Building Parent Trust in the Special Education Setting: Educators and Parents of Students with Special Needs Must Work Together to Change School Culture and Move from Conflict to Collaboration

By Wellner, Laurie | Leadership, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Building Parent Trust in the Special Education Setting: Educators and Parents of Students with Special Needs Must Work Together to Change School Culture and Move from Conflict to Collaboration


Wellner, Laurie, Leadership


If trust is born in strong relationships, then first encounters are critical. Parents of students with disabilities undergo a great deal of stress and come to us--the educational professionals--for help with vital specialized tasks, including assessment, placement, progress monitoring, and maintenance of their child's ongoing needs.

Often, parents arrive at our school door-steps with apprehension. Some parents are seeking a cure. Some don't believe their child has a disability. Some parents are angry with themselves or even the system itself and look to us for answers.

Special education is a framework where the very foundation is built on adversarial relations--where parents hire attorneys and advocates to fight against districts. We need to lead the way in changing this culture and move from conflict to collaboration.

Collaboration between schools and parents is the foremost approach to accurate educational planning and rests primarily on two principles of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act: parent participation and procedural due process. IDEA requires parents to be included in the educational process.

Effective long-term partnerships

Often, parents of students with special needs will come to an Individualized Education Program team meeting and feel threatened by the very people who are responsible for providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for their child. Trust between parents and educational leaders is necessary for effective long-term partnerships and ultimately to support and improve the teaching and learning process for eligible children.

Because of differing perspectives and theories of educational intervention, there has been a remarkable escalation of IDEA related litigation between parents of students with disabilities--specifically autism--and public school districts. Katsiyannis and Herbst (2004) note that special education "has consistently been the most litigated area in education." Parents often disagree with school districts regarding eligibility, recommended services, and placement of their special needs children. In special education, these disputes frequently lead to litigation by parents exercising their due process rights.

These discrepancies have long-lasting implications for educators. These disagreements also generate continued mistrust between schools, teachers, administrators and families, while creating a considerable strain on the district's budget.

Win-lose mentality of litigation

A concise definition of trust has been developing in many disciplines of social and human sciences, as well as the medical and financial fields. More recently, a growing body of research yields essential findings for educational leaders as well.

Various studies describe lack of communication, collaboration, poor listening skills, and professionals' unwillingness to consider new ideas and perspectives as main factors in unstable relationships. Feinberg and Vacca (2000) have clarified that, unfortunately, "Once conflicts begin, the win-lose mentality of litigation has replaced the complexity of cogent discussion." It is apparent that these trust violations are at the heart of many interpersonal conflicts, including those between parents and school districts.

Because parents have experienced confusion and loss, they may distrust the education system. They often claim that services recommended by school districts are merely adequate as opposed to ideal. When parents advocate for services beyond what administrators view as affordable or necessary, frustration can become a source of conflict. Failed advocacy results in expensive litigation and significant burdens on both the financial and emotional realms of the parties.

Parents can feel inferior to the experts, the complicated language, and the procedures within special education. When conflicts arise, parents can withdraw or become adversarial, leading to more clashes and ongoing meetings. …

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