We’ve been working hard over the summer to bring you new tools for this upcoming new school year. To kick things off, we’re giving parents a free 45-minute training video titled, “3 Critical Errors that Even the Smartest Parents of Children with Special Needs Can Make in the IEP Process.” Watch it now and you’ll also get links to additional resources, including a free IEP goal-writing template that you can use to prepare for your IEP meetings, as well as during the meetings when IEP goals are being formulated by the IEP team.
Connecticut special education attorney, Jennifer Laviano, posted some excellent content on her blog, titled, “Unseemly IEP Team Members,” in an effort to educate parents about some of the negative types of personalities they can encounter from their local school districts at IEP meetings. As Ms. Laviano states in her post, these descriptions do not account for all district personnel; just those who engage in inappropriate conduct.
Even though the personalities she describes only account for a handful of “bad guys,” the non-compliant and/or substantively inappropriate actions of one district employee is often enough to derail the best efforts being made by the ethical district members of the team. To make things worse, most parents don’t know enough about the science or the law of special education to always know when they’re getting shafted. This makes it important for parents to educate themselves.
I want to focus on three particular personality types that Ms. Laviano describes in her posting because I’ve encountered individuals such as these relatively recently and have had to deal with each in a particular manner. One thing to note is that it is possible for a single individual to fit more than one of these negative personality types.
You may wonder why I put a video of the Top Secret Drum Corps from Basel, Switzerland on our blog. I think it offers a perfect visual and auditory example of what happens when everybody works together like a well-oiled machine – the exact opposite of what often happens in the world of special education where self-serving behavior, petty politicking, lack of professional discipline, and a general failure of all involved stakeholders to work together cost so many individual children, their families, and their communities so much.
Click here to download the podcast version of this article.
In our label-driven society, we tend to get caught up in what things are called and why they have happened rather than what needs to be done to solve problems.
Granted, in many instances, the source of a problem is a determining factor in how that problem is solved, but too much emphasis on cause and not enough emphasis on remedy can leave people stuck in a stalemate forever. Such is often the case with special education eligibility categories and people’s perceptions of them.
October 4, 2012: Update – Download these two recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings (PDF format) that counter “blame the parents” strategies used by school districts:
- Anchorage School District vs. M.P., July 19, 2012
- Anchorage School District vs. M.P., November 1, 2011
As an advocate who represents children and their parents in the special education process, it’s hard for me to call out parents who make things difficult. For the most part, whether or not a parent is “difficult” is a matter of subjective interpretation.
Many public education agency personnel tend to view any parents who don’t just nod their heads and sign whatever is put in front of them as difficult. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s closer to the truth to say that situations are difficult and that parents are supposed to give informed consent, so if they don’t understand something, they shouldn’t sign it.
It is most often the case that parents are simply clueless about, and overwhelmed by, the special education process. Under such circumstances, public education agency personnel are either compassionate and understanding about that or they exploit it to no constructive end.
The parents I regard as truly being difficult come in several varieties:
- The well-intended parent who knows just enough about special education to make legally significant statements on the record but doesn’t really understand the full ramifications of what he/she is doing and can inadvertently do more harm than good.
- The emotional parent who is overwhelmed by the process and frequently breaks down during IEP meetings such that they can’t be finished and forward movement is undermined.
- The parent with disabilities who has post-traumatic flashbacks whenever he/she sets foot onto a public school campus, much less when his/her child’s troubles at school are being discussed with him/her by people with advanced degrees who, without even intending to, intimidate the hell out of the parent such that he/she can’t effectively participate in the IEP process.
- The indifferent parent who doesn’t take the IEP process seriously and doesn’t care whether or not his/her child receives educational benefit.
- The suspicious parent who doesn’t want the “school people” to get into his/her family’s business and thus refuses to participate in the IEP process.
- The parent in denial who doesn’t want to acknowledge that his/her child has a handicapping condition and refuses to participate in the IEP process.
- The emotionally unstable parent (not to be confused with a parent who is simply emotional about his/her child’s education). This is the parent who:
- Engages in antagonistic behaviors with public education agency personnel;
- Repeatedly changes his/her mind about what he/she wants as remedy mid-process;
- Carries on hysterically in IEP meetings and at impromptu drop-in visits to school sites or the district offices;
- Puts his/her child through one unnecessary assessment after another in an effort to prove he/she was right when he/she actually was wrong;
- Disparages public education agency personnel to his/her child and/or encourages his/her child to “give the teacher a hard time”;
- Instructs his/her child to deliberately under-perform in school to “prove” negative educational impact; and/or
- Files one unfounded complaint after another, convinced that there is a conspiracy all the way up to the top of the “food chain” to undermine his/her advocacy efforts and deprive his/her child of educational benefit (though with parents like these, whether their child actually receives educational benefit is not as high a priority as being proven right).
