By Andrew M.I. Lee
Informal meetings with your school—such as evaluation, teacher and IEP team meetings—can be a good time to negotiate for the educational services your child needs. Here are 11 tips on informal negotiation strategies.
The vast majority of schools and teachers want the best for your child. Keeping this in mind will help you establish a collaborative atmosphere for any negotiation. It’s important not to create a disagreement where there really isn’t one. Starting with this mindset will help you identify possible allies among teachers and school employees. And it will help you better apply other negotiation strategies.
The more prepared you are, the better you can negotiate. At a minimum, know the basic details of the meeting. Where will it be? What time? Who will be there? Beyond basics, make sure to understand your child’s learning and attention issues, his rights, how he learns and what helps him thrive. Before the meeting, write down your goals and the points you want to make. This shows the school that you’re prepared and know your rights.
It can be frustrating if your child is struggling and the school doesn’t seem to be able to help. Nevertheless, it’s important to be polite and respectful to school personnel. Bringing food or coffee to the meeting can help things start off on a positive note. If you personally attack a school employee, chances are the employee will be reluctant to help you. At the same time, be firm about your child’s needs.
Sometimes the school doesn’t have the staff or training needed to help your child. In an informal negotiation, make it a point to understand the school’s interests and limits. By understanding what the school wants and can do, you can avoid miscommunication and be in a better position to negotiate. Sometimes, the school is willing to give your child what she needs, but only in a certain location or with a certain program.
A misunderstanding can delay the services that your child needs. So it’s important to make clear to the school how you want to help your child. If you want to improve your child’s behavior, say so. If you’re concerned about reading skills, tell the school. A school that understands your child’s needs may focus on solutions, rather than just resisting your requests.
The term “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” (BATNA) comes from the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes. Your BATNA is your best option if you can’t reach an agreement with the school. For example, if the school doesn’t agree to the reading program your child needs, is sending your child to private school the best option for you? Or is it mediation? Knowing your BATNA helps you figure out whether or not to accept a school’s offer.
Informal negotiations can break down when schools and parents focus on winning, rather than focusing on the interests of the child. Get around this by setting up your discussion with the school as mutual problem solving. Work with the school to identify the issue and then ask how you can work together to solve it. If the school proposes a solution you don’t want, emphasize how the proposal doesn’t solve the issue, then redirect the conversation back to problem solving.
Sometimes when a school says it won’t do something, it can get stuck in that position—even if school employees realize later they’re wrong. Look for solutions that help the school “save face.” For example, if the school’s already rejected one type of therapy, ask if there are other therapies available. You may be surprised when the school suggests one that is just as good. Also, never gloat or brag if you get what you want.
If you’re trying to get a school to give your child a particular service, you’re more likely to succeed if you support your request with data. For instance, if your child struggles with math, what are his current math test scores? How have other students improved in math with this service? How did your child respond when he tried out the service? This makes it more difficult for the school to say no.
After a meeting, send a polite letter or email describing what was agreed on. It can be helpful to make this a thank-you note. Begin by expressing appreciation, then detail your understanding of the meeting. Even the best-negotiated agreement can fall apart if you and the school later disagree on what was said. Even if no agreement was reached, it’s important to make a record of how you are working with the school to find a solution.
If a school offers services, you may be tempted to accept on the spot. This can be a bad idea if you don’t have time to fully consider the offer. If you feel any discomfort, don’t hesitate to ask the school for time to think it over. Having a few days to consider the offer and ask others about it may help you make the right decision.
Special education can seem like a foreign language. You may hear unfamiliar terms and acronyms in meetings and wish for a translator! Learn these key terms and you may find it easier to protect your child’s rights.
Understanding your child’s legal rights can help you advocate for him. But legal language can be complex and hard to follow. Here we define key passages from the laws that govern special education.
Andrew M.I. Lee is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education and parenting issues.
Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is coauthor of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.
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