The importance of access to individualized services and supports cannot be overstated for children with combined vision and hearing loss. Yet, school districts struggle with hiring qualified personnel with experience and knowledge working with this low incidence population. Families often have to advocate for services and remind school districts of their child’s learning needs, not an easy task when trained personnel are scarce or non-existent in more rural settings. Too often, lack of trained personnel creates an adversarial relationship between parents who want their child to receive the support they need to learn and districts that either can’t find trained personnel or don’t understand the child’s critical need for specialized services.
While various family support agencies provide training to parents regarding the IEP and legal rights, too often parents are forewarned that they will have to “fight” for services. While various family support agencies provide training to parents regarding the IEP and legal rights, too often parents are forewarned that they will have to “fight” for services. This perspective isn’t necessarily true and can set up negative interactions from the beginning. As a result, parents dread conversations with team members or district personnel, anticipate that the encounter will be combative, and feel unconfident to handle these situations. Some potential team scenarios that parents might encounter include addressing the need for specific services and trained personnel; not receiving educational updates and program information in a timely manner; dealing with providers who are new to the team and have limited knowledge; trying to communicate with team members who don’t listen or value parent input; juggling emotional family issues (divorce, separation, homelessness, family illness); or broaching the subject of out-of- district placement.
Working collaboratively and being positive will go a long way in your relationship with providers and your school district. Notably, our current world and the educational climate is strained due to the pandemic, with greater staff shortages, professionals working under difficult conditions, and lack of planning/meeting time. While these issues don’t negate your child’s critical learning needs, remember that “Your Words Matter” and may impact relationships with your district for a long time to come. Be clear about your priorities and “non-negotiables” and be prepared to communicate your wishes in as respectful and neutral a manner as possible.
Most of us tend to put off difficult conversations because of the intensity or fear of feeling too emotional. Initiating a difficult conversation may feel daunting and you might hope that the conflict will resolve itself. This rarely happens! Putting off the conversation won’t improve misunderstandings, and you’ll feel less connected to your child’s team and his/her learning, potentially leading to negative feelings and a lack of trust. You might avoid a difficult topic for fear that it will make things worse or that your request won’t be valued or understood. Feeling vulnerable, worrying about being judged, or not wanting to “rock the boat”, can make it more difficult to tackle “difficult conversations”. Here’s the important thing to remember, “You’re Talking About Your Child!”. It’s ok to feel uncertain, flustered or overwhelmed when trying to communicate your thoughts about what your child needs to learn.
Here is a simple checklist to review prior to a team meeting that will help you feel more prepared and confident as you navigate various interactions with your child’s team.
Prior to the Meeting
- Know your legal rights in the IEP process and school policies regarding grievances. All states have parent networking agencies that provide training and materials to educate parents regarding their rights, and state policies and procedures. Check for your state’s parent agency.
- Request the following prior to the meeting:
- Agenda with list of attendees
- Written reports or materials
- Meeting time that fits your schedule so both parents can attend
- Remember that you understand your child better than anyone else on the IEP team. That mindset will help you approach the IEP meeting with strength and confidence.
Organize Your Thoughts
- Take time to prepare your thoughts in advance by organizing your priorities and questions.
- Write down your child’s needs in order of priority: Vision, Hearing, Touch, Communication, Academic, Social, Physical, and Emotional. Request that the top three concerns in each area be addressed. Some things may need to wait, but don’t budge on the ones that are most important now. For a child with combined vision and hearing loss, Communication and Sensory Needs should be front and center to all programming.
- Consider using planning tools that can help you organize your thoughts, such as Reach for the Stars, or Charting the Life Course. NEC staff can provide you with information regarding both of these approaches.
During the Meeting – Keep Your Emotions in Check
- Consider your perspectives and past experiences. Perhaps you’re still angry about a previous administrator whom you felt wasn’t listening to you. It isn’t about winning the argument; it’s about finding a solution, or amicable agreement. Mindfulness techniques can also be helpful to use prior to and during a meeting to deal with anxiety and emotions. Look for some helpful resources.
- Monitor unspoken communication. Be alert to your own body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Awareness of nonverbal communication cues can help you resolve issues before they escalate. If a team member is being combative and won’t listen to what you are saying, it’s ok to acknowledge that things aren’t working and request that the team take a break and reconvene. In some cases, you may have to request that the person not be present during the next meeting, again stating your case and request respectfully.
During the Meeting – Finding Your Voice
- Use your notes and don’t forget to breathe. Breathing and pausing will help you feel more in control.
- Practice your responses such as: “I’m trying to work collaboratively but the current services are not meeting my child’s educational needs.”
During the Meeting – When There is Disagreement or Others Don’t Listen
- Stay positive, don’t make it personal. If you need to repeat your request, do so calmly, for example, “I need to make sure I’m being clear…I am requesting X because I know it will help my child learn more quickly.”
- Ask the provider to explain his/her position and how it positively impacts your child. Often this shines light on issues related to what the provider can schedule versus your child’s educational needs.
- It can be difficult to keep an objective view of the situation, so bringing a friend along might be helpful.
- If the other party begins to be negative or unprofessional, use the approach, “If they go low – I go high”. Breathe, wait for the team liaison to respond, restate your position.
- If things aren’t going well – you can always reconvene. Let your team liaison know you need time to reflect since the team isn’t able to come to consensus.
- Try not to come across as hostile. Stay positive and polite, but don’t be afraid to be direct. Remember to thank the participants. You don’t have to agree on the IEP or program recommendations right away. Take a copy home with you and let everyone know that you will need to review it before you make your final decision.
Assume Good Intentions
- Understand that most people are trying to do the right thing. Often, programs lack supervision and support, and members are not trying to make your life difficult. Rather, they may lack training regarding the unique and diverse needs of learners with combined vision and hearing loss.
- Be open to other ideas. Breath and count to 3…4…5 before you push away an idea or suggestion.
- If you start with a “glass is half full” perspective rather than a combative stance, you can rest assured at the end of the day that you have done what you believe in your head and heart is in the best interest of your child.
The Short and Sweet IEP Overview
The Role of the Family in IEP Development
Mindfulness Communication Skills for Difficult Conversations