Needless to say, a parent can fall into more than one of the categories above. These are the parents that make the special education process difficult for all parents of children with special needs because public agency personnel are quick to presume that any parent bucking the system falls into at least one of these categories, which is not only unfair, it’s untrue.
As an advocate, who you represent is entirely up to you. Many people who go into special education advocacy or law to represent students and families feel like they have to represent everyone who comes to them for help. I agree that you have to do what is in the best interests of the involved child to the best of your ability, but you have to establish boundaries about what you’re willing to tolerate and you have to know how to handle delicate and difficult situations with aplomb so that you can achieve an effective outcome for a child, sometimes in spite of their parents.
If the parents really do want what’s best for their children, as an advocate you sometimes have to jump through a number of hoops to educate the parents on their rights so that they understand what is really going on, what is really a violation of the law, what their real options are, and what is really somebody from the education agency really being a jerk. Parents who make your job difficult are often mistaken about what is really going on, what they can legitimately ask for, and what is reasonable to expect under the circumstances.
With parents who know just enough to get themselves in trouble, part of your job as an advocate is damage control. You have to first go through the student’s records, figure out where things currently stand, explain to the parent exactly where the student’s case is at, and explain what you’re going to have to do to course-correct.
Depending on the parent, you may need to insist that all communications go through you. They should, anyway, since you’re the designated representative, but sometimes if the situation isn’t particularly contentious, I have the parents coordinate IEP meeting dates and simpler things like that rather than force the issue with all communications coming through me.
In a case involving a parent who has made requests or included legally significant language in letters to a public education agency that he/she didn’t fully understand, you’re going to have to write a letter to the public education agency and retract whatever didn’t make any sense on behalf of the parent and assert new requests in an effort to steer things back onto the right path. And, you’re going to have to stay on top of the situation from that point forward until you get into the clear.
You will often find in a situation like this that the public education agency is greatly relieved that you have become involved. The public education agency may have been up to no good, or simply not devoting enough attention to the student’s needs, prior to your involvement, which prompted the parent to try and fix things him- or herself, but by the time you get involved, the parent may have accidentally made things much messier and caused so many problems, that the education agency is at a loss as to how to set things straight.
With you there to help pick up the pieces and able speak the lingo with the education agency personnel, which you can then translate into plain language for the parent, you can help negotiate a resolution that benefits the student and restores order to the Universe. That’s an outcome everyone should be able to live with.
It’s a similar situation for parents who become emotional during IEP meetings and derail the IEP process. Usually these are parents who are overwhelmed by the fact that their child has a handicapping condition, is having emotional flashbacks to his/her troubles as a student, who feels judged by school personnel (rightly or not), and/or understands very little of what is being discussed by the IEP team and feels incompetent to effectively advocate for his/her child.
In situations like this, I’ve had education agency personnel call me after an IEP meeting that’s gone well for once to thank me profusely for helping the parent get through the IEP meeting without losing it. I do this by frequently checking for understanding as well as stopping the discussion and turning to the parent, saying, “What this means is …” or “You have several options here: you can do X, you can do Y, or you can do Z. Here are the pros and cons of each option…” I also ask questions that I know the parent wouldn’t know to ask, the answers to which are entirely relevant to the decision-making process.
I do everything in my power to ensure that the parent fully understands what is going on and give the parent however much time is necessary to process everything without feeling pressured to make a decision right on the spot. I want the parent’s consent to be fully informed. I never want to go back to the education agency and say, “I’m sorry, but Mrs. Smith actually thought we meant X when we really meant Y and now she’s changed her mind,” though I will if I’ve failed to properly educate Mrs. Smith and she’s made an uninformed decision that she comes to regret.
The indifferent parents and parents in denial don’t come to me for help, so I’m not in a position to do much about that. This is a particular problem that I’ve had described to me by teachers. They try to communicate to these parents that their children are struggling in school and need help, but the parents don’t seem to care. At the most extreme end of that spectrum, there would be cause to suspect that the involved children are being educationally neglected by their parents, which is something that a mandated reporter must report to local child protective services.
The suspicious parent is usually cause for suspicion him- or herself, though this can be wrongfully manipulated by school agency personnel with ill intent. Just because someone is suspicious or paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get him or her.
