In the world of special education, no task is more difficult than dealing with parents of special needs and mentally disabled children - reaching an appropriate level of communication is absolutely vital in creating the ideal atmosphere for a joint approach to their child's education. One of the most important goals for educators is to increase participation in IEP conferences; without the investment of the parents in their child's education initiatives, the child stands a much smaller chance of achieving a successful education (Goldstein & Turnbull, 1982).
Collaborative consultation is the key to successful individual education program (IEP) initiatives; the educational demands of the child provided by the teacher need to be levied by the emotional well-being and overall welfare provided by the parents. In the course of collaborative consultation, agreements and compromises must be met to allow the child to learn enough to survive and thrive in a competitive world, while making sure that the parents understand what is best for the child (Roller et al., 1992). The educator's primary goal in collaborative consultation is to make sure that the parents understand the reasoning behind the IEP created for the child, and to factor in any concerns they may have into their decision making.
There are a number of unique challenges for parents engaging in these individual education programs. First, they may be undereducated themselves, or not fully understand what is required to educate their children. Their own frustration and lack of self-worth as a result of the stress of dealing with a disabled child may show through in their interactions with educators (Dettmer et al., 2005). Parents may not necessarily feel as though they are equal partners in the efforts to educate their child; they may imagine that the teacher has all the power (Rock, 2000).
The biggest problem, however, is just a simple lack of understanding or knowledge regarding the real expectations they must give their children. This ignorance can lead to the IEP meeting turning into a "meaningless ritual" where the parents merely sign off on whatever the educator suggests they do with their child's education, because they do not know any better (Fish, p. 56). The parents simply do not feel that they have the capability to understand the terminology and jargon associated with special education initiatives, and an inability of the educator to communicate those terms adequately leaves them at a disadvantage (Fish, 2005).
Often, the educator is at fault for communication breakdowns occurring in IEP team efforts as well. Educators will often neglect to invite parents to IEP meetings, or schedule them according to what is convenient or possible for the parents. Not enough of an effort is made to accommodate parents with different cultures, or provide a comfortable environment that enables them to feel free to communicate (Dobkowski, 2004). While the goal is to help the parents deal with the child's education issues in the future as well, that ability is often deterred by a lack of objectivity on the part of the parents, who may take an educator's recommendation as an emotional slight against their son. This inability to distance emotion from practicality is one particular difficulty encountered by parents and educators in IEP settings (Dettmer et al., 2005).
The challenge of parent-teacher communication in IEP meetings becomes more difficult when the parents themselves have their own mental health issues. While most IEP programs carry the expectation of supplemental education performed by the parents, that can be difficult if the parents themselves are going through mental health problems. Clinical depression, for example, is a common experience among those parents who have a child with disabilities. They may feel as though they failed as parents, or that they have been dealt a bad hand in life and are having trouble coming to terms with that. Either way, parents with depression or other mental health issues tend to have a lower net level of participation in their child's education (Murray et al., 2006).
Intercultural interactions, and a lack of understanding from both parties regarding customs and practices of other cultures, can exacerbate existing tensions in IEP meetings and make this practice much more difficult. Due to cultural differences and other factors (including income and perceptions), minorities can often fall prey to perceptions that their voice is not being heard or valued in the education process. One study of Mexican-American parents participating in IEP meetings revealed that the parents wished to be involved in decision-making for their child's education, but the educators refused them advocacy due to their race (Salas, 2009). These implicit (and sometimes explicit) messages are anathema to efficient education and IEP consultation, and as such should be eliminated entirely.
In order to fix these intercultural issues (and others) the concepts of what constitutes a disability, as well as what levels of parent-educator collaboration are acceptable, must be defined. Sometimes a language barrier prevents effective communication; an interpreter or bilingual facilitator may be able to solve the communication problem and make each party's intentions clear. Also, the invitation must be made to participate in an IEP meeting rather than merely observe it; that will make them understand that they are meant to provide their own insight into their child's education (Dobkowski, 2004).
Given the many challenges that beset both parents and educators in an IEP setting, practical guidelines must be set in order to facilitate best practices and create an efficient learning environment for the child. With these things in mind, there are a number of things that can be done to increase the effectiveness of IEP meetings. First of all, adequate communication levels must be reached between parent and teacher. If the two forces involved in these IEP meetings cannot come to a mutual understanding, there is no way that progress can be made toward the child's education. Honesty is absolutely key to communication; parents and teachers must be honest about their intentions and concerns. Hiding or suppressing one's concerns about the curriculum or the participation of either party merely leads to increased tension and a lack of progress in IEP meetings.
Roles must be clearly defined in IEP team meetings - educators and parents must come to an agreement over who has what jurisdiction over their child's education. Educators must be allowed to be compassionate regarding the welfare and performance level of the child, while the parents must understand the objectivity the educator is burdened with in order to accurately assess the child's abilities. Increased proximity and interaction can help both parties create a common communication language that will facilitate better communication, as well (Lytle & Bordin, 2001).
There are many reasons why parent participation in IEP meetings can often be lower - either they do not know as much as they would like to know, or are embarrassed and intimidated by having to participate in the program at all. These concerns, and more, can get in the way of effective collaborative consultation, and creating a consensus on the best course of action for their child. As a result, practical measures must be taken to assuage their concerns, and make sure that the educator is providing the schooling their child needs and his/her parents want.
Parents in IEP meetings often feel as though they have the short end of the stick; they are put in a defensive position, having to guard themselves against a potentially judging educator and school system. This particular attitude is not conducive to effective collaborative consultation, and will result in a negative net effect on the child's education. With these things in mind, it is necessary to find ways to make the parent feel more like they are on an even playing field with the educator, and make them feel better about participating in IEP team meetings.
In essence, IEP meetings must be looked at from a team perspective; maintaining a collaborative attitude and a willingness to share information allows the parents to gain agency and advocacy in the education of their own child. Providing a facilitator to IEP meetings would allow a third party to oversee the entire meeting and moderate the discussions - this would make neither party feel bullied or misunderstood (Dobkowski, 2004). Guiding the meetings toward a consensus will make the parents more willing to chip in with their recommendations or concerns, and the facilitator empowers them to make those assertions.
The meeting environment could also be made as comfortable as possible; often, the physical environment can serve to intimidate the parents, thus diminishing their level of participation. If the location is not lit well, or has inadequate or uncomfortable seating and conference space, it can have the potential to make parents feel unwelcome. As a result, conference spaces must be created in well-lit rooms, with tables and chairs to facilitate all members of the discussion. While they do not have to be palaces, taking consideration for the comfort level of the parents will allow them to feel better able to participate (Dobkowski, 2004).
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