10 Tips for Dealing with Challenging Parents and Advocates

Have you ever walked into an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting with the best of intentions only to be greeted by anxious or irate parents accompanied by advocates with an agenda? You may even encounter teachers who disagree with your recommendations.

You’re not alone.

Conflicts are bound to occur due to complex special education rules and regulations, variations across districts in quality of education and therapy, social media, and today’s highly informed parents. But conflicts don’t have to ruin your day or your career. Proactive preparation, an open mind, confidence, and a calm attitude can help you through the toughest situations.

Why Are Some Parents So Demanding?

Some parents may demand more of your time and energy than others. They’ll ask tough questions, request frequent feedback, and seek more of your attention. Why?

They may be eager to do whatever is necessary to help their child succeed. They may be grieving their child’s disability or in denial of the disability altogether. These parents are often angry at a previous therapist, teacher, or doctor. They could even feel guilty and mad, somehow blaming themselves for their child’s disability.

All of these feelings can lead to stressful interactions with parents during meetings and IEP conferences. It can help to put yourself in the parents’ shoes. How would you feel if this was your child? Remember that feeling before, during, and after your meeting.

Establishing Great Relationships with Parents, Guardians, and Advocates

  1. Understand your state and district guidelines for evaluation and eligibility for education and therapy services. Know IEP meeting procedures and follow them.
  2. Prepare well in advance. Take time to gather and organize pertinent information. Bring data and resources to support your comments and recommendations. Create a plan, including an agenda and timeframe, for how the meeting will be organized.
  3. Remain open minded and calm throughout all encounters with parents and in your preparation for meetings and interactions. Be confident in your knowledge as a professional, yet be willing to seek help and additional professional support when assistance or a second opinion could be helpful.
  4. Share summaries of treatment and reports. Provide recommendations and suggestions of ways parents can contribute and engage in their child’s program.
  5. Don’t get defensive. Parents’ tough questions or the presence of an advocate or lawyer doesn’t mean you did anything “wrong.”
  6. Assure the parents of your professional and/or personal devotion to providing high-quality instruction and interventions for their child. Always state positive aspects about the child early on and frequently throughout the meeting. Provide anecdotal and portfolio examples of the child’s good work performance.
  7. Know which school district supervisors and what resources are available to help you if you don’t know an answer. Do not speak for other professionals who are not present.
  8. Remember you have the right to discontinue a meeting and reconvene at a later date with your supervisor present.
  9. Don’t take events or comments personally.
  10. Leave the meeting on a positive note!

Legally, it is important to always be prepared. Document, document, document! In addition to your daily notes, review communications from the parents so you are aware of questions and concerns previously raised. Maintain a log and document all communications and attempted interactions, such as leaving voicemails for the parent.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Prior to Conferences and Meetings

  1. What will I say if the parent asks for more therapy services? How do I justify my answer?
  2. What will I do if I am continually interrupted by the parent or advocate?
  3. Does the principal and/or special education teacher understand my role and the goals of my program?
  4. Who can I call if I need to take a break from the meeting or I don’t know an answer?
  5. Are my goals sufficient to meet the child’s needs?

Preparation and empathy will go a long way in connecting with parents and advocates and reassuring them that you are all on the same side.

  1. Blosser, J. (2019). Speech-Language Pathology in Schools: Organization and Service Delivery. San Diego: Plural Publishing.
  2. Blosser, J. (2015). Collaboration is essential: Engage parents. Plural Publishing Community Newsletter. San Diego: Plural Publishing.
  3. Martin, N. (2005). A Guide to Collaboration for IEP Teams. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.
  4. Martin, N. (2010). Supporting the IEP Process: A Facilitator's Guide. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.
  5. Martin, N. (2010). Collaboration and the exploration of interests. Autism-Asperger's Digest Magazine.
  6. Martin, N. (2010). Bridges across impasse: when all else fails. Autism-Asperger's Digest Magazine.