Rights vs. Relationships: when to ask for help?

by Brenda Rogers M.A. / ABD


Problems arise when a parent realizes their child's education is not beneficial and then take action. Parents often run into trouble when requesting assessments, services, remediation, changes in placement, and other accommodations. These problems occur because while requesting help may benefit the child, it costs the school district money. Therefore, school's respond to requests for individual assistance with bureaucratic strategies that avoid, delay and deny providing any extra individual support to students whenever possible. 

While conducting research about special education, I came across common themes in parent experiences trying to get help for their children. Most parents I spoke with have a strong sense that something about their child's education needs to change. These parents witness their child either falling behind academically or struggling socially and/or behaviorally. However, these same parents either think they have no options and take no action or are aimlessly searching for someone other than the school to tell them how to help their child.

Part of the problem includes most parents not knowing what their child's disability is. Lack of knowledge about the disability explains the confusion I see on parent's faces when I ask: "what is your child's specific disability?" I see the most confusion in the area of learning disabilities. Many people respond to my question by stating: "I'm not exactly sure" or "We think it is but....." Many parents can describe their child's difficulties in school but do not know what causes the problems. As a result of not knowing what type of underlying disability their child is struggling with, most parents do not know what an appropriate education for their child should look like.

I see fear as a key factor keeping parents from utilizing the school as a resource in getting help. I often hear parents confess that they have thought about asking the school for help but fear what the teacher might think about them if they ask for something extra or fear the amount of resistance they predict facing when presenting their request to an actual IEP team. Many people fear asking for needed help will disrupt relationships with teachers and office staff at the school. Parents also report fearing that their child will be treated badly if they ask for extra help or services.

Most parents report that the school has never offered any information about what is available to their child and therefore do not know what to ask for. Some parents admit that they would like their child to receive extra help with basic academic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic but did not know the school had a responsibility to help their special education child outside of the classroom.

I like to tell parents that they need to think about their child's education in terms of priorities. There are two priorities parents face in the education process. First, the priority to parent the child requires oversight of education and support in getting the child to succeed in school. Second, the priority of maintaining relationships with teachers and staff require parents to communicate and cooperate with school personnel. These two priorities usually work together in the educational process. However, when a parent of a special education student witnesses their child falling behind or failing in school, these two priorities my begin to conflict. Often parents have to choose between their relationships and their child's needs. In special education, the choice is often between rights and relationships.

The child has a right to whatever programs and services are necessary to accommodate the disability in such a way that the child can succeed in school. The law requires that the parent become the child advocate. The law places the parent, in the role as advocate, in a precarious situation. Parents often have to choose between the priority of maintaining status quo relationships and the priority of advocacy for the child. Maintaining relationships and advocating for your child does not have to be an either / or situation. 

There is always the potential for problems with relationships when making requests for services during an IEP team meeting. However, the child is the ultimate recipient of the repercussions. Parental action can produce immediate results in terms of intervention services and student improvement. Parent action can possibly disrupt relationships. Parent inaction will produce consequences for the child over time. No response to falling or failing grades will eventually result in a reduced ability to benefit from education and eventual school failure. In the case of action or inaction, there will be repercussions for the child. In other words, even no action produces reaction. 

Advocates and attorneys are helpful because they allow the parent to separate the advocacy role from the parental role. The parent can fill the advocacy role with an advocate while focusing on their parental priority to maintain relationships with the school. Of course, using advocates does not preclude a parent from relationship problems but it does often help take the focus off of the parent's actions. Research shows that attorneys have a serious impact upon both the IEP process and the parent / school relationship. In my experience, schools prefer to work with advocates if given the choice between advocates and attorneys. However, sometimes an attorney is absolutely necessary because the school persists in both procedural and substantive lawlessness. In the cases where the school will not give a child an appropriate education, even with an advocate's assistance, attorneys must be recruited. 

© BrendaRogers 2006