It’s a Thin Line, My Friend

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Alright, let me start this off with a disclaimer: I am a HUGE advocate for parents learning to be advocates for their children. I think it’s essential for parents to learn about their rights, and the rights their children are entitled to. I also believe it is our responsibility as teachers to work with parents and families for the best outcomes for each student, especially when our students have significant medical and physical needs. It’s important to state that 99.99% of all parents that I’ve worked with have been a pleasure to team with, and while we may not always agree, we are able to work together for their child.

That being said: there is often a fine line between advocating for a child, and bullying staff. Unfortunately, in my relatively short teaching career, I have worked with several parents who have wandered across that fine line. It’s never fun, and it’s not always easy to determine when someone is truly advocating for a child versus someone who is pushing for control. So, here’s what I’ve come up with, as a result of my experiences:

1. An advocate has specific, goals, a bully is vague. I’ve found that parents who are sincerely advocating for what they believe is best for their child have specific things they’d like addressed (i.e. “I’m concerned about my child’s positioning needs” or “I’d really like Jimmy to work on feeding skills”). I may or may not agree with those goals/concerns initially, but if a parent has a specific idea, it’s worth considering. However, I’ve also worked with parents who have demands such as “I want him to do more”, but are unable to clarify what, specifically, they are concerned about.

2. An advocate is open to discussion, a bully is not. As I mentioned before, I may not always agree with a parent’s suggestion or concerns, but I’m always willing to discuss it. I’m secure enough to admit that there have been MANY times that a parent has brought up an idea that I’ve realized, after discussion, is something we should begin to implement. For example, it was a parent’s advocacy that brought music therapy to our school, and I LOVE it! On the other hand, a bully won’t even consider a discussion, expecting instead that you acquiesce to their demands unquestioned.

3. An advocate has researched, a bully makes demands without examples. Not all parents have the means or time to be able to fully research every aspect of their child’s life, especially when their child has numerous, significant needs. However, when a parent who’s advocating for their child has something specific that they’re interested in, they’ve usually looked into a few options. Again, I may or may not agree with the options they’re suggesting, but at least I have specific places I can look to learn more and be able to have reasonable, knowledgeable conversations about said topic. Unfortunately, there are some parents who make vague demands for things that may or may not exist. For example, I had the experience of someone demanding I use a curriculum with their child that did not actually exist. When pushed, this person admitted they had made it up, but continued to insist it would work.

4. An advocate is respectful, even in disagreements, a bully resorts to aggressive, attacking language. I can only imagine that having a child with significant disabilities is stressful beyond imagination, and when it comes to education, it can be a touchy subject. Parents are, rightly, very passionate about their children and will do whatever they can to get what’s best for their child. I’ve found that in many situations, it appears that a parent is making ridiculous demands, but through discussion, it often turns out that we’re on the same side. Even if we’re not, we’re able to discuss it. On the other hand, a bully often refuses to engage in discussion and resorts to name-calling or aggressive communications.

I sincerely hope that if you’re a teacher, you never come across this situation. Especially when you work with students that have multiple disabilities, it’s essential that the school and family work together to help that child. However, since I have had the experience of working with a few (although, I reiterate, it is a SMALL minority) difficult families, here’s some tips I’ve learned through trial and error:

1. Recognize that there’s usually something behind the aggression. Most of the time, a parent or family that may come across as a bully has had some experience that has made them feel like they have to fight you. For example, one particularly difficult parent had a horrible experience trying to get early intervention services for their child. They had to fight to get the therapies their child truly needed. Because this occurred at the beginning of the child’s educational experience, the school became the enemy (even though the school was not involved in the EI difficulties in any way). Now, this did not excuse the aggressive behavior, but it did make it easier for me to not take being called a “glorified babysitter” quite so personally.

2. Be cognizant that acceptance is incredibly difficult. Although I haven’t done any sort of scientific study to back this up, I’d wager that most of the time when I’ve worked with a family that I felt was tending toward the bullying side of the line, it’s because I was telling them things they weren’t ready or able to accept. Because I, as a special education teacher, have training and experience with children with disabilities, I have the responsibility of setting high, but realistic goals for my students. Often, seeing the difference between the goals for their child with a disability and the goals of their other children is incredibly difficult for parents to accept. Recognizing this has helped me approach parents in a different way. I still have to be realistic and straightforward, but I also take the time to explain why that particular goal is important in the longer term.

3. (And this one is the MOST important) Remember the common ground. Although it may not seem like it in the moment, even “bullies” are doing what they believe is best for their child. As the teacher, you should have the same goal. Sometimes even starting off a conversation with a parent with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye with that reminder, “we’re both here to figure out how to best serve Suzie”, can go a long way toward setting a positive tone.

As the teacher, you can’t change how parents view the school, or how they approach interactions with you. Your administrators will tell you how to deal with things from a legal perspective, but I’m hoping that the information I’ve shared can help from the emotional standpoint. It’s tough to work with someone with whom you are constantly butting heads, however, it’s important to keep trying to build a relationship that works in the best interest of the child with a disability.

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