Resolving differences with parents of students in special education


by David Gruber
Executive Director, Special Education Mediation Services

Teachers are a school’s front line in talking with parents. The quality of communication between them is important for understanding a student’s needs and progress. It is also important in maintaining the teach-parent relationship over time. That relationship is a key to student success.

Conversations with the parents of students with disabilities can take on extra dimensions. Eligibility for special education and related services is governed by a complex law. Student needs may vary widely. And opinions about what services a student needs to succeed in school may differ.

When teachers and parents find they have differing perspectives on what is best for child with a disability, they should know there are multiple ways available to resolve the issues collaboratively. And they are free through Special Education Mediation Services (SEMS), a grant-funded initiative of the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education.

Collaborative approaches generally have a better chance of reach solutions appropriate for the student than more traditional, adversarial processes such as investigations and due process hearings. They also have a better chance at preserving that key teacher-parent relationship.

If a teacher and parent communicate with each other freely and have an open mind, they may be able to resolve their differences on their own. And SEMS can provide training in collaborative communication skills that can help them do it better.

Schools and parents can invite a trained, neutral facilitator into their IFSP, IEP and other special education meetings. The facilitator will ensure that all participants have a chance to offer their views and suggestions for the student’s developmental or educational program. The facilitator also can keep participants focused on the issues and watch the clock to make sure their time is used efficiently.

If there are specific issues in dispute, schools and parents can seek the aid of a trained, neutral mediator, even when communication is touchy or has broken down. The mediator will guide the participants through a process that focuses on the student’s needs and encourages participants to generate options for meeting those needs. If they find common ground, they sign a written agreement enforceable in state or federal court.

As an added benefit, school and parents may begin talking with each other again.

SEMS has been providing statewide facilitation, mediation and training services to the Michigan special education community since 1997. Through SEMS, the MDE/OSE meets its obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide mediation as a dispute resolution option, along with formal complaints.
SEMS has a historical mediation agreement rate of 80 percent compared to the national average of 69 percent. It has a mediation turnaround rate of about 30 days compared to 60-75 days for formal complaints. Most agreements are reached in one mediation session, and a session averages less than three hours. Decisions about a student’s services are made by the participants, not the mediator.
For these reasons, the MDE/OSE encourages schools and parents to resolve disagreements collaboratively whenever possible.

SEMS until recently was known as the Michigan Special Education Mediation Program. It now has the new name along with a new logo, website and contact information.

If you are interested facilitation, mediation or training, contact SEMS at 833-KIDS1ST or The program’s centralized intake staff will provide you with timely and thorough responses to questions about SEMS services and how its collaborative processes work.

SEMS provides facilitation and mediation services through the Community Dispute Resolution Program, a network of 18 nonprofit dispute resolution centers that keep services close to school and home. If you are interested in training, SEMS will tailor a workshop to your needs and come to you.

SEMS also has a new tagline: Working Together for Student Achievement in Michigan. SEMS services can help you make that happen.


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