In the course of seeking help for your child with learning or attention problems, have you ever experienced conflict with someone at your child’s school, in the community, or even in your own family? If so, rest assured you are not alone. The complexity, emotions, and energy involved in parenting a child with special needs can take a toll on you and your relationships with others. It’s not uncommon for misunderstandings and conflict to occur.

The Collective Wisdom of Parents Advocating for Their Kids

We recently surveyed parents of children with learning and attention problems about conflict in their lives. More than a thousand parents responded to our survey, answering our questions and providing tried-and-true tips. That puts a lot of power – a strong, collective voice – behind their tips and advice, presented in this article.

We asked: Have you had interpersonal conflict with any of the following people when seeking help for your child with learning and/or attention problems?

Parents answered:

Family member (spouse, your child, another family member) 53%
Teacher (general, special education, resource specialist) 74%
School administrator (principal, school psychologist, etc.) 60%
School district administration (superintendent, special education director, IEP team) 36%
Doctors or other health care provider (or their staff) 18%
Others. Examples survey respondents shared include: parents of other children (e.g., “those with normal children”), coaches and scout leaders, friends, tutors, government agency personnel, psychiatrist/therapist/counselor, and members/leaders of a religious community 13%

How Parents Rate Their Own Conflict Resolution Skills

When we asked parents to rate their own conflict resolution skills, interestingly, their responses indicate that even those who are generally confident in their skills find that their ability to handle conflict varies in different situations – and with different people. Here is what they told us:

In general, do you feel you are successful in resolving interpersonal conflict?
Yes 72%
No 15%
I don’t know 13%
How do you rate your skills in handling conflict?
Excellent 19%
Could use improvement 38%
Poor 2%
It depends on the situation/people involved. 41%

Savvy Strategies for Managing Conflict

As we analyzed the thousands of tips submitted by parents, several common themes emerged. You’re probably familiar with much of the advice that follows – and you may be using some of the strategies described. Yet, if you’re like most of us, you may 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.

Strategies for Managing Interpersonal Conflict

Skills and Strategies to Help You Prevent Conflict

We asked: What is your best tip for advocating for your child in a way that encourages cooperation from others?

Parents answered:

    • Don’t be afraid to take initiative. “Be proactive, not reactive.” –

Colleen, Washington

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).

Always explain the situation before asking for help.” – Betty, New York

“Try to predict possible areas of conflict, and have ideas on how to address them.” – Teresa, Maryland

“Have as much up-to-date data (testing, letters from professionals, teachers’ statements) on your child in hand before going into the meeting.” – Jan, California

Know what you and your child are (and are not) legally entitled to.

Know the laws of IDEA, and utilize them rather than throwing them at the school. They are a tool, not a weapon.” – Saundra, Pennsylvania

Practice active listening.

Use “active listening and paraphrasing to facilitate understanding.” – Stacey, Kansas

“Be an informed, attentive, and consistent role model…Listening and weighing all sides of the issues in question.” – Dianne (state unknown)

Acknowledge whatever support the other person (e.g., teacher) does give your child.

Be respectful and empathetic; try to understand their perspective and challenges.

“Don’t appear as if you know more about what is happening to your child in situations where you aren’t there all the time.” – Sheri, Texas

“Let [teachers] realize that you understand the struggles involved with teaching [because] you know how tough it is [to help your child] at home. Then think about helping your child and 25 to 30 more students. Ask the teacher how you can support her.” – Anne, Michigan

“I let them know I don’t expect them to ‘fix’ our child. I expect them to meet him where he is and build from there.” – Lori, Pennsylvania

“Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and fears. Listen and ask questions instead of being defensive.” – Debbie, Florida

Be a team player; offer to do your part to help your child at home, and follow through.

Act as a partner in, not a consumer of, your child’s education.” – Kirsten, Oregon

“Ask, ‘What can we do together to help my child succeed?'” – Mira, Florida

“Try to generate enthusiasm in the team … Make the child’s success their success.” – Suzanne, Connecticut

“Doing our share of the work [to help our child in school] … We follow our part of the IEP plan, make sure homework is completed, and attend IEP meetings.” – Karen, Oklahoma

“Always bring the conversation back to the child’s needs.” – M.C., Massachusetts

Encourage give-and-take.

