In my career, I’ve met all kinds of parents. Most have been supportive, appreciative, and trusting, but there have been others who have been, at one time or another, angry, argumentative, or distrusting. Dealing with challenging parents is probably the least favorite aspect of our job. If you build a good rapport with the parents from the initial contact, actively keep channels of communication open, and always be the consummate professional you know you are, then you may well avoid many conflicts. But, inevitably, you’ll have some experience at some point with challenging parents.
I’ll say right up front that there are toxic people, and some of those are parents who will never agree or be satisfied, so what I’m about to say does not apply to all parents or situations. Believe me, I get that!
As with so many aspects of life, I believe that attitude is everything. When I’ve been involved in conflicts with parents, either as case manager or member of the IEP team, I’ve tried to view those conflicts as growth experiences. Rather than get defensive, I do my best to examine the situation objectively. That’s not always easy, but it does help to keep me calm and focused, and often leads to important insights. One of the most memorable conflicts, and the situation that first taught me this valuable lesson, involved the mother of an elementary age boy who had profound disabilities. (This happened early in my career, when the movement toward inclusion was just taking hold, and multiple disability support classes were more about keeping the students comfortable, safe, and entertained, rather than engaged in a strict curriculum. Related services were typically weekly consults with the teacher, rather than direct therapy with the student). This mother was loud, brash, often jaw-droppingly inappropriate in language and dress, but she had made herself well-versed in current literature and best practices, and was going to make darn sure her son was the recipient of the latest educational trends.
There was nothing subtle about this mother’s manner. She’d pop into the classroom, unannounced, disrupt the staff with loud questions and comments, and demand weekly team meetings which caused high anxiety among team members. You can imagine that the team was none too pleased with this mother. After all, no one wants to feel bossed around or to have their professionalism questioned, and some of the things she was insisting upon were unheard of in our program. There was a mutual lack of trust between the parent and the team, and the immediate reaction on both sides was to dig in their heels and defend their position. Little compromise was achieved; tensions grew.
Always much more comfortable being proactive rather than reactive, I took a critical look at what we were doing and read over the notes I had taken of the mother’s demands in the last meeting. Away from the emotionality of the meeting, reading these notes made me much more open to ideas. I started researching Environmental Communication Teaching with its task analysis and the new view that Every Move Counts. I became a fan of Linda Burkhart and her simple assistive technology. I took training in PECS. Through reading, workshops, and videos, plus networking with special education teachers and SLPs in other programs who were already implementing new teaching strategies and equipment, I was convinced that we could develop an exemplary educational program in what was already a very warm and supportive classroom with a team that got along very well.
Very long story short, the team joined me in actively pursuing professional development, and we worked together — one piece at a time with support from administration — to build a program that incorporated clearly defined and measurable goals, integrated therapy, assistive technology, visual supports, Standards- and IEP-based task analysis and use of a consistent prompt hierarchy, data collection and videotaping for progress monitoring, and regular team meetings for curriculum planning, review of data, and sharing of observations. (All of this seems so obvious and commonplace now, but remember this happened years ago). The result was so positive that our classroom became the model for the larger program in the county. Both students and staff grew that year, and that growth has continued because the team, encouraged by the success of implementing the first new ideas, remains open-minded and forward-thinking. The mother became a partner, rather than an adversary, and strong bonds were formed among all team members that continue to this day.
Very often, we would label a mother like this as “difficult,” and there were times when that would have been an understatement. But I prefer to think of such parents as “challenging,” not in the sense that they are hard to deal with, but that their questions and demands challenge us to honestly assess what we are doing (or not doing) and to make improvements where needed and possible. Sometimes, that challenge can be all we need to keep us growing as SLPs.