IDEA: The Importance of Parents and Schools Working Together

Page content

The IDEA Vision

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provisions regarding parent involvement imply a picture of the family and school team working together amicably sharing visions and goals, and ultimately making decisions collectively (Mueller, 2009). A collective teamwork approach is easier said than done. Both parents and schools need to be considerate of the others needs and respectful of various perspectives. IDEA 1997 mandated that schools strive to increase parental involvement and participation in the special education process and required that parents be informed of their rights and responsibilities concerning special education, making the assumption that parents understand their rights and will make informed and appropriate decisions regarding services for their child (Fitzgerald & Watkins, 2006). However, not all parents understand the special education process and are left feeling overwhelmed by the burden to make substantial decisions about their child’s education. School professionals may then sense an inundation of misplaced responsibility and perceive hostility due to inexperienced parents’ expectations. Whitbread and colleagues (2007) said that misunderstanding, miscommunication, and a lack of knowledge and skills can hinder relationships between teachers and parents, yet when parents and educators are able to work together in a collaborative partnership, positive student outcomes result. It is for this reason that proactive efforts foster a positive working relationship and can dramatically influence special education outcomes.

Considerations for School Personnel

Research has found that families sense greater support in the educational environment when it is flexible, responsive to their needs, and readily accessible to them (Van Haren & Fiedler, 2008). These supportive elements reduce the perception of a power imbalance commonly expressed by parents in the individualized education program (IEP) process. Parents often describe being outnumbered, being treated as passive participants in the IEP meetings and having an overall sense of exclusion from the discussion about their child (Mueller, 2009). It is obvious why parents would frequently feel intimidated when surrounded by professionals whose expertise is special education. Special education rules and processes need to be presented in a transparent manner by school personnel taking education and economic status of families into consideration, as each will influence the degree to which families feel empowered to make decisions for their children (Kozleski et. al., 2008). Acknowledging family resources is as important as recognizing student strengths and accomplishments in an empowerment focused setting. However slight or plentyiful, every family has strengths to be recognized, even if they are as basic as their attendance and efforts at the meeting. Geltner and authors (2008) said that parents report feeling alienated by the educational terms and pressured to go along with the placement and goals the school staff had predetermined. To avoid these negative perceptions it is recommended that IEP meetings do not solely focus on deficits and that parents should feel the school staff have tried to understand their perspectives and that the school respects parent contributions. Predetermined goals should not exist, instead brainstormed goals to be considered should be presented to and by the parents. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act prescribes the role of parents or guardians with the duty to be meaningfully involved in the special education process (Yell et. al., 2009) and any predeterminations threaten the implied guardian rights.

Parental Reflection and Action

Parents need to be proactive and alert in the realm of special education. Parental advocacy that combines respectful communication with continuous gains of knowledge is better equipped for positive outcomes. This approach won’t alienate either side if it is employed by both parties. Nowell and Salem (2007) found that parents who experienced positive improvements to their interpersonal relationships with school personnel described both improved responsiveness from school personnel and decreased negative interactions with school staff and administrators. This finding supports that parental influence on the special education process is not a gift to be bestowed, but rather an evolving gain dependent upon mutual action. Fish (2008) said that parents often perceive initial special education meetings as traumatic, confusing, and complicated, leading to overall dissatisfaction with the system; but if school districts provide services to educate parents, then these parents will perceive that educators value the importance of facilitating positive relationships with them. Fish highlights the positive outcome that can occur when schools are aware of confusion, but the parents bear the responsibility of expressing the need for further clarification or assistance. This responsibility can’t be placed on either side alone if the teamwork approach is to be upheld. It is disadvantageous for parents to lack the expertise that school professionals have, as parents who feel ill equipped to make decisions regarding their children more readily believe that educators should be making decisions over them (Fish, 2008). Parents cannot hesitate to ask questions.

Parent Support in Collaboration

Research findings show that parents often do not understand the written information provided to them by schools, which decreases their ability to make informed educational decisions (Fitzgerald & Watkins, 2006). If the information provided is unclear, parents must advocate for themselves in order to advocate for their children. As previously mentioned, it is encouraged that schools cater to parents who are not special education professionals. When information seems to be indigestible, parents have the right to request further explanation without judgment. When parents are not involved in a meaningful manner they can legally contest their children’s programs (Yell et. al., 2009). If parents don’t feel supported by the schools, they should turn to the higher power of the law to find empowerment. Yell and colleagues (2009) said that Congress included an extensive system of procedural safeguards in The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that parents are equal participants, including that parents must be given the opportunity to participate in all meetings in which their child’s identification, evaluation, program, or placement is discussed. The most helpful approach to maintain a positive relationship with the school is not to show them what they are doing wrong, but to show them how they can better help the child and family by enforcing mandated protocols.


Fish, W. (2008). The IEP meeting: Perceptions of parents of students who receive special education services. Preventing School Failure, 53(1), 8-14.

Fitzgerald, J., & Watkins, M. (2006). Parents’ rights in special education: The readability of procedural safeguards. Exceptional Children, 72(4), 497-510.

Geltner, J., & Leibforth, T. (2008). Advocacy in the IEP process: Strengths-based school counseling in action. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), 162-165.

Kozleski, E., Engelbrecht, P., Hess, R., Swart, E., Eloff, I., Oswald, M., et al. (2008). Where differences matter: A cross-cultural analysis of family voice in special education. Journal of Special Education, 42(1), 26-35.

Mueller, T. (2009). IEP facilitation. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(3), 60-67.

Nowell, B., & Salem, D. (2007). The impact of special education mediation on parent–school relationships. Remedial & Special Education, 28(5), 304-315.

Van Haren, B., & Fiedler, C. (2008). Support and empower families of children with disabilities. Intervention in School & Clinic, 43(4), 231-235.

Whitbread, K., Bruder, M., Fleming, G., & Park, H. (2007). Collaboration in special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(4), 6-14.

Yell, M., Ryan, J., Rozalski, M., & Katsiyannis, A. (2009). The U.S. supreme court and special education: 2005 to 2007. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(3), 68-75.