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Fighting the good fight

Parents' top tips for managing conflict as you advocate for your child.

By GreatSchools Staff

It’s inevitable: If you’re a strong advocate for your child, you’re eventually going to clash with someone. It might be a teacher, the principal, or even your spouse.

The complexity, emotions, and energy involved in parenting a child with special needs can take a toll on you and your relationships with others. So it’s natural that misunderstandings and conflict will happen at some point.

We surveyed parents of children with learning and attention problems about conflict in their lives. More than a thousand responded to our survey, providing tried-and-true tips for dealing with discord.

You're probably familiar with some of the advice that follows — and you may be using many of the strategies described. Yet, if you're like most of us, you will benefit from frequent reminders to help you stay on track. And you might pick up some new ideas or insights to add to your relationship repertoire.

Savvy strategies to prevent conflict

The best way to handle conflict is to avoid it in the first place. We asked parents for tips for advocating in a way that encourages cooperation from their child's team, rather than consternation.

Parents answered:

  • Be prepared and be clear about your objective. Have evidence to illustrate why your child needs help. Give specific, concrete examples (of both the difficulty and the solutions).
  • Have as much up-to-date data (testing, letters from professionals, teachers' statements) on your child before going into the meeting.
  • Know what you and your child are (and are not) legally entitled to. Know the laws of IDEA and use them.
  • Acknowledge whatever support the other person (such as the teacher) does give your child. Be respectful and empathetic; try to understand their perspective and challenges. "Let [teachers] realize that you understand the struggles involved with teaching, because you know how tough it is [to help your child] at home. Ask the teacher how you can support her," said Anne from Michigan.
  •  Be a team player; offer to do your part to help your child at home, and follow through. "Doing our share of the work … we follow our part of the IEP plan, make sure homework is completed, and attend IEP meetings," said Karen from Oklahoma.
  • When you disagree, "find a piece you do agree with, or a piece you can positively acknowledge in some way," advised Teresa from Maryland.
  •  Make the relationship about more than just your child's problems. Get to know the parties involved in other types of situations (for example, by volunteering at the school).
  •  Keep your emotions in check; don't make it personal. When upset, "I try to slow down my 'short fuse' and rethink the situation," said Cricket, a mother from California.
  • When all else fails, hire a professional (an advocate, attorney, etc.) to help you represent your child and his or her needs. At the very least, take someone (such as your spouse or a friend) with you to meetings.

Comments from readers

"this was very helpful to me my son has pdd-nos and several other diagnoses and its been a struggle this year at school. "
"My PDD-NOS son is 14 and in the 9th grade and I have been advocating for him since Kindergarten. Along the way I've learned the following: always know the law/district & school guidelines & code of conduct; administrators typically say 'no' first to accommodation requests, so as a parent & advocate you must know the legal rights of your child; always trust your instincts; never be afraid to walk away from a school meeting if your child is not receiving everything necessary; ARD Cte. decisions (verbal or written) can supercede and are more binding than district policies. Lastly, I believe that teachers and administrators generally have good intent when it comes to my son, but they need to manage the good for all of the students. I only care about 1 student and I know my singlemindedness makes me a force to be reckoned with. "
"It's been a long hard road for me and my child. I think that the hardest part was (even though you've already heard the hard truth from other parents) accepting the fact that these people are ALL programed to say NO! to everything that will help your child because it's all about $$$$. Here is a little secret too they don't want you to get a diagnoses cause that means they actually have to do something for your kid."
"be careful how do you advocate. some administration staff will take their frustration on defenseless kid."
"On my journey to advocating for my daughter which finally lead me to finding out my daughter's true diagnosis I have learnt so much. I have even become political and have tried to speak up about learning disabilities. This is of course in UK. First of all I would suggest you sign up for newsletters on websites for disabilities. This keeps you up to date with news of what is happening in the disabled world. Keep records of everything and put things in writing. Keep a diary of visits of your concerns to your doctors and anything that was discussed. Keep a record of what was discussed with teacher because in a month you will forget. You have to be persistent and keep following up each appointment not by phone but in writing. Take photocopies of everything and make a file. Keep everything factual rather then emotional. Find out all about your child’s condition. What the doctors tell you is not always enough. In Uk we have Carers forums and local Carers support groups. However very often you are alone and it is up to you to fight for your child’s rights. Make notes at the meetings as sometimes I was quoted on things I later forgot. Read reports very carefully and question anything you disagree with."
"This is good advice as far as it goes, however, everybody has to play nice in the sand box. We gave the school a neuropsychological report stating that our apraxic son was of average intelligence and the SPED director continued to maintain that he was mentally retarded. The one thing I wish I had known going in is that you can't trust the schools to give your disabled child what he needs. I trusted the school for several years and regret every day that I did. In may respects they just want to push disabled kids through. It is easy to say 'keep your emotions in check' until you see your child's life going down the drain. If an 18 wheeler is getting ready to run your child over do you keep your emotions in check?"
"Fantastic objective, useful advice .Hope lots of parents will read it"