Foundations for Effective Collaboration 

There are few things more important than your child's education. As parents of special needs children ourselves we understand how high the stakes can feel and how frustrating it can be if you believe your concerns are not being understood or addressed. At the same time its important to understand that there is an extensive body of research that shows the best educational outcomes arise from partnership between families and educators. There is a reason that the term parents or parental is referenced 350 times in IDEA and why the concept of a team so foundational to special education. 

The purpose of this section is help provide guidance on how to avoid miscommunications that can lead to unproductive disagreements and frustration and instead help build a more effective team able to engage in constructive disagreements for the benefit of your child.

The Foundations of Effective Collaboration

Assume Good Motives

Respect One Another's Expertise

You know your child and have a good idea what they need. That need must be obvious then, right? If the school isn't doing what you want therefore there must be some other reason - maybe they are budget-constrained and trying to save money. Its up to you then to gird for battle to fight for the services your child needs. 

This line of thinking can be easy to fall into and few things can be more destructive to collaboration. Most teachers and other educators go into the field because they genuinely care about children and are trying to make a difference in the world. They tend to be underpaid and underappreciated for the essential work they do. While there are certainly bad teachers and bad schools, more often than not the educators you are working with are genuinely trying to do what they think is best for your child. That doesn't mean it is what's best, which is why your insight as a parent is critical. 

Its important to understand that you and educators bring different strengths to the table. They are experts in education; you are an expert in your child. Teams dynamics are something that's been studied extensively and findings consistently show that the best outcomes come precisely from bringing together diverse perspectives, backgrounds and areas of expertise. However, this only works when there is a base level of emotional trust where everyone feels valued and understands they are collectively working toward a shared goal. 

People equally committed to the same goal can and do often disagree because our perceptions and experiences are different. In a strong team these differences are strengths and disagreements an opportunity to collectively create a better outcome. To help create a strong team for your child, its important to operate from a perspective of mutual respect and shared trust that you working toward the same goal.       

Focus on Goals & Outcomes 

Keep an Open Mind on How to Achieve Them

Practice Active Listening

Most miscommunication occurs because people talk past one another, hearing but not really listening and understanding the full meaning of what's conveyed. It also doesn't help that we all tend to speak in a kind of shorthand far more than we are aware. We put a fraction of our meaning into the actual words and think we are perfectly clear, not realizing how much we rely on shared context to help fill in the blanks.  

 Another challenge is that we often move automatically from understanding that there is a problem, to diagnosing a potential solution. We then very easily become fixated on our solution, forgetting that there might be other, maybe even better,  means to achieve the same end. Having made this connection between solution and problem its quite easy for us to communicate the problem through our solution, without being fully aware how many blanks were leaving for the listener to fill in.

A good deal of miscommunication can be avoided if we're aware of these tendencies, practice active listening and try and step back to focus on outcomes, keeping an open mind that there might be different means to achieve them. All easier said than done.  

Keep in mind that communication and active listening is hard, and educators are aren't always going to be the best at it either. A few good rules of thumb that can really help with communication

These are tricks that are used extensively in certain fields such as contract law or technology, precisely because precision is important and miscommunication is quite easy. While they can certainly be useful in everyday life, often shared context is enough that we don't need them as the person we are talking to can fill in many of the blanks. That's not going to to be the case many times with your special education team.    

For example, if you start a conversation by saying you think your child needs pull-out services for reading, you might think you've clearly communicated that you have concerns that she is not making sufficient progress on her reading level, but you've only communicated this indirectly. You've also communicated nothing about the degree of your concern, what specifically impetus made you raise this now, and what your expectations are for your child's reading level. You know all this of course and your full meaning seems obvious to you, but that's not what your words convey. If you are talking to your spouse chances are they know enough to fill in the blanks  correctly. However, the less shared context someone has, the more likely they are to fill in the blanks with incorrect assumptions, or simply ignore them. 

You've also focused your listener specifically on what you are asking for: pull-out services, and not on the far more important question of how we improve my child's reading level, which is in the end what you really care about. In your thinking, you've fluidly made the connection that these are one and the same, but in fact they are very different. 

Someone proficient at active listening would at this point stop and ask questions to pull out the more important information, but not every educator is themselves skilled at this. They could equally engage specifically on the appropriateness of pull-out services and maybe not convey their full meaning  in the words they use to respond, leaving out their concerns over least restrictive guidelines and trade-offs to pull out services in terms of time spent outside the classroom impacting the building of social skills. 

The point is you can all-too-easily find yourself in a narrowly focused disagreement over one potential solution, in this case pull out services, without addressing the more important underlying concern. Worse, this conversation might be easily misunderstood by both sides because you both understand your full meaning but haven't conveyed it effectively to one another. Say the school objects to pull out services, what you might hear is that they don't value your concern about your child's reading level. When you argue back then, what they then hear is you don't value their concerns about the importance of classroom-inclusion. This is what it means to hear and not listen. You both hear the words but there is no understanding and alignment on the full meaning behind those words. In the end you are talking past one another. 

The best case outcome at this point, you'll get there eventually and arrive at a solution that addresses your concern, but at the cost of frustration and a lot of time wasted. The worst case you never do. If instead you'd followed some of the tips outlined above, the whole conversation would have been far more productive from the start.     

Do Your Homework

If you are still reading this, congratulations! You're already well on your way to building a knowledge base that will help you to avoid miscommunications and we hope create a more effective team for your child. Educating yourself is important. One of our challenges as people is that once we know something really well, we tend to have trouble remembering what it was like not to know it. Educators are no different. Special education is such an integral part of their job, it can be easy to slip into jargon or leave something unsaid that might seem obvious without realizing parents are unaware. When it comes to communication, having a solid base of understanding can help greatly.