When you disagree, “find a piece you do agree with, or a piece you can positively acknowledge in some way.” – Teresa, Maryland

Make the relationship about more than just your child’s problems. Get to know the parties involved in other types of situations (e.g., by volunteering at the school).

I build up a reserve of ‘good will capital’ with my child’s teachers/school before I ever draw from it.” – Barbara, Texas

Be open to other ideas and alternatives.

“Advocating for special needs children requires trial and error, time…and a willingness to learn.” – Judith, Georgia

“Gather all information before reaching any conclusions. Take a few minutes to formulate an answer.” – Connie, Minnesota

Be well-informed and educate others (about your child and his disability) as appropriate.

Accept that most people are not as aware of your child’s needs as you are.” – Christina (state unknown)

“Remember … general education teachers are not trained or qualified to fully help students with disabilities.” – Karen (state unknown)

“In general, people (e.g., teachers, neighbors, friends, parents of children without LD) understand little about LD.” – Marta, Michigan

“If you haven’t lived through having AD/HD, it’s very hard to understand it.” – Anne, Michigan

Keep your emotions in check; don’t make it personal.

When upset, “I try to slow down my ‘short fuse’ and rethink the situation.” – Cricket, California

“Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” – Michelle, Washington

Document and record everything. (This can help resolve misunderstandings in the future.)

Teach your child to advocate for himself.

When all else fails, hire a professional (advocate, attorney, etc.) to help you represent your child and his needs. At the very least, take someone (e.g., your spouse or a close friend) with you to meetings.

Resolving Conflict and Restoring Relationships

We asked: What tip have you used to restore your relationship with a teacher, school administrator, or other school personnel after conflict has occurred?

Parents answered:

Allow for a cooling-off period.

Apologize and admit to your role in the conflict.

The best thing to do is apologize. If there is nothing to apologize for, then apologize for a breakdown in communication.” – Stacey, California

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

“Look at things from the school’s perspective of having limited funds and personnel with competing needs.” – Kristie, Georgia

Wipe the slate clean, and then focus on facts, not feelings.

Remember that you don’t have to ‘like’ someone to have a working relationship with him.” – Cheryl, California

“[Ask for] a meeting to clear the air and review without emotion.” – Laura, Colorado

Communicate in person, and be sure to listen.

Listen to their views and reasons for the conflict.” – Sumandeep (state unknown)

Acknowledge that all parties want what is best for your child.

Appeal to the goal of getting the best education for the child.” – David, Massachusetts

Restate your position calmly and clearly.

“Reframe the problem, and … ask to start over fresh.” – Doug (state unknown)

Agree to disagree.

Agree to disagree about whatever caused the conflict, and then … continue working for the best interest of the child.” – Jane, Massachusetts

Enlist a mediator or advocate.

“A lawyer or advocate can help write a proper IEP and establish a level playing field.” – Tona, Virginia

“Use a mediator to help with the healing.” – Katherine (state unknown)

Building a Support System of People and Resources

We asked: To whom do you turn for support when you encounter an interpersonal conflict regarding your child’s needs?

Parents answered:

Family member (with spouses getting special mention) 59%
Friend 41%
Other parents of kids with special needs 38%
Psychologist/therapist 36%
Other, including those listed below:

  • Teachers/educators, including “past teachers who have been good to us” and “teachers who have known [us] and cared for years” – also resource teacher, special education teacher, reading specialist
  • School counselor/school psychologist
  • Principal
  • Pediatrician/doctor
  • Attorney and advocate
  • Online parent support groups/forums
  • Organizations such as Parent Information Centrers (local chapter), CHADD, LDA
  • Books and websites, for information, (e.g., state education websites, LD and AD/HD websites)
  • Faith, prayer, church, pastor/minister

Learn from Your Experiences

We asked: What is the one thing you know about resolving conflicts that you wish you had known when you first started advocating for your child?

Parents answered:

Trust my instincts, listen to my “gut” – and know I will always be my child’s best advocate.

It’s important to be well-versed in education law, my legal rights, and my child’s disability.

Don’t be intimidated by authority figures.

Teamwork and two-way communication are critical.

Document everything.

Not all teachers are knowledgeable about LD and AD/HD; many have not had the training. (Accept the reality that some people will never understand.)

It’s valuable to seek help from support systems and resources and to tap into them early.

Be prepared for a long, hard journey. Develop patience and persistence.

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