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Dispute Resolution


The adults in a child’s life can make a difference. When parents and school staff work together as “partners,” the child’s educational outcomes can be enhanced. Neither the parents nor the school can educate a child in isolation.

IDEA calls for an IEP team to work together to develop the educational program for a child. Partnership goes beyond the team concept by building a relationship with mutual interests and equal status. With a partnership of team members, the special education process can be more effective.

  • Development of a partnership requires all parties to:
    • Invest time
    • Commit to success
    • Make a conscious effort, even when the going is not smooth
    • Look for common interests
    • Understand the “big picture”
    • Understand different perspectives
    • Give one another equal status
  • Often parents do not feel they are “equal” partners. That can change by remembering:
    • Parent knowledge and opinions are valuable
    • Only parents have an in-depth, long-term, daily relationship with the child
    • Parents can learn new skills to communicate clearly and assertively
    • Parents have the power of giving or withholding consent for services
    • Parents are the only continuous persons on a child’s IEP team
  • To help understand the concept of “partnership,” consider partnership as it might apply to a business. Business partners:
    • Have the same overall purpose or goal
    • Make an effort to communicate clearly
    • Have individual roles or jobs and a clear understanding of each
    • Have authority to make changes with the permission of the other partners
    • Have opportunities to give feedback to one another
    • Bring different skills and information to the endeavor
    • Are accountable for the outcomes
    • Use problem-solving strategies early
    • Realize limitations of the partnership
    • Educate themselves about their particular business

These concepts can apply to parent and school partnerships. The “business” of this partnership is achieving an effective education for your child with a disability. When this is the focus of all the adult “partners,” your child will benefit.

Partners often come from different backgrounds and perspectives. When applying the concept of partnership to the relationship between parents and school staff, being aware of these differences can actually help the partnership be more effective and cordial. Consider that:

  • Educators usually choose the career of educating children with disabilities while most parents do not know their child will have a disability.
  • Educators are not usually involved in the long-term outcomes for the student while most parents will be involved with the child for life.
  • School personnel are employed by a school district. They have resources to draw upon, but they are also subject to its limitations and authority.

When we realize the different roles of the partners (parents and school staff), we are not as likely to assume personal motives or dishonorable intentions. Instead, we may ask questions differently, knowing that the role of each “partner” will influence the answers.

Partners share a goal of effective education for your child with a disability. Partners can:

  • Disagree without being disagreeable. Express that you don’t want this disagreement to interfere with your continued partnership.
  • Apologize whenever appropriate.
  • Make a positive move to start a process of restoring the relationship.
  • Accept responsibility for one’s own part in the problem, issue, or solution.
  • Realize that neither parents nor professionals have all the answers.
  • Consider the risks of both facing an issue and avoiding it.
  • Assume good faith on the part of those with whom you disagree. What is their perspective?
  • Make sure the facts are accurate.
  • Base discussions on facts and data rather than opinions.
  • Try to resolve the disagreement as quickly as possible.
  • Separate the problem from the person.
  • Start where the problem started. Discuss it with the person(s) directly involved.
  • Write the solutions reached into the IEP; ask who will do it and when it will be done. Be sure to obtain a copy.
  • Use compromise or a trial period as a key to resolution, such as, “Let’s try this until ____________ and see how it goes.”
  • Here is an example of a plan for parent-school problem solving:
    • Describe the problem clearly
    • Encourage input from all members of the team
    • Brainstorm without evaluating the ideas
    • Choose a solution by consensus (all agree)
    • Develop a plan, and define who is responsible for each action and when will it be done
    • Put that plan in writing
    • Create a timeline and criteria to evaluate success
    • Follow up
  • Consider participating on your local Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) to gain more understanding of your school district.

If you have tried without success to resolve your concerns through IEP team meetings, there are also a number of formal methods of resolving differences for parents and schools to use. They include (but are not necessarily used in this order):

  • Conciliation Conference
  • Mediation
  • Facilitated Team Meeting
  • Filing complaints with the State Department of Education
  • Due process hearings and resolution sessions

Information on all of these methods is available from PACER Center's Dispute Options Page and the Minnesota Department of Education.

In special education, parents and school staff discuss troublesome issues among themselves. Always monitor what you say in front of your child. When children are older and in many cases participate as an IEP team member, they can learn to be effective communicators and partners.

Partners need to trust one another, but sometimes trust becomes an issue between parents and school staff. When trust is lost between partners, it is difficult, but not impossible, to restore. Researcher Vicki Wolfe found three types of parents: those who only trust others, those who only trust themselves, and those who are able to do both. Which is most likely to benefit the child? To restore trust, consider:

  • Defining, in writing, small steps or actions.
  • Holding individuals on the team accountable for following through.
  • Setting dates for steps or actions to be accomplished.
  • Reviewing the plan.
  • Taking further steps.
  • Following through.

Slowly, trust can be rebuilt.

Be a Model for Your Child

Whose life is it? Your child with a disability is the focus and common ground for you and the school staff. What you do together will ultimately affect the child’s life.

As a parent, your immediate reason to improve communication and partnership skills is to more effectively plan an appropriate education for your child. However, there are additional benefits when you improve your communication and partnership skills. You can:

  • Model and practice effective communication skills at home.
  • Model these skills when the child attends IEP meetings and school conferences.

Most children with disabilities will need self-advocacy skills throughout their lives. When you model clear communication and respectful partnership skills, your child can see how effective these skills are for advocacy and for accomplishing positive outcomes. Hopefully your child will adopt these skills and use them successfully in many facets of his or her life.