For Parents of Kids With Special Needs, Parent-Teacher Conferences Feel Like Going to War

December 2 is Special Education Day and many parents of children with special needs are still trying to recover from their fall parent-teacher conferences. No matter how nice the teacher is, after of few years of these conferences, parents often feel like war veterans with PTSD.

Having grandchildren with special needs, I know first hand how anxious my children get before these conferences. They have been ambushed so many times that they walk in with knots in their stomach. Chances are, even though they thought things were going well, there are some serious issues to address. Chances are they will never get to what their child is learning and doing in school. Chances are something they are told will make them cry.

Like all parents, what my children hope to hear is how well their children are doing, what friends they have, how happy they are at school, and what they are learning. Maybe if they are lucky, the conference starts out with a positive comment about how much the teacher likes their child. But by the end, they are most likely discussing deficits, IEP goals, and behavior plans.

I know these things are very important, but parents of children with special needs lose out on so many normative experiences raising their children. Play dates and party invitations are few and far between. Family activities have to be tailored to lessen the chance of their children having meltdowns in public. Kids who are old enough to be own their own a bit can't be left unsupervised. So wouldn't it be nice if a parent-teachers conference were simply that, a time to talk about what their children are doing in school?

In my many years as a preschool director, the topic of parent-teacher conferences was often on the fall agenda. Here are a few of the guidelines we used:

No surprises - If there are any issues, the parents should already know about them.

Start with the positives - Every child has them and every parent deserves to hear about them.

Give details about what the child is doing - Especially for children with special needs, parents probably get very little information about their child's day.

Avoid using buzzwords like hyper, whiny, shy, unfocused, inattentive, gifted, manipulative, defiant, immature, loner, quirky - Describe what the child does instead. It's not a teacher's job to diagnose or label a child.

Listen as much (or more than) you talk - This one is very important. Teachers can learn so much about children from their parents. Take advantage of this opportunity, especially at a first conference.

Establish a collaborative relationship with parents - Working together in the best interests of the child is always the way to go.

Show that you like the child and why - This means so much to all parents, and especially to parents of children with special needs. They already know their children can be challenging, but they also need to know that they can be endearing.

I think this list is also a reasonable one to use when doing parent-teachers conferences for children with special needs. If there are larger problems that require a behavior plan or an amendment of the child's IEP or 504 Plan, those should be addressed at a separate meeting. That way, the parent knows what to expect from the meeting and can come prepared to focus on the concerns.

Parents of children with special needs are like all other parents. They want to feel reassured their child is happy at school. They want to collaborate and problem-solve in partnership with the teacher. They want to feel like parents, not pariahs. Above all, they want to know that the teacher values, accepts, and understands their child.

Teachers of children with special needs, in honor of Special Education Day reflect back on your recent conference with the parents of your students. If it felt adversarial or negative, consider a redo.