parents, and find resources. The following sites are recommended.

Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)
This site is especially helpful for parents to understand when and how to request mediation when agreement can not be reached with the educational team. A listing of professionals by state helps families located resources.

Family and Advocates Partnership for Education
Lots of information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is provided with material written just for families. Has extensive information to help families understand how the special education process works and how to be effective advocates.

Family Village: A Global Community of Disability-Related Resources
This site is a general resource for families of persons with disabilities and includes informational resources on specific diagnoses, communication connections, adaptive products and technology, adaptive recreational activities, education, worship, health issues, disability-related media and literature, and lots more.

National Information Center on Children and Youth with Disabilities
This national information and referral center provides information on disabilities and disability-related issues for families, educators, and other professionals with a special focus on children and youth (birth to age 22). Includes an excellent Fact Sheet on Traumatic Brain Injury. Includes lots of publications written for families in understandable terms about important laws and regulation on special education.

ParentPals.com Parents and Special Education
Designed to help parents find resources and information, this site has everything form sections on special education to continuing education, family support, weekly tips, games, book resources, and news and views for parents and professionals.

Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers
Has information on Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) in each state provide training and information to parents of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and to professionals who work with children.

Rock, Marcia. Parents as Equal Partners: Balancing the scales in IEP development. Teaching Exceptional Children (32)6, July/Aug 2000.

Robinson, Linda. Talking with Parents When a Student has Brain Injury. Wake Forest, NC: Lash and Associates Publishing/Training, Inc., 1999.

You can request a free copy of “Talking with Parents When a Student has a Brain Injury” by visiting the web at www.lapublishing.com or by calling Lash and Associates Publishing/Training at 919-562-0015 for a free catalog.

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