Preventing SpEd Jargon from Impeding Agreements

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Source: Bob Cotter via Flickr

All too often in special education, those of us who have been working at it professionally for more than a few years have increased our vocabularies to include terms of art, acronyms, and legally significant phrases that mean a whole lot to us, but not a whole lot to professionals new to the field and parents. I find that a lot of my job as a lay advocate is translating SpEd-Speak into plain language.

It was actually during a case I’ve been working with a family that moved to the U.S. from Thailand that brought this point home for me. I found that by simplifying my language for the benefit of the translator, who knew nothing of special education, I made it lot easier for everyone else in the room to follow the logic of what I was saying. The meeting was also attended by the school district’s lawyer, who was actually pretty awesome once she realized what was going on. It was one of the most amicable and constructive IEP meetings in which I’ve participated in a while.

What I found worked best was to use simple language to communicate with most of the IEP team members, then sum up my point to counsel for the district in language she would appreciate in light of the regulations and the applicable science, if needed. In the end, what we figured out was that our 9th grade client qualified for special education as having autistic-like behaviors pursuant to 5 CCR Sec. 3030(g) and that his speech-language impairments for which he had originally been found eligible were features of his autistic-like tendencies as well as bilingualism coming from an Eastern tonal language to English.

I already knew from experience that throwing a bunch of jargon at people during a meeting where you’re trying to make things happen is not particularly constructive if any of them are unfamiliar with the lingo. Having non-English speaking clients only made the point more vivid. But, then I ran across an article in an old issue of Entrepreneur magazine that drove the point home even more, and, combined with my prior knowledge, inspired this blog post and corresponding podcast.

Click to Tweet: Throwing jargon around in IEP meetings is not constructive if the other people are unfamiliar with the lingo. #kps4parents

In an effort to inform my decisions and recommendations to our board of directors here at KPS4Parents, I subscribed to several magazines that are written for audiences other than special education lay advocates and leaders of non-profit organizations, but which still have content that can be applied to our organization. Among these magazines are those that cater to business, industry, and entrepreneurship. They are full of awesome ideas for using social media, apps, and other tools for keeping our organization, well, organized. But, once in a while, I run across something else helpful that isn’t technology-related but can still be generalized to our field. Such is the case with the recent article I found in the September 2011 issue of Entrepreneur.

First, I have to clarify that I only now saw this article because I don’t actually have time to read magazines during the school year and they pile up until I can get to them. (At least now Fast Company is piling up on my smartphone instead of my bedroom, which eliminated a significant tripping hazard.) I’ve had to since cancel my subscriptions for several other magazines until I can get caught up on the back issues, so my summer reading is already well-planned for me.

In spite of its age, the advice given in the article I found is timeless. Titled, “Big think, small movement,” the article focuses on eliminating buzzwords from business communications and focusing on the real points. The essence of this article is about rendering conversation down to the points we’re trying to make – keeping the language as true to our communicative intent as possible – without encumbering it with unnecessary language, which is entirely relevant to the IEP process.

In business and industry, it’s buzzwords like “paradigm shift,” “synergistic,” and “out of the box” that detract from our actual communicative intent. In education, it’s clinical and/or legal terms like “perseveration,” “MLU,” and “IEE at public expense” that lose general education teachers, guidance counselors, most principals, and parents during the course of an IEP meeting.

What initially caught my eye was the following statement: “Once you understand that the reason we all have careers is because other people’s problems need fixing, the next step is to get to fixing those problems.” This language applies to every professional sitting in any IEP meeting, anywhere.

The article’s author, Erika Napoletano of Redhead Writing, then goes on to list four key qualities to consider when attempting to communicate with people so that you’re focused on actual problem-solving and not sounding like you’re trying to impress people with all the big words you know (which I’ve reframed to fit the context of an IEP meeting):

