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Dispute Resolution

Improve Your Communication Skills

The following are some suggestions and ideas to consider when planning ahead to improve your communication skills.

Be Self-aware

Do you have preconceived ideas? Are you aware of your own and others’ perspectives and perceptions? Do you judge others? Can you recognize your own communication attitude?

Preconceived Ideas

  • Be aware of what thoughts you bring into a meeting because these preconceived ideas or notions can affect the outcome of a meeting.
  • Be open to new ideas, information, and solutions.


  • Parents come from the perspective of life-long, intimate knowledge and connection to their child.
  • Parents have a long-term investment in this child.
  • Educators come from the perspective that they are trained to work with children. Educators made a choice to do this work.
  • Educators work with many students and have known your child a brief period of time
  • Both are important. Both parties usually have honorable intentions, just different ideas or perspectives.


Be aware that each person’s perception of truth and reality are filtered by time, differing values and beliefs, emotional reactions, and cultural backgrounds. Viewpoints are not always shared in the educational setting.

  • People’s perceptions will differ. This is normal.


  • We will not know all there is to know about another person, so try not to judge.
  • Assume that a person’s intentions are honorable. Ask clarifying questions instead of making assumptions.

An Effective Communication Attitude

How does what I say affect those who are listening to me?

Is my communication attitude effective in helping obtain what my child needs or do I want to make some changes in my behavior?

  • Am I assertive? (I will share what I know; I express my child’s needs clearly; I will listen as others share what they know; I will feel heard.)

Prepare for Meetings, Conferences, and Conversations

The communication we are talking about in this guide usually occurs at a meeting. Here are some suggestions for effective communication at a school meeting.

Special education is “data driven.” This means that school records such as evaluation reports, discipline records, and progress reports are very important. Be sure you have copies and read them.

  • Use a record-keeping system for special education records that works for you (you may wish to have PACER’s Special Education Record Keeping Folder).
  • Written records can include:
    • Formal records such as the IEP, progress reports, and evaluation report
    • Notes taken at previous meetings
    • Written follow-up letters from meetings or phone conversations
    • School handbooks and publications
    • Phone logs
    • Copies of consent forms, letters, and reports
    • Regular education report cards
  • Read your child’s current evaluation report, IEP, and IEP goal progress reports.
  • Consider using PACER’s IEP Team Meeting Planner .
  • Give thought to what the “problem” really is:
    • Be ready to state a problem clearly
    • Have ideas for a solution
    • Find and bring specific data to support your position
    • Try to listen to the ideas and solutions of others first
    • Make a list of your priorities and concerns before a meeting
    • You may want to share this list with the case manager beforehand
    • Your priorities and concerns should be on the meeting’s agenda, too
    • Set priorities: you may not be able to cover all issues at one meeting
  • Make a written list of questions you may have.
  • Know who will be at a meeting and what their roles will be.
  • Make sure you know the purpose(s) of the meeting.
  • Consider inviting someone to go with you to a meeting to take notes for you; inform the case manager if you do invite someone.
  • Consider role-playing. Prepare your approach by anticipating what will be discussed at the IEP meeting or school conference.

Beginning a Meeting

Here are ideas for setting the stage for an effective meeting:

  • Arrive early enough to sit where you will feel most comfortable and effective.
  • Consider bringing your child to the meeting. (For more information on including your child in a meeting, contact PACER Center.)
  • If the child does not attend, bring a picture and place it on the table.
  • Establish rapport: Tell a short, interesting story about your child. Handshakes, “small talk,” and smiles can open a meeting on a positive note.
  • Seek common ground—start with things that team members agree on.
  • Make sure there is an agenda and that it includes your items.
  • Find out how much time has been scheduled for this meeting.

During a Meeting

Here are some tips to consider for communication during an IEP meeting.

  • Identify and focus on your goal—hold yourself accountable.
  • Show respect and expect it from others.
  • Manage your emotions. Cool heads and warm hearts make the best decisions.
  • Be specific and clear. For example:
    • Rather than, “She is frustrated with school,” you may want to say, “She acts out at home each time she has long homework assignments”
    • Instead of, “He follows directions at home,” you may want to say, “At home, he follows directions better when I give him two-step directions with one reminder”
  • Ask questions if unfamiliar terms are used.
  • Use praise and say thanks whenever possible.
  • Rephrase what you hear to ensure you understood correctly.
  • End a meeting by summarizing the outcomes of the meeting to make sure you understood correctly, and so it is clear who will do what by when.
  • End a meeting on a positive note whenever possible. Even if you’ve disagreed, you may be able to say, “I think we under- stand each other’s perspectives more clearly now.”


Communication is a two-way process that involves listening as well as speaking. Other people may have valuable information and insights that you need to hear. You may never hear that information or those insights if you don’t listen.

  • Listening helps you get the information you need. Your own thoughts and opinions are not enough.
  • Listen to see if the speaker is expressing an opinion or if data is being presented.
  • Whether you agree or not, try to understand clearly what others are saying. You may want to repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you understood it correctly.
  • Show you are listening.
  • Take notes on what you hear or invite a friend to do this for you.
  • Allow the speaker to finish; don’t assume you know what the speaker will say.
  • Listen intently to their position. You may hear some data and their real message while thinking of what you will say next.

Ask Questions

  • Ask what, who, when, where, and how questions.
  • Be careful of “why” questions:
    • Asking why to understand someone’s reasoning can be helpful. Example: “Why is my son assigned to a special education bus?”
    • Asking why to find someone’s motivation is not. Example: “Why did you put my son on a special education bus?”
  • If a district policy or special education law or rule is mentioned and you are not familiar with it, ask to see it in writing.
  • Phrases that may help:
    • “Tell me more about…”
    • “That term (or acronym) is unfamiliar to me. Would you please define it?”
    • “Please explain…”
    • “Would you please rephrase that so I can understand?”
    • “How will I know this plan is working?”
    • “What will the school propose to do about…?”
    • “What do you suggest we do about…?”
    • “I think I heard you say... Is that correct?”
    • “How is that progress you mentioned measured?”
    • “That is interesting. Tell me more so I’m sure I understand your view.”
    • “How long will we need to use this intervention to determine if it is successful?”

