15 Tips for Overcoming Conflict in Special Education 8.17

By Emerson Dickman

Fifteen Tips for Overcoming Conflict in Special Education

Human nature adds fuel to the fires of conflict. Understanding how human nature influences your actions and the actions of others is a principal way to avoid a conflagration. Parents advocate for the welfare of their child. Educators advocate for the welfare of all the children in their school. To be effective, both groups must contribute to an atmosphere of collaboration so all parties can achieve a sense of comfort that their responsibility to the child has been satisfied. But then why is there so much conflict in the field of special education? The answer is relatively simple. Conflict in education usually is driven by inadequate information as to the character of the disability involved and the appropriate response.

The following tips will help all advocates, families, and educational professionals benefit from the knowledge gained from each perspective to understand as much as possible about the child and assess how they can best address his or her educational needs.

1) Watch the Attitude

It has been said, “10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion, 90% are due to wrong tone of voice.” I agree. Parents must treat every educational professional as a lifetime learner whose chosen profession reflects his or her love of children and teaching. The educational professional, in return, must treat the parent as an indispensable resource of information about the child.

Parents need assurance as to two principal concerns. First, they are not responsible for the problems faced by their child. Second, that they will never have to look back, from the future, and say, "I wish I had ...." Mistakes are inevitable, regrets are avoidable. Free a parent of the burden of guilt and the specter of regret and the educational professional has a friend for life.

2) Sprinkle Cecil Dust

It is hard to dislike someone who is happy. When Cecil Mercer, author of Great Leaps, asked, “How are you?,” it was not a perfunctory greeting; he was genuinely interested. In return, Cecil told you how he was feeling, how he expected to feel that afternoon and possibly the next day. His current status and expectations for the future were always optimistic and full of positive thoughts making everyone around him feel happy. Happiness, goodwill, and trust are contagious. A sprinkling of Cecil Dust should begin every meeting.

3) Avoid fighting words

Don’t start sentences with words that polarize. "You’ve got to understand . . .," and "To tell the truth . . .," are verbal defenses that interfere with the understanding and acceptance of the comments to follow. Educators talking to parents about parenting skills are like parents talking to teachers about teaching skills — not appreciated. Use person-first language (e.g., a child with a disability is not a disabled child any more than a school for students with dyslexia is a dyslexic school).

4) Pay attention to power positioning

Where you sit makes a difference. Parents feel vulnerable at meetings; they are usually outnumbered and lack the expertise of the educators in the room. Those who feel disempowered are defensive and reluctant to trust. The power of the educators should not be reinforced by seating arrangements emphasizing authority.

5) Practice active listening

Everyone should be made to feel that they are contributing to consensus. When someone else is making a point, let them finish, ask clarifying questions, and paraphrase to show an understanding of the other person’s contribution before responding.

6) Take notes

Taking notes conveys that you value the other person’s input. Parents bring a lot of emotion to their comments; it is immensely reassuring to them that they are being taken seriously enough to be written down.

7) Remember, the finger of blame does not point to solutions

It is natural for parents to see the child’s difficulty as the school’s fault and for the school to see such difficulties as the parents’ or child’s fault (see self-serving bias below). Finding fault is not a meaningful pursuit and does not advance the need to address the child’s difficulties. Understanding this dynamic can help change the tone of the discussion and keep the focus on the child.

8) Change but to and

Jim has a lot of potential, but he is unmotivated and doesn’t make the effort." Parents will interpret this as meaning that their son is lazy, doesn’t care, and is a looser. Both professionals and parents should avoid using the word but. It is much more positive to say, "Jim has a lot of potential and, with a little more confidence, his motivation will improve.” When parents say something like “He can’t read.” the response could be “Up until now he can’t read and we are going to … .” Focus on solutions instead of problems.

9) Be aware of metameaning

Parents are emotionally involved when it comes to discussing their child’s weaknesses. When a comment is made that is challenging or triggers a defensive response, the professional should consider what is really being said. When parents observe that they have triggered a defensive response, they should retreat, rethink, and rephrase to get their point across and regain focus on the child. Concerns of parents that are not articulated in the heat of the moment and not addressed at the meeting will invariably be recalled in the parking lot or on the way home. Recognized, but unaddressed questions result in imagined answers spiced with mistrust and invalid assumptions.