  • Simplicity – If you want people to buy in to what you’re saying, don’t make them learn a new language. When people feel like they aren’t smart enough to understand your proposed solution, they feel they’re not smart enough to work with you to make it happen. In business, this means lost sales; in special education, it can mean lost educational benefit to the student. Many times, parents agree to things they don’t understand – meaning their consent was not informed – because they don’t want to look dumb at the IEP meeting. Or, they refuse to agree to things that are appropriate because they don’t understand that to which they are being asked to agree. I’ve had parents hire us to listen to the audio recordings of their IEP meetings and review the documents just so they understand what was discussed and offered to their children; some think the jargon is used on purpose by school personnel to deliberately keep the parents in the dark, which does nothing to build a healthy collaborative relationship between parents and educators.
  • Brilliance – The point here is not that whoever is proposing a solution get all the credit for having a brilliant idea. The point here is to help the people you’re trying to convince look brilliant to the people to whom they answer. For the professionals in the room, this is often the superintendent, school board, or someone else higher up in the food chain who signs the checks. For parents, the people they ultimately answer to are their children, who also have to buy into whatever the IEP team develops. Either way, facilitating a way for IEP team members to be recognized for the brilliance of using smart solutions (regardless of who proposed them) goes a long way in getting their buy-in.
  • Time – As Napoletano states, wasting people’s time is “the mother of all sins” in a meeting. I can’t agree with this more. As much as some school personnel may want to crank out IEP meetings every 20 to 30 minutes during the last week of the school year, this does not generally afford parents the opportunity to meaningfully participate. In fact, it’s a waste of the parents’ time to make them take off from work and drive to the school just to get them to rubber stamp an IEP document that they didn’t really participate in crafting or even understand. It’s equally a waste of time for IEP meetings to run for hours without any real decisions being made. The more SpEd-Speak that goes on in these meetings, the less parents and others not familiar with the terms get out of them. It becomes a waste of time because they cannot equally participate in the discussions and/or delays are introduced when those who know the jargon have to keep going back and explain in plain language what they actually meant. Wasting parents’ time and making it so that they can’t keep taking off from work to resolve special ed issues is seen by many parents and their representatives as a deliberate tactic on the part of the public school system to undermine meaningful parent participation in the IEP process. Meaningful parent participation is an absolute right that parents have under the IDEA and denying it opens up a whole can of litigation worms for public education agencies.
  • Usability – While Napoletano argues that asking business people to change their day-to-day routines to accommodate a new solution is a bad idea, in special education where each student’s program must be individualized, the idea of allowing teachers to fall into a rut and not break them out of it is unacceptable, so my application of this piece of advice is adapted for the special education context. Those of us trained in best practices and who are capable of rendering the peer-reviewed research into actual tools that can be used in the classroom may find the resources we rely on to be  usable, but most of our colleagues, and certainly most parents, wouldn’t even know where to begin. This is where those of us blessed with these gifts have a responsibility to aid our fellow brothers and sisters by simplifying what we’ve come to know and presenting our knowledge in a form that can be used by everyone else. While it’s true that parents should be able to trust the public education system to make sense of the peer-reviewed research to develop appropriate teaching methodologies and keep accurate data, the reality is that these skills are generally not taught to educators when they go for their degrees and credentials (even if they go on to master’s level programs). That means that the people who do understand these things have to render them down into simple how-to instructions for educators to use in the classroom rather than get upset when they don’t already know them. As a taxpayer, I find it frustrating that so many people in public education lack adequate training in how to understand the research and apply best practices in instruction, but sitting and complaining about it doesn’t get the kids I represent any closer to a proper education, so it’s one of those things I just have to suck up and do what I can to overcome.

In sales and marketing, this kind of approach is often referred to as a “consultative sale.” Rather than focusing on the features of a product (selling the specs), the sales person focuses on the benefits that the product will realize for the client (selling the solved problems).

When I worked in the IT industry a lifetime ago, I remember our software developer going to great lengths to create a help menu in the solution we were building for an assisted living facility that was putting in its first local area network (yes, I know this dates me). The problem was that the nurses at each networked station had little computer experience and many didn’t even know how to turn on their computers and get into the network where the spectacular help menu could be found.

My additional solution was to type up simple 1-page instructions on how to turn on the computer, log into the network, and access the necessary programs, including their respective help menus; print them on pretty pink papers with roses along their borders; then laminate them and stick them next to each computer. My solution took about 20 minutes to prepare and another half hour to print and laminate. My colleague’s solution took weeks of meticulous programming. In the end, the solution the nurses preferred was mine. Accessing a help menu made total sense to a 20-something-year-old software developer, but not to middle-aged nurses with no computer experience who didn’t know what a help menu was.

And, this kind of simplification is what is needed in special education when it comes to communicating important points. Meeting participants need to be less invested in the form that the communication takes and more invested in making sure that the other members of the meeting truly understand their communicative intent. This means accommodating the other team members’ limitations, as it were, by using plain language and keeping the jargon at a bare minimum. When jargon becomes necessary, those who understand it should stop and make sure that the other meeting participants understand how the key terms are defined and used within the given context so that they can keep up with the conversation, as well.

Napoletano concludes her piece rightly when she says: “We don’t get points for using big words – we get points for results. The best solutions never need dressing up with words, they just need a team who can effectively communicate their worth and put them into action.” If that doesn’t describe how the IEP process should work, nothing does.

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this post.


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