Sunday, September 11, 2011

“I Don’t Want to Be Pushy, but…..” – Ten Ideas for Parents AND Educators to Help Deal with the Start of School

“I Don’t Want to Be Pushy, but…..” – Ten Ideas for Parents AND Educators to Help Deal with the Start of School

By Matt Cohen

September 11, 2011

We leave in an age when schools are underfunded, saddled with expectations that are difficult for them to fulfill, loads of scrutiny using arbitrary test measures, and inadequate training for teachers to cope with the demands that are placed on them. And then there are “those pushy parents.” Parents that actually want to contribute to the development of their child’s IEP. Parents that want to know how their child is doing. Parents that want to get meaningful feedback from the staff and perhaps even observe the classroom from time to time. Parents that want to know why their child isn’t making progress on their goals and objectives or why promised services aren’t being delivered. Parents that ask questions at IEP meetings or even in between IEP meetings. Parents that may even have special knowledge about their child that might be helpful in teaching the student or in working with them more effectively. Parents that are actually interested in volunteering in the classroom. Oh, my God!!!!!!!
Those pushy parents!!!! A scarlet letter quickly gets branded on their foreheads – watch out for them, they are “pushy parents.”

It is no surprise that this happens, as teachers feel unsupported by parents and administrators, overloaded by paperwork, unprepared to cope with some of the demands of their students, let alone of parents, embattled and unappreciated. The quality (or inadequacy) of American education is now an ongoing political issue. It can’t feel good to go home and turn on the tv to have politicians and talking heads blasting away night after night.

But the result is a phenomenon I call “Pushy Parent Hypersensitivity Syndrome.” This syndrome leads some educators to react defensively to any efforts by parents to become more involved, seek more information, make suggestions, or just come to observe. Clearly, some parents over do it, seeking to micromanage every thing about their child’s education, down to correcting the teacher’s grammar or insisting on being called every day. But “Pushy Parent Hypersensitivity Syndrome” causes many educators to react to even highly appropriate efforts by parents, even very limited efforts by parents, to get involved, to participate or, god forbid, to share a concern about something that is happening. PPHS results in reluctance to take phone calls, refusal to respond to emails, rigid time schedules for meetings when more time is needed, involvement of administrators when direct communication would be better, even restrictions on the parents’ ability to communicate with staff or visit the school. This syndrome usually escalates to a point of Mutually Assured Distrust, for as the educators shut down and become more defensive, the parents become more concerned, more frustrated, and feel greater need to be assertive, demanding and ultimately adversarial.
So as this new school year starts, here are some suggestions for both PARENTS AND EDUCATORS for avoiding PUSHY PARENT HYPERSENSITIVITY SYNDROME and MUTUALLY ASSURED DISTRUST!

1) COMMUNICATE OPENLY AND OFTEN ABOUT POSITIVES. Not only does the child need to feel good, but the parents and teachers need to feel good. Open and positive communication is the best vehicle for building cooperation and rapport.
2) SEEK AND WELCOME OPPORTUNITIES FOR HELP. Parents should make clear their desire to assist and support the educational staff, whether volunteering in the classroom, on field trips, or at school events. Teachers should seek out and embrace this involvement. In this era of limited and declining resources, who couldn’t use more help.
3) RECOGNIZE THAT THIS CHILD IS THE PARENTS’ MOST IMPORTANT CONCERN AND THAT THE TEACHER CAN AND SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT THIS CHILD BUT CONCERNED ABOUT ALL OF HIS/HER STUDENTS. This is a message that both parties need to understand in both directions. It is important for the teacher to understand and value the parents’ concern for THEIR child and convey appreciation for that concern. It is also important for parents to recognize that no one can have the level of concern they do for their own child. They should expect appropriate and sincere concern for their child from the staff, but not that the staff will have equal concern or ignore their responsibilities for other students.
4) DON’T MAKE IT PERSONAL/TRY NOT TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It is is for people to feel ignored, devalued or attacked. For parents, this may happen if they feel their child is being mistreated or given insufficient attention or support, or is being treated disrespectfully. For teachers, this may result from something as simple as the parent asking the teacher their qualifications or years of experience or experience with a particular teaching method or computer system. It is easy to feel hurt, injured or angry. Try to avoid reacting to the impression or emotion that is perceived or implied. Try to focus on the actual problem. And if there seems to be inappropriate or miscommunication, try to clear the air as quickly as possible.
It is important to work on relationships and communication all the time. Little problems can build into big problems if they are not addressed. For both the parent and the school, this is made more complicated because the parent remains involved throughout, but the teacher inherits whatever problems have occurred in the past. Try to start each year fresh. Don’t ignore prior problems, but try to allow for a new start and to repair whatever problems were present before. It can be helpful to acknowledge these issues and try to address them and move on, rather than pretending they weren’t present.
The converse of number six is that sometimes, the parent or educator may get hung up on minor issues that are not worth fighting over. Rule 5 is important, but it is also important to be selective about the things you are concerned about and address with the other party. Especially if things are getting tense, it can be easy to overreact, react to things that aren’t high priority or react in a way that aggravates the problem, rather than promoting a solution.
It is almost always preferable to work together, rather than to be in conflict. Even if compromise is needed on both sides, a plan or process that everyone supports is far more likely to succeed than one that is forced on someone or that is done without real commitment.

Some special education disputes may involve legitimate issues where the parties just disagree. Many get tangled up with communication issues, personality, trust, competence, motivation and emotion. Where individual competence, motivation or conduct is at stake, it is often best to try to work out issues individually first. If that doesn’t work, try talking to a supervisor or the parent in an informal setting. Saving face is important for everybody. Public confrontations are generally more likely to polarize, rather than to bring people together. Unfortunately, if informal means are unsuccessful, it is also important to go through formal procedures and make sure that concerns are documented.
Everyone involved in this process may be experiencing stress or pressures about the process and the outcome. Often, there are other things happening that may not be known to the other party that also cause problems, stress, limit options or influence how the person comes across or what they can do. Try to imagine the situation from their perspective. It is especially important for educators to imagine what they would do if they were in the parents’ situation and all the issues the parents must be facing in trying to help their child. But the parents should also go through that process, rather than making assumptions about the educators.
Sharing important information at the last minute, or worse, in the midst of an IEP meeting, generally triggers a negative reaction in the person receiving the information. It also consumes valuable time for the other person to even process and understand the information. Often, because the person is upset at being surprised, they may respond with anger and be unable to even address the information in a meaningful way. This is particularly important when the school is sharing major new information about a child’s diagnosis, new difficulties, or need for some other program. Parents hearing this type of information for the first time in an IEP meeting are very likely to feel hurt, victimized and overwhelmed. Imagine being told that your child is failing or has a new or different disability when you thought the meeting was just a routine meeting. Similarly, parents may trigger hostility and resistance when they bring in new clinical information or a dramatic change in desired plans for the child without any advance discussion with any of the school staff. Everyone is more able to focus on the real issues when they are aware of them, rather than surprised by them.
Often, the adults involved in decision-making concerning the child can easily become caught up in their own agendas, in personalities, in emotions, and in issues of power, control, and ego. It is easy for the child and the child’s needs to get lost. All the adults, parents and educators, need to be aware of their own agendas and emotions and keep them in check. The goal is to meet the child’s needs, not to make a point, establish control, or win a moral, financial, political or emotional victory.

Copyright, Matthew D. Cohen, September 11, 2011. May be reprinted with the author’s written consent.

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