Ten Tips for Negotiating with Your Child's School
By: Susan Yellin, Esq.
Negotiation is a regular part of life. We all negotiate all of the time – in our work, in social situations, and with our children. But one kind of negotiation that can be particularly stressful is with your child’s school.
Whether your child attends a public or private school, and whether or not he has special learning needs, there are steps you can take to become a more effective negotiator and to make the school experience go more smoothly for you and your child.
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1. Make a point of getting to know the staff at your child’s school.
If the opportunity arises, stop by the office, drop off a tray of cookies at holiday time, and volunteer in the classroom. Establishing personal relationships with the people who come into contact with your child when things are going well may come in handy later if a problem arises.
2. Make sure you understand the purpose of any school meeting.
If necessary, arrange for a “pre-meeting conference” with key individuals (perhaps your child’s classroom teacher and/or resource room teacher) so you have an idea of what to expect at the later, larger meeting. You can be sure that if the meeting is important that the school staff has already discussed your child and their goals for the meeting among themselves.
3. Know your rights and make this knowledge quietly clear to all involved.
This means using appropriate vocabulary (“FAPE”, “least restrictive environment”, “IEP”, “filing for a hearing”) at a special education meeting, or perhaps knowing the names of reading or math programs used by the school or which you want them to use.
4. Know the limits of your rights, too.
For example, your child who receives special education services is not entitled to an ideal or perfect education, just one that is “appropriate” and allows him or her to make regular progress. A private school is not required to enroll or re-enroll a child who they believe is not able to manage the curriculum.
5. Keep calm and never, ever, lose your temper.
There are steps you can take after a meeting when a participant behaves outrageously or just angers you by their intransigence (complaints to their supervisors or the board of education, or filing for a hearing before a state hearing officer for special education matters,) but you need to “be the grown-up” at all times. If you don’t feel you can manage to follow this rule, make sure you bring someone with you who can help you keep calm. It will not benefit your child to have a meeting turn hostile or become a shouting match.
6. Keep records of everything.
Sure, we all have stacks of artwork and an accumulation of school reports in file folders. But if you are working through a difficult situation with your child’s school, you should make notes of every conversation and meeting and keep copies of all emails and other correspondence. These can be extremely important if you wind up at a hearing over a special education issue, but even in other circumstances it is useful to be able to note who made a particular promise to you and when they made it. Stress can impact memory, so taking notes at meetings can be very helpful when you want to recall exactly how many times a week the school agreed to provide speech therapy services.
7. Think through your goals for school meetings in advance.
Do you want additional academic support? Help with a difficult social situation? To better understand why your child has too much or not enough homework? By considering what you want to happen as a result of your school meeting you can think about what you will accept or request, what you will do if you and the school are not on the same page, and you will have a chance to do some research. What other math programs are available? Is there another class available with a different teacher who may be a better fit for your child?
8. Be a good listener.
Sometimes it’s hard to have all the facts about a situation beforehand. Why was your child moved out of his reading group? Is it really because the teacher doesn't like him (as he claims)? Or could it be that he was struggling to keep up with the group, or that his behavior was so disruptive that the group could not do their work? While we want to support our children, we all know that they aren't always accurate and complete in what they report to us. It’s human nature. So consider that there may be things going on that you have not been made aware of.
9. Keep an open mind.
Teachers and administrators are dedicated professionals who want to do the best thing for your child. But their obligation to your child is balanced by their obligation to the entire class or school and sometimes that can create a tension, whether it is logistical, financial, or otherwise. Keep that in mind as you work with them.
10. Teach your child how to negotiate for himself.
The process is a gradual one and must always be age-appropriate and geared to the nature and abilities of each child. But learning how to effectively ask for what he needs, to deal with social conflict, and to be respectful of others is a crucial skill set that will help him as an adult.