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School Issues > Tips for Negotiating with School Teams & Other Service Providers

This excellent article was provided by Lisa Simmons at the Ideal Lives Project.

Tips for Negotiating with School Teams & Other Service Providers

These tips are based on the work of Herb Cohen:

1. Decision: Does this situation call for negotiation?

To decide, answer these questions:

·           Am I comfortable negotiating in this particular situation?

·           Will negotiating meet my (or my child’s) needs?

·           Is the expenditure of time and energy on my part worth the benefits that I can receive here?


If the answer is YES to all 