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Dealing With Difficult Parents

Some strategies for success and sanity

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Raising children with disabilities is tough. Real tough. Parents raising children with disabilities sometimes are worn thin, on the edge. Can you blame them? Too often schools don't help these parents, they just make things worse.

Other parents, quite frankly, suffer from the same disabilities as their children. Children who are severely ADHD may have inherited it from their mother or father. You may find some parents even exhibit signs of personality disorders, talking only about themselves, blaming you, the weather, the economy, the Russians and who knows what else for their problems.

As a special education teacher, remember that you are paid to help their children succeed, not to offer counseling, "fix" the parents or the family, or to win popularity contests. On the other hand, creating more hostility will not help you in the classroom.

Tools for Dealing with Difficult Parents

  • Reflective listening is an important skill to learn with all parents, not just the ones who are difficult. Learn to listen for the feeling behind the words and respond accordingly: "It sounds like you're pretty angry about this." "That must have been really disappointing."

  • Objectivity is important when parents go up in flames. It is important that you don't get hooked by the emotionality of a parent who may have legitimate reasons to be upset. Try to remember that parents are upset about something that has or has not happened. Their anger/emotion may be pointed in your direction, but you may not be the real target.

  • Documentation. Save emails and notes. Forward emails to the supervisor who is closest to the situation and needs to know-which may be both a special education supervisor and a principal. Keep a daily log or journal and record as much of the content of the interaction with the parent as possible. If you go to due process, the fact that you keep a journal will support any claims you make about the interactions with the parents.

  • Allies are essential. Keep your building principal and special ed supervisor informed about interactions with difficult parents. If the relationships of either of these supervisors to the family may compromise their judgment, give the building representative of your union a heads up, so they can be proactive in terms of any problems that might be brewing.

  • Being proactive may be critical. Taking the time to build a positive relationship with a parent will pay dividends when you need to share some bad news.

  • Create boundaries around the relationship. Be sure to be clear early on that not all times are good times to communicate. The parents of children with disabilities may feel isolated and stressed, and offering yourself as a friend at any time could lead to some serious trouble. Be clear when speaking to parents "I can only talk for 5 minutes." Or be clear about times to talk, "Can I call you this afternoon at 4, after students are gone?" or "I may call you from my home, but please respect my family's privacy, and leave messages on the machine at school. I will call you back."

  • Disengagement means remembering that the emotion that parents speak from may have little to do with you. You may feel that a parent is "disrespecting" you, but it is counterproductive to attempt to argue with parents. Sometimes the best answer to an email is "Thank you for sharing your concerns. I will share this with the principal." Keep responses short, in any case. Avoid emotionally freighted words, especially "lie," "disrespectful," "never," "always," and of course any curse words. It may also be helpful to ask to set another time when you both feel calmer.

Every special educator has some favorite stories of dysfunctional families. Really good special educators can also tell you some ways in which the challenges they faced were balanced by the sense of accomplishment they got from working with those parents and that child. Hopefully you will keep the kind of objectivity and calm that will help you sail through the challenges of dealing with difficult parents.

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