Also hopefully obvious but worth calling out: an important part of doing your homework is being focused and careful in your reading of  anything and everything  official you are given by the school (evaluations, IEP or 504 plans etc.). Be sure to take notes on questions you might have, or areas of potential concern so that you are prepared to discuss.    

Resources for preparing for an IEP meeting:

Virtual IEP Meeting Tips for Parents - FCSN

IEP Checklist  -

5 Things to Do Before an IEP Meeting -

Actively Participate

Show Appreciation Where Appropriate

Constructively Disagree

One striking finding coming out of research is that there is often a disconnect between parents and educators perception of collaboration in special education. One study  found "teachers have a higher perception of successful collaboration."  Another study found, "while school personnel perceive that they are providing opportunities for parents to be involved in a collaborative manner, parents do not perceive that a fully open and transparent collaboration exists."

There can of course be many reasons for this but it probably doesn't help that special education meetings tend to be infrequent and fairly formal. Chances are that most of the educators in the meeting work at the school, so they are colleagues who know one another pretty well,  except for you, the parents. They've also prepared for the meeting, coming with what looks like a fully baked plan. Far from feeling like an equal team member then, it can be easy to feel you are the outsider with educators more interested in your sign-off than your input.

This can make participation uncomfortable at times, but its important. Never forget that you are the foremost expert on your child in the room. You've known them longer, you see them more, and no one has a greater interest in their future. Your insight matters

Asking questions is a big part of course to make sure you understand what is being proposed, but you also need to share your insight from home, and particularly where it aligns or doesn't with what teachers are seeing. 

You should also be aware that a lot of preparation work goes into evaluations and plans. Turning observation in a written description isn't easy, nor is breaking down measurable goals for a year. If you see something that seems especially well said and captures the strengths or challenges for your child, call it out. Educators are people too, and we all like to feel appreciated for the work we do. Calling out and showing appreciation where appropriate can help build trust and make it easier when there are areas where you don't agree.

When it does comes to something said or written that you don't agree with, its important not to shy away from it . You bring a different perspective than educators and that perspective is important for educators to hear. Disagreements are not in and of themselves a bad thing but they can be destructive if not approached thoughtfully and well communicated. The key to constructive disagreements is to focus primarily on your experience, evidence and perspective and not on invalidating the other persons. 

For example, suppose the teacher has indicated they are very concerned with your son's social skills and that he seems to have trouble making friends, which doesn't align with what you are seeing at home. 

Suppose you respond by saying, "Are you sure? We don't see that at home and he's good friends with the boy next door who is in his class." 

Compare this to the response "Its interesting you see that because we don't see the same thing at home. He plays a lot with the boy next door who is in his class and they seem to be good friends,."   

Notice that in both examples you convey the exact same information, but in the first formation you are using that information to argue that the teacher's perception is incorrect, marshalling evidence to that effect. You are saying clearly you think they are wrong. In contrast in the second formulation, it hardly seems like you are disagreeing at all. You aren't questioning the teachers perception, but giving the teacher more information and inviting further discussion on why your perceptions are different. In the end, maybe one of you are wrong and will realize it, or maybe you are both correct and there is something different between the school and home setting that is playing into the differences you are observing. Either way you are more likely to arrive at a better outcome from the constructive approach. 

Bringing it All Together

Chances are some of what we covered here you already knew, but it never hurts to reinforce and hopefully there is something new you found that offers new perspective. Collaboration isn't always easy under the best of circumstances and the reality is that the framework of special education, as much as it tries, is very far from the best of circumstances. Unless you happen to be a teacher chances are you don't have much in common with the special education professionals, teachers and other educators you are working with. You also don't have much time to get to know one another to build the bonds of mutual trust that typically form the glue for teams in work or volunteer settings. Combine this with the high stakes that you are are dealing with your child's future and its no wonder that parents and educators often feel frustrated. 

Effective communication can be the key to limiting that frustration and achieving the best possible outcome for your child. In truth, most of us aren't as good at communication as we think we are, and we rarely need to be in our day-to-day lives. The circumstances here are different. Unless you are a professional diplomat or work in a similar profession, chances are you won't often encounter similar circumstances where decisions of such significance need to be made in an abbreviated time frame, working with a team you mostly just met and with whom you share little in common outside of what is hopefully a shared goal to achieve the best outcome for your child. Strong collaborative outcomes can be achieved in these circumstances, but they are not easy, and they require quite a lot of work and effective communication from parents. 

Hopefully you find this guidance helpful. Its a lot we know, so we've tried our best to boil it all down to the essential ABCDs for parents working with special education teams below.  

Please note that we at Reading SEPAC cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information presented on any third-party website listed on this site, nor do we endorse any informational content appearing on third-party websites of any of the providers listed. We endeavor only to provide a listing of potentially helpful information available. Its up to you, as a consumer, to do your own diligence and research. Also note that any summarization of the laws, rules, regulations, processes or similar related to special education, or advice proffered is based exclusively on the experience of Reading SEPAC members as parents of children with special needs. Its in no way an official reflection of the position of the FCSA or the Reading School system and we make no claims of expertise in communication, law, education or any other areas. While we have endeavored to provide simple-to-read language for parents, we are not experts, do not claim to be, and make no warranties or claims of accuracy related to the informational content of this website.