Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy

The Special Education Survival Guide by Pam Wright & Pete Wright

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Learning About Conflict

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discussion Conflict between parents and schools is normal and inevitable.

Conflict occurs when people have different beliefs, perceptions, and interests.

Beliefs are issues about which you feel strongly. Beliefs are based on emotions. Your beliefs affect your perceptions.

Perceptions are your thoughts about an issue or problem. When you disagree with your spouse about who is responsible for housework or how your earnings should be spent, you and your spouse have different perceptions and opinions about these issues.

Interests are your needs, desires, concerns, and fears. Our strongest interests involve basic human needs–-security, recognition, and control over one’s life.

Your Goal

Your goal is to build a healthy working relationship with the school. If you build a working relationship with the school, it will be easier to negotiate for special education services and supports.

This does not mean you will never have conflict!

Real Issues: Expense and Control

If you look closely at disputes between parents and schools, you will find that most disputes are actually about expense and control. Most special education disputes fall into four categories.


The child has educational problems that suggest a disability. The school has not found the child eligible for special education, perhaps by using a “discrepancy formula” to deny eligibility.

Failure to Provide an Appropriate Education

The child’s IEP is supposed to be individualized to meet the child’s unique needs. Many districts offer “One size fits all” programs that do not meet the child’s needs.

Failure to Implement the IEP

The child has an IEP that includes a commitment to provide services. The school is not providing the services and supports in the IEP.

Inappropriate Discipline

The child has behavior problems caused by the disability. The school has a “zero tolerance” discipline policy. Although the child’s behavior is a result of the disability, the school suspends or expels the child.

You Resolve Problems by Negotiating

How do you resolve work schedule problems with your co-workers? You negotiate. How do you resolve financial problems with your partner? You negotiate. How do you resolve problems with your school? You negotiate.

When you negotiate, you put yourself in the shoes of the other side and answer questions like these:

  • Perceptions: How do they see the problem?
  • Interests: What do they want?
  • Fears: What are they afraid will happen if they give me what I want?
  • Positions: What is their bottom line?

Four Deadly Sins for Negotiators

1. Blaming and shaming

2. Criticizing and finding fault

3. Sarcasm, scorn and ridicule

4. Judging, patronizing and bullying

Five Golden Rules for Negotiators

1. Listen more than you talk.

2. Ask 5 Ws + H + E questions to clarify the perspective and position of the other side.

3. Storytelling reduces resistance. Make requests by telling the child’s story.

4. Make situations informal. Meet in different places. If things are tense, bring food that smells good.

5. Treat other people with respect.

If you have a dispute with the school, you have two goals: to resolve the issue and to protect the parent-school relationship.

Emotions and Polarized Relationships

In parent-school conflict, emotions run high on both sides. Your emotions and the emotions of school personnel merge with the issue, leading to feelings of betrayal, anger, mistrust, and bitterness. If this happens, relationships are polarized and a good outcome is less likely.

If you have a problem with school staff, remind yourself that you are dealing with people. People are emotional.

When people are emotional, it is difficult for them to think about new solutions to problems.


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