IEPs and Sun Tzu: Is Special Education a War on Parents?

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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5 thoughts on “IEPs and Sun Tzu: Is Special Education a War on Parents?

  1. Sounds like circumstances conspire to put parents at a terrible disadvantage. Forewarned is forearmed. I look forward to the next installment.

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  2. I found your comparison to Sun Tzu informative and creative. It would be interesting if you could explore the difference between having an autistic parent with an autistic child going to an IEP meeting vs a neurotypical parent going to an IEP meeting with an autistic child. I have read that the latter is rough on the parents but as a parent with autism I did not agree with any of your findings. I simply don’t intimidate easily. I am not influenced by social norms so I don’t care what they think or if I arrive a bit after they do. If I don’t understand something, I simply ask. Because I don’t conform to their power, I tend to leave them a bit uneasy rather than the other way around if there is any unease at all. Most of the IEP meetings I attended went smoothly and we basically were on the same page. They did not discuss just how my child was underperforming at all. I am wondering if IEP meetings vary quite a bit by states and school districts. The one school where I really felt “conspired against” I noted I was not on the same page as the staff and they seem ready to blame my daughter’s home situation for her headaches and stomachaches when it was she preferred to be at home and not at school. So I pulled her out of that school and she did online school. This was in the middle of 7th grade. She returned to public school in 10th grade and had awesome teachers and an assistant principal that smoothed out any problematic situation.My advice to parents would be if you cannot get on the same page with the people at your child’s IEP meeting, change schools and if necessary, school districts.

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    • This is an excellent comment. I am sure that you are right that parents on the spectrum don’t have the same reaction to the non-verbal communication.
      I don’t think the school officials intentionally try to intimidate the parents – I think they are oblivious to the effect on parents of the use of space ( proxemics*). I do not think of myself as easily intimidated, but I find when it comes to my kids things REALLY get under my skin – I am not able to speak up for myself in the same way as I would be able to advocate for someone else).
      * I just had to look up “proxemics” – I knew there was a word for the concept but could not remember. If you are interested see link:


  3. Interesting take on this. I do not know much about the art of war…..but can tell you…all is typically well on the other side of the table as long as I do not question anything in a way that would require an evidence based answer…. That said, in your post you very rightfully advocate that families ask for documents ahead of time. And as a reminder….the school district is compelled by law to have this occur and families should never have to ask. We cannot come to the table as informed team members without those documents…..”To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace” (George Washington).

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    • Thank you for this very thoughtful comment – and I like the Washington quotation. If I had a really tough negotiation, I would LOVE to have the opposing party come to my turf with no idea what I planned to say, AND make them sit in a small chair with their back to the door. However, it would be so over-the-top nefarious that I can’t even imagine an attorney doing that (and that is really saying something). I don’t think anyone wants an IEP meeting to feel like war, but the environmental cues have real psychological effects on the participants. My hope is that just being aware of the dynamics will be helpful to all involved.


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