IEP meetings are supposed to be a collaborative process to facilitate the shared goal of educating a child. So why are they so awful for parents? Sun Tzu, a military strategist and philosopher who lived in China 2,500 years ago provides some answers.
Children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eligible children must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) which is developed by a group of school staff in connection with a meeting with the parents.
Nobody likes IEP meetings. Parents feel overwhelmed and traumatized. Educators feel exasperated by parents who seem combative and unrealistic.
The purpose of the IEP meeting is to create an education plan by consensus. Parents and educators are both generally in favor of educating children. So why is an IEP meeting usually a distressing fracas?
I think I know. I am a business attorney with 15 years experience in negotiating complex transactions. Like many before me who sought to crush their enemies, I have studied The Art of War by Sun Tzu like a Baptist preacher studies the bible. The Art of War is considered by many to be the definitive text on military strategy and tactics. It was written by Sun Tzu, a revered general and military strategist in Ancient China, and it has influenced military strategy and tactics for over 2500 years.
The environment in which an IEP meeting is held seems as if it was devised to unsettle parents. If Sun Tzu were to set up a meeting with enemies he wished to defeat – it would have a lot in common with an IEP meeting.
“In general, whoever occupies the battlefield first and awaits the enemy is at ease; the one who comes later and rushes into battle is fatigued.” – The Art of War
IEP meetings are generally held at a school or a school system’s administrative office. The school representatives are on their home turf. The school personnel are comfortable with the environment. They know each other, or have at least met and corresponded before the meeting.
For the parents, it is like walking into party where you are a stranger and everyone else has been friends since kindergarten. No only that, but the invitation to the party didn’t specify a dress code, but somehow everyone else knew it was black tie.
“One who is prepared and waits for the unprepared will be victorious” – The Art of War
School staff have been trained on the IEP process and have likely attended dozens of IEP meetings before. They are familiar with the IEP forms generally, and have reviewed the items for the specific IEP meeting as well. The educators have likely discussed the information for the meeting as well.
The parents, on the other hand, have never seen any IEP documents and don’t know what kind of documents they should expect. The school folks often use jargon – refering to each document by a series of letters and numbers, as if the true intent of the documents must never be mentioned and only spoken of in code.
“Attack what they love first” – The Art of War
Demoralizing an enemy makes them easier to defeat, so Sun Tzu advised targeting what the enemy held dear. During an IEP meeting, parents are presented with their beloved children’s faults and non-achievement. Things that parents would crawl across cut glass to make better are enumerated, formatted and documented in byzantine government forms.
Unpleasant assessments – especially when they are true – are difficult to hear. Seeing them chronicled in bureaucratic records is heartrending.
“All armies prefer high ground to low” – The Art of War
When parents walk into an IEP meeting, the school specialists are seated on one side of a table with their instruments (notes, pens, computers) out and ready.
Parents sit on the other side. Meetings are often held in schools, so parents sometimes have to sit in child-sized chairs placing them in a lower position. Frequently, the parents are positioned so their back is to the door of the room.
Is it any wonder that parents feel defensive? School systems are not intentionally waging war on parents (I hope), but all of the environmental clues are triggering the parents’ discomfort and uncertainty. So what can be done to make things better?
Educators should pay attention to the environment when meeting with parents. Let parents know what to expect ahead of time as much as possible. During the meeting, avoid using jargon. Do not ask a parent to sit in a child-sized chair – especially if you have anything difficult to discuss.
Parents can ask what to expect. Call and ask for copies of the form documents and any other information you can. It is ok just to say, “I am anxious about the upcoming meeting. Would you tell me what to expect and show me what the documents look like so that I will be prepared?” A request paired with a real, relatable reason (and who has never been nervous?) is usually granted. If you are asked to sit in the small chair, ask for another one.
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