Suspicious parents don’t want to disclose personal family business to anyone. That means they will refuse to fill out the personal history questionnaires meant to collect the health history of the student. Very often, there is fear that they will be judged harshly and disrespected by school personnel. This perception is usually founded in reality.
Suspicious parents in my experience have mostly been poorly educated, low-income parents who don’t trust anyone in a higher socio-economic status than their own. They have the perception that others look down their noses at them, which is very often true. I’m thinking specifically of children from marginalized populations in the Deep South where racism, classism, and discrimination against the handicapped, particularly against those with disabilities of the mind, still thrive.
It’s not just the minority children and their parents who are discriminated against; the parents themselves are very often racist and classist towards school personnel. Each side justifies its own bigotry by pointing to the unjust conduct of the other and the cycle never ends.
So, for these parents to give “outsiders” insight into their private lives is absolutely out of the question, even if it deprives those who are legitimately trying to help of an understanding of their child’s needs. And, it’s not a question of these parents not wanting what is best for their children. They often simply don’t understand what is best for their children or who they can trust to get it. In their minds, they are protecting their children by keeping “those people” away from them and out of their lives, choosing to “take care of it” themselves, even though they have no idea what to do.
Suspicious parents who do not come from impoverished, uneducated backgrounds are, in my experience either victims of a terrible series of events that have left them traumatized or they’re mentally ill. Presuming a parent is the former, depending on how traumatizing the past experiences were and how resilient he/she is, it is possible to do a lot of hand-holding as you would with any other emotional parent and take the lead as you would with a parent who really doesn’t understand his/her rights, and turn the ship around. With a mentally ill parent, it’s a whole different ball game.
Which brings us to the last type of difficult parent – the emotionally unstable parent. Mental illness and emotional instability are like anything else in life: there are ranges of severity and how the problems manifest. No two people are alike, including people with mental and emotional health issues. So, you can’t lump every parent with a mental or emotional health problem into the same group, really.
Parents with relatively mild problems can be dealt with much as described above. It’s the more extreme cases that you have to worry about. They come to you for help with a legitimate grievance and then it all falls apart from there. Public education agencies are advised strongly to ensure that parents like these are given no legitimate reasons to take issue with them. While no child should be denied a FAPE for any reason, a public education agency that denies a FAPE to the child of an unstable parent is just asking for problems.
As an advocate representing students and parents, it takes a certain gift to manage a case involving an unstable parent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I worked with one legal guardian who had found her ward as a 4-year-old behind a dumpster, abandoned by his abusive, drug-addicted birth parents. She went on to become an emergency foster parent and took this child into her home before ultimately becoming his legal guardian.
But, as her own grown daughter described her, this woman was a hammer and the rest of the world was a nail. When people didn’t agree with her or perform to her satisfaction, she would blow up and resort to tantrumming. By her own admission, it was frustration over not knowing what to do to solve the problem at hand and the knowledge that her child was suffering that really got her going, but she was still highly inappropriate when she became upset and, unfortunately, the school district had given her plenty to be upset about.
More unfortunately for the boy’s case, the district had stockpiled detailed written accounts of every blowup to use as evidence against her and impeach her credibility as a witness should the boy’s case have gone to hearing. I was able to present his case in a non-hysterical manner and, when you looked at the facts of his case and applied the law to them, it was pretty clear that a FAPE had been denied. I was then able to negotiate an IEE by a very well-respected independent assessor in light of the procedural violations and substantive claims the child had, regardless of what his guardian had said or done.
At first, even though I had made it very clear that all communications were to go through me, the child’s guardian became impatient with the time it was taking to go through the proper channels and made some angry phone calls to the school district. I explained to her, again, that becoming upset and verbally abusive of school district staff was hurting more than helping, but I was fortunate to have a pre-existing working relationship with the special education director who understood that her hysterics aside, she still had a viable case against the district, and he and I soldiered on.
Now, things are in a very different place and the guardian couldn’t be happier. What she was asking for all along was totally appropriate; it was how she was asking for it that made things difficult. The point is that so long as what the parent is asking for makes sense, a dedicated advocate with enough patience can usually compensate for the inappropriate behaviors until the problem is solved.
It’s when nothing you do as an advocate, no matter how much you contort yourself to maintain diplomatic relations and move a case forward, is good enough for a parent and the parent comes up with something new everyday to be upset about no matter how trivial it may be, that you have to make a decision whether to continue on as the child’s advocate. If you suspect the parent is harming his/her child, as a mandated reporter, you are obligated to report the parent to child protective services.
