Strategies for Working with Difficult Parents

First of all, let me be clear that I don’t have a problem with demanding parents. Parents should be demanding of us, it’s their job to insist their child gets what they need. I think we all need to take a minute and really reflect on what it is like to be the parent of a child with special needs. What it must feel like the first time they realize, or are told, that their child has a disability. It is absolutely not okay to shut down a parent who just wants what is reasonable and necessary for their child to receive a free and appropriate public education.

That being said, I have had parents that certainly rise above what anyone would consider reasonable behavior on behalf of their child. Although I only play a psychiatrist on TV, I would venture to say that these most difficult parents were likely dealing with their own personal mental health issues. So, how do you manage an out-of-control parents while continuing to make sure that the parent’s rights are being secured at every turn?

I think the best way to address this in a blog format is to go behavior by behavior (all of which I have experienced at least once) and talk about strategies for managing that particular behavior.

The IEP Meeting Destroyer Parent: I have experience several situations where a parent became very disruptive in an IEP meeting; using profanity, making threats, yelling, etc. When this happens I immediately tell the parent that we will not continue the meeting if they are going to be this disruptive and ask them if they would like to take a break and maybe talk to me in a smaller environment. Be very clear that this behavior will not be tolerated. On a couple of occasions, I did shut the meeting down and we had to reschedule the meeting at a later time.

The Over-Communicating Parent: I have experienced the parent that calls the school mulpitle times a day, sometimes up to 10 times a day or more. This parent would call multiple people at the school and would then yell at the secretary when she couldn’t speak to someone immediately. The staff that worked with her child were extremely upset by all of this as her communication was very negative and demanding. Our first move was to create a communication plan and gave her one point of contact, who was me. When she then moved to calling me obsessively, we moved to a set time to talk two times a week and she could also email me. This is a totally defensible action, but should only be done when you have documented that the excessive communication is disruptive.

The I Change My Mind All The Time Parent: The parents I worked with in this category were parents of students with pretty significant issues and it was necessary for us to meet and change the IEP pretty frequently because the student’s data warranted changes. Meetings with them would take forever and it would be a very arduous process to come to consensus. We would be relieved that we had a good plan in place and then the parent would call the next day and say they don’t agree now and want another meeting. This is a really hard one to deal with because how do you say no to a meeting request? Then we would meet again, come to consensus, and then the parent would decide they didn’t agree again and want another meeting. My suggestion here is one I have learned from the lawyers I have worked with on these cases. Make sure you send the parent a prior written notice that details the decisions the IEP team made ASAP. Then, if the parent disagrees and you have already met at least one additional time to hear the parent’s concerns, tell the parent they need to file due process on the decision made in the PWN. In this way, you can actually implement the plan the IEP team agreed to and you can begin to move through the complaint procedure that is there exactly for this purpose.

The I Disagree with Everything Parent: I have worked with parents who are unhappy with everything we do. The complaints jump from topic to topic and, once you think you have one list resolved, you have another new list to tackle. In my opinion, this is the parent you want to go to due process with because they have to identify what they are complaining about. What issue/decision are you unhappy about?

The I Want My Child to be More Disable Than They Are Parent: This issue is addressed in an earlier blog of mine entitled “Munchausen Syndrom by Proxy, Special Education Style”. The main action you want to take in this situation is to make sure you are an advocate for the child and that you keep the child safe. Do not allow a parent to push you into giving services to a student that are not warranted. Unfortunately, I have had more than one parent that exhibited this kind of behavior.

The Professor Parent: This is the parent who reads everything they can on special education and comes to meetings with lists of curriculums and diagnoses and educational stragegies that they want you to use with their child. Be respectful and listen, but make sure the parent understands that methodology generally doesn’t go into the IEP, that the school determines how to reach the goals and what methodologies will be used to meet those goals. This puts the responsibility, rightfully so, on the school to show that what they are doing is working:)

The It’s All About Me Parent: I have worked with parents who really want the IEP meeting to be about them. This is a strange one, but the best deterrent to this is to continually remind the parent that the meeting is about their child and this really isn’t an appropriate place to talk about what went wrong with their own school experience. I also had a parent who would fake seizures when she came in to see me in my office. After I realized they were fake, I just ignored them and would go about my work and then she would eventually get back in the chair and talk to me again. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up, I’m not that creative.

The I Come to School and Disrupt Parent: I have had this happen a few times. As the administrator, I asked them to leave the premises because they were disruptive. On two occasions the parent refused to leave and the police were called and the parent was charged with disorderly conduct. A restraining order was issued in one of the cases. This is certainly only done as a last resort and does not absolve a parent of their rights; we still had to involve this parent in the IEP process and we would do that by meeting via a conference call.

The bottom line is that these parents are exhausting and exasperating for school staff. Provide support and relief for the staff that are most impacted by these tough individuals and make every attempt to minimize the amount of disruption that occurs because of the behavior of these adults. Also, be especially empathetic to the children who live with these parents and take extra care to be that student’s advocate. If it is difficult for us to have to deal with these parents, think what it is like for their children.


(October 18, 2015)