10) Keep the child in the room (figuratively)

Discussing what the parent or the school is doing or not doing is tangential to the issues that need to be resolved. An attack results in a defense, and the needs of the child are lost. It is not about the school, the parent, or the past; it is about the child, the child’s needs; and what should be done going forward.


11) Recognize bias

·        Fixed Pie Bias: Inability to talk about issues not on the agenda. Parents and educators are not enemies. School personnel should be prepared to discuss any issue of relevance. A need to caucus or schedule another meeting to discuss unexpected questions or concerns negates transparency  and undermines trust.

·        Self-serving Bias: Inclination to attribute successes to internal forces and failures to forces beyond the individual’s control. Parents are prone to see the child’s difficulty as the fault of the school; the school is prone to see the child’s difficulty as the fault of the parents or the child. This bias is powerful and needs to be recognized if its impact is to be negated.

·        Fundamental Attribution Error: Tendency to overestimate internal factors when explaining the behaviors of others. We interpret the behavior of others as being for the purpose of satisfying their self-interest (e.g., save money, avoid effort, place blame). Seeing the actions of others as selfish or self-aggrandizing is common, but often unjustified and it can become a barrier to effective communications. For instance, parents often assume that educator’s decisions are for the purpose of saving money.

·        Confirmation Bias: Tendency to interpret what you hear to confirm preconceptions. For instance should the educational professionals believe that the parents are too permissive, their questions will be constructed to confirm that belief.

12) Reflective Practice

Reflective practice is a process of self-evaluation that helps one to understand how certain actions prompt reactions in others. A particular interaction does not, without purposeful and thoughtful reflection, result in insight and learning.  Evaluating how one’s actions may be perceived by others engages theory-of-mind and results in a meaningful understanding of the other’s perspectives.  If things aren’t going as you might like, look to yourself for the answer don’t blame the other guy.  If a student is not learning, a good teacher will think, “What am I doing wrong?”

13) Think out of the box

There are never enough trained personnel nor sufficient time, space, or money to provide the ideal for each and every student. However, if the school is straightforward about the availability of resources, and the parent recognizes the need for a cost-benefit approach to problem solving, an acceptable solution can often be devised. Jim has friends and plays sports at his local public school that has no available informed instructors to meet his remedial needs. Perhaps Jim could be the practicum student for a teacher being trained in an evidence-based method of instruction. The ability to brainstorm solutions is impossible if the resource deficiency is not acknowledged.

14) Understand how the letter of the law can undermine the spirit of the law

If a parent brings an advocate to the meeting, the school will often feel the need to respond every time the parent says something inconsistent with the law. In this case, the well-known impediment to consensus is the failure to meaningfully engage by responding to interest with position. When parents say that all they want is what is "best" for their child, the conversation is interrupted by a comment that "best" is not the responsibility of the public schools as they are only required to provide an "appropriate education." Another frequent position expressed by educators is to tell parents that the school can’t do what you ask until this, that, or the other thing is tried first. The message is that the child’s current failure is not sufficient; he or she must fail repeatedly to assure that the school is not capable of providing a "merely appropriate" program in a less restrictive environment. The parent articulates an interest and the educators respond by articulating a policy or position, which is at crossed purposes with the parents comment. Although, the school’s comments are not without some legal merit, they are tangential to the discussion, threatening to the parent, and unnecessary.

15) Prepare for Success

School personnel should take time to prepare parents to participate appropriately in a meeting where decisions regarding their child are likely to be made. The admonition of Benjamin Franklin comes to mind that, "a stitch in time saves nine."

·        Rehearse: What is the parents’ role at the meeting? What is the purpose of the meeting? Who will lead the discussion?

·        Review and observe: Parents should review the file, any new reports, and observe any placements likely to be recommended.

·        Make notes: Parents should make a list of strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, any questions that they should not forget to ask.


Helping educational professionals and parents understand the causes of conflict and to encourage collaboration as to sensible solutions is a pro-active approach to meeting the needs of the child. Ultimately, parents will only be comfortable if educational professionals are aware of the child’s needs and can describe how those needs can be met. The purpose of the advocate, whether parent or school, is to inform and educate rather than intimidate and litigate. A merger of common interests has exponentially more potential for a successful result than the surrender of one party to the will of the other.