The same can be said for school personnel. Their positions in situations like these are even harder because, unlike an advocate or attorney, the education agency can’t “fire” the parent. However, if there is legitimate reason to suspect that the parents actions are resulting in harm to the child, mandated reporters are obligated to make reports to local child protective services.
And, though I’ve mentioned child protective services reports in this article several times, I want to make clear here that the child protective services system is ten thousand times more broken than special education and I’m not a fan of it at all. I volunteer with incarcerated youth and foster children and can tell you horror stories about what happens when children are removed from their homes and put into foster care or are institutionalized. Often, it’s just as bad or worse than what was happening to them at home. My point is that the law requires mandated reporters to report suspected abuse and neglect. That’s what “mandated” means.
These are tough decisions for advocates and educators alike. No one said the job was easy. Of course, going in, no one said it was this difficult, either.
Click here to download the podcast version of this article.
On July 7, 2009, we originally published “Services for IEP Behavioral Goals”. Throughout this school year, KPS4Parents is recording many of our past text-only articles as podcasts so that busy parents, educators, and interested taxpayers can download them and listen to them at their convenience.
As always, feel free to comment on our content. We appreciate the input of our readers and listeners to bring you the information you seek. You can either comment below or email us at email@example.com.
Click here to download the podcast “Services for IEP Behavioral Goals.”
Once a special education student with behavioral issues receives an appropriate assessment of his/her behavior, and appropriate IEP goals are written to address the student’s behavioral needs, the IEP team has to determine what services and supports are necessary to see those goals achieved. The types of services and supports a child requires in order to achieve his/her IEP goals can influence placement decisions, which is why placement is the last decision that should be made by the IEP team.
It is necessary to first know what services and supports will be required in order to determine what the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) is for each particular special education student and, as we’ve stated before, the LRE is relative to the unique needs of each individual child. What is the LRE for one student is not necessarily the LRE for another. Placement must be in the least restrictive environment necessary in order for the services and supports to be provided such that the goals can be achieved, which varies from student to student. That means that the selection of services, including the frequency, duration, and times of day they are provided, is a very critical step in the IEP process and it comes into play fairly late in the game.
To recap the process (as described in our prior postings in the “Techically Speaking” category), the IEP process begins with assessment. The data yielded by the assessment is supposed to inform the IEP team of the student’s Present Levels of Performance (sometimes referred to as “PLOPs”). Based on what is understood about the student’s Present Levels, the IEP team then must write measurable annual goals that describe in objective, empirical terms what outcomes the IEP is attempting to achieve – what specifically it is trying to teach the student to do. Once that is known, the next step is the selection of services and supports.
There are a number of tools to address behavioral goals that can be used. One of the most powerful tools is a Behavior Support Plan (“BSP”) or Positive Behavior Support Plan (“PBSP”). Once a functional analysis of a student’s behavior has been conducted, the next step is supposed to be the creation of a BSP/PBSP unless?the analysis reveals that the behaviors do not significantly impact the child’s participation in his/her education.
A properly written BSP/PBSP is a thing of gold, but it’s no good to anyone if not everyone implements it the way it is written. Behavior is a touchy thing. When you have a child who realizes that the same behavior is met with different outcomes depending on who that child is with, what you often produce is a manipulative child who learns how to push peoples’ buttons. When behavior is met with the same outcome regardless of who the child is with, the child gets a consistent message about certain behaviors. For that reason, it is imperative that anyone working with a special education student who exhibits problematic behaviors follow the BSP/PBSP to the letter as best as he/she possibly can.
A BSP/PBSP starts out by describing the problem behavior so people know what they’re looking for. Identifying the function that the behavior serves (i.e. to avoid math problems, to avoid writing, to gain access to more preferred items or activities, etc.) allows people know what need the child is trying to meet and, therefore, the types of responses they should have to the behaviors. The BSP/PBSP should then describe what responses to give to each type of problematic situation if the behavior manifests, but, more importantly, it should describe what replacement behavior will be taught to the child so that he/she has a more appropriate way of seeing his/her needs met without engaging in the problematic behavior.
It’s not enough to tell a kid to stop doing something. You have to tell them what is appropriate for them to do instead. If you’re trying to drive a nail with a banana peel, you’re just going to make a mess. But, if all somebody does is tell you to stop slinging that useless banana peel at the nail and fails to give you a hammer and show you how to use it, you’re still going to be stuck with a nail that hasn’t been driven. What you were attempting to accomplish remains unachieved.
