Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The mass of moms lead lives of (not so) quiet desperation

I need to turn Thoreau on his head a little here - I made mention of 'desperate parents' in a blog note last week and on cue I had a discussion with a mom recently and she looked me squarely in the eye and said

You do realize that you are talking to a desperate parent, don't you?

Of course I knew that. It is the time of year for reviewing Individualized Education Plans. This particular mom's story was not so different from the hundreds who have preceded her. She wanted to know if she was crazy, or if she had odd expectations of her school system, and why she was having such a difficult time interacting with her child's educational team.

I began my private practice with the naive notion that I would function as a private therapist for approximately 2-3 years, work with families and school districts to help them bridge gaps of misunderstanding, and likely put myself out of business after engaging in several years worth of advocacy and educational efforts. That was a pretty funny thought, looking back on it now.

I used to have a real fear of marginalizing myself with the educational community by walking into meetings with parents who want more out of their districts. In the beginning it may have been more of a real concern but after doing this for nearly 10 years it seems most of the districts have come to figure out what I am trying to accomplish - that I am just trying to help families learn how to interface with the educational system. Sometimes that means that the family needs to alter their expectations. Sometimes that means that the district needs to modify their intervention plan a little. In the end I hope it leads to better IEPs for kids. That's my bottom line, actually. I have figured out that most districts understand my actions because we have been able to secure contracts with quite a few districts and educational programs, even though I show up at meetings sitting at the parent's side sometimes. I like the fact that we have these contracts and I like that I show up in these districts helping parents on a private basis. It has never been a conflict of interest, because my role in both situations is to best serve the needs of the child who requires services. When I am in a district I try to accomplish that through program development, staff development, and excellent service. When I am helping a parent privately it is through education of the family and advocacy. The only consideration in either situation is the outcome for the child - and this keeps me laser-focused on the objective and (in my opinion) very intellectually honest and unbiased. I hope it comes across that way more often than not.

The interaction is dicey, though - parents (mostly represented by moms) feel varying degrees of desperation over their child's educational plans. What makes IEP meetings akin to a powder keg is that the parent rarely enters the meeting with JUST the educational issue on their mind. So even though the meeting is about developing goals for a behavior intervention plan in third grade, the parent is still thinking about whether it was a good idea to repeat kindergarten, whether it was the correct choice to spend a full year in a self contained classroom at the CSE's recommendation, WHY IS THERE NOT ENOUGH SPECIFICITY IN THIS BEHAVIOR PLAN, whether or not the child will ever develop real friendships, and whether or not they will be able to attend the Senior Prom. These are all absolutely acceptable and normal parent concerns but of course the CSE tends not to think on this scale as it is not their purview to do so. Thus, powder keg meets match.

Parents do not go gentle into that good night. Nor should they - but they need to know what the school is required and not required to do. I try to help with that. Some schools approach the encounter kicking and screaming - even though we have new concepts in education like RTI where we are supposed to be accountable for our interventions. Of course schools come around to these emerging educational models at varying paces, and have mercy on those schools who are not as up to speed as the parents want them to be!

So each Spring I insert myself directly between desperate parents and their CSEs, trying to navigate the stormy seas between them. I hope I help.

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