When You Are the Speaker

Be as clear as possible so that others will understand what you have to say. These are some important communication tips for you to consider.

  • Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.
  • Focus on solutions.
  • Give positive feedback and praise as often as possible.
  • If you are interrupted, you may want to say in a polite manner, “Excuse me, I am not finished.”
  • Use “This will…” instead of “I think…”
    • Example: “Giving Jimmy more time to complete his tests will allow him to show his actual knowledge” versus “I think Jimmy needs more time to complete his tests”
    • The first statement offers a concrete reason to consider your suggestion, while the second statement is an opinion
  • Use “You could…” rather than “You should…”
    • Examples: “Instead of sending Tara to the office, you could call the social worker” versus “You should never send Tara to the office”
    • “Jon’s progress in learning to read seems very slow. Could we look at other methods?” versus “You should use a different method for teaching reading”
    • The first statements suggest an option that’s open to discussion and flexibility. The second statements imply that you are ordering someone to do something.
  • Consider using humor, although it’s not for everyone or for all situations.
    • Humor can help build rapport and break down barriers
    • It can reduce stress and conflict
    • When using humor, make it brief, spontaneous, and relevant
  • To avoid misunderstandings, use correct vocabulary whenever you can.
    • Summer school is not the same as extended school year
    • Home bound is not the same as home school
    • Learn the vocabulary of special education as much as you are able
  • Focus on specifics, not generalities. For example, you could ask, “What does ‘disruptive’ mean to you?” Or, “How often in a school day is Sara disruptive and what does she actually do?” Or, “I hear you say that David is inattentive. Is there a specific time period when this happens?”
  • If you have a hard time saying what you mean, write your thoughts and ideas down and then read or pass them out at the meeting.
  • Keep the emphasis on the child. Focus on what the child needs not on what you may want.
  • Realize that being heard is not necessarily the same as getting what you want.
  • Paraphrase and restate what you think you heard someone else say to make sure you understood clearly.

Use “I” Statements

Here are some examples:

  • “I would like to talk about what my daughter is learning.”
  • “I feel like I’m not being heard.”
  • “I didn’t understand that.”

Leave Out the Word “You”

Using the word “you” in a sentence can cause other people to feel defensive. Defensive people don’t listen because they are busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. This accomplishes nothing positive for the child.

  • Practice rephrasing statements leaving out the word “you”:
    • “You are not helping my daughter” versus, “My daughter is not getting the help she needs”
    • “Why can’t you teach him to read?” versus, “Tommy still struggles with reading. How can we help him?”

“Act As If”

  • I can “act as if” I have self-confidence even if it’s just for a short time at a meeting.
    • For example, “I will act as if I am confident. What my daughter needs right now is more important than how I actually feel. I can do this.”

Consider Using “Repeat, Repeat” Technique:

  • Repeat your statement nearly word for word when you think you are not being heard.
    • Example:
      Parent: “So, the team has agreed that Josh needs transportation to the technical school every afternoon.”
      Teacher: “But the cost is going to be significant.”
      Parent: “Nevertheless, the team has agreed. Let’s write it into the IEP now.”
      Teacher: “Let’s call transportation tomorrow to see if it fits their schedule.”
      Parent: “No, the team has agreed. We need to write it in the IEP now.”
      Teacher: “We should see what Mr. Jones thinks about the bus.”
      Parent: “Mr. Jones is not here. The team has agreed. We need to write it into the IEP.”
      Teacher: “Well, Josh is going to have to behave on this bus!”
      Parent: “We may also have to deal with behavior issues. But right now we need to write the transportation services into the IEP.”

Turn Negatives Into Positives

  • Sometimes a negative comment can turn into a need for service.
  • “He’s always losing his papers” could mean, “It sounds like my child needs to learn organizational skills.”
  • “He’s always fighting” could mean, “It looks like my child needs to learn social skills.”


  • Use your notes, your list of concerns and priorities, or the agenda.
  • When the meeting is ending, ask that the agreements and/or disagreements be put in writing so you and the school staff can plan what to do next.

Remember Common Courtesies

  • It’s okay to admit a mistake.
  • It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry.”
  • “Please” and “thank you” are always appreciated!

Help the School Understand

  • Communicate unusual circumstances in the home that may affect your child’s behavior in the classroom. For example, it may be helpful to share when a death has occurred, a divorce is in process, or there has been a medication change.
  • Take time to explain your culture and values so that the school does not make assumptions based on past experiences with other parents of similar cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
  • Give examples of your goals, such as, “I expect my child to have his own apartment by the time he is 21.”

Written Communication

There are times when the most effective form of communication is in written form. Written communication methods can include:

  • Home/school notebook—a notebook that goes between home and school, often daily, with written comments between the parent and the school staff
  • A written summary of the conversation as well as the date and name of the person you talked with
  • Meeting follow-up notes
  • Thank you letters
  • Formal letters:
    • Send to the person who has the authority to make a difference
    • Be brief, business-like, and respectful
    • Focus on one or two issues
    • Set a deadline for reply
    • Keep a copy for yourself

Discuss with the school how you will set up on-going communication:

  • Discuss how often it will occur, when, and by what method (phone, text, e-mail, written notes, meeting, etc.) and write this in the IEP.
  • Check your child’s backpack regularly for notes, newsletters, or other communications from the school.