Children need to be taught things. They can’t be expected to somehow magically know things or figure things out as well as more experienced adults. Children with certain types of disabilities have a harder time picking up what seems obvious to most people, requiring explicit instruction on more basic concepts. A BSP/PBSP describes what fundamental concepts are being taught, or refers to the behavioral goals which describe what concepts are being targeted, so that the child acquires the reasoning skills necessary to handle situations more successfully.
I’m a fan of Diana Browning Wright’s work. She’s done trainings in California and I have students whom I represent whose PBSPs are written up on Diana’s forms. They’re very well organized and make total sense.
Another tool that some schools try to use is a “Behavior Contract.” I’m not a huge fan of these at all. A “Behavior Contract” is something usually used in general education in which a student makes a written commitment to follow school rules. It utterly fails to identify what need the student was attempting to meet by engaging in the inappropriate behavior and only speaks to what the child will do; there is nothing that describes what the adult school site personnel will do to assist the student in dealing with whatever is provoking his/her inappropriate behaviors so that they don’t present problems for the student anymore.
Instead, the child is stripped of whatever coping strategies he/she had, even if they were poor ones, and left with nothing he/she can do at all. This creates a great sense of powerlessness, which can turn on its heel in an instant and lead to more escalated behaviors meant to regain whatever power the child feels he/she has lost.
I’ve seen it happen too many times. What was meant to stop a problem behavior only served to reinforce it and is particularly horrible to deal with among children with issues involving anxiety, paranoia, and/or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Their handicapping conditions magnify, sometimes exponentially, their reactions to having their actual needs ignored and left with no way to see them met, while everyone else is focusing on what they inappropriately did in an effort to see those needs met.
A good BSP/PBSP should also include a description of what consequences and reinforcers should be used to encourage the use of the appropriate replacement behavior and discourage the use of the inappropriate behavior. By consequences, I do not mean punishment. A consequence is anything that results from an occurrence or event.
In the realm of positive behavioral intervention, a consequence is any outcome that discourages a behavior from reoccurring. This is often the intent of punishment, but punishment is an artificial consequence that the child may associate with something other than his/her own inappropriate behavior, such as the person who is punishing him/her.
Consequences should fit the behavior and they work best if they are natural, inadvertent outcomes of doing the wrong thing.? In my example above, the natural consequence of trying to drive a nail with a banana skin is a gooey mess and a nail that still hasn’t been driven. That by itself is enough to discourage me from ever trying to drive a nail with a banana skin again. It clearly didn’t work.
But, associating consequences with one’s own behavior is actually more subtle and difficult than it sounds. For children with relatively inexperienced, growing (and, thus, continually changing) minds, it’s even harder. For children with certain types of special needs, it can often be agonizingly difficult. The connections have to be taught. So, the consequences to inappropriate behaviors and reinforcers of appropriate behaviors should be delivered as soon after the behaviors have manifested as possible, particularly when first starting out with a new behavior program. Over time, the reinforcers can be faded. The idea is that the use of the appropriate behavior will become intrinsically rewarding because it yields success without drama and the need to artificially reinforce will disappear.
The use of appropriate data collection tools is critical. Data collection should be naturally built into the behavior goals and BSP/PBSP. It’s the only way to track progress and measure the degree to which the replacement behavior is taking over for the problematic behavior. Therefore, data sheets have to be created right away at the beginning so that data collection can begin as soon as the school site personnel start implementing the goals.
Parent training is also a really valuable piece to a successful behavioral intervention program. Just as it is imperative that the child be met with the same response to his/her behavior by all of the staff working with the child, it is equally important that he/she is met with the same response at home.
I’ve seen some of the best school-based behavior strategies in the world completely unravel because no one thought to explain to the parents how the behaviors were being responded to at school. The child would go home to a completely different set of expectations and responses to problematic behaviors and an entire school day’s worth of intervention might as well have never happened. The next day, the school site staff would be starting all over again.
By training the parents on the behavioral strategies being used at school, particularly if they can collect at least some data on what they are doing, makes them more involved, gives them greater understanding of what the school site team is trying to do, makes them partners in the process rather than outside observers, makes them more comfortable about how their child’s behavior is being handled by the school site staff, and creates much needed consistency that will help make the intervention successful.
Do you have any other suggestions regarding behavioral supports and services that can be made part of a student’s IEP? Post your comment with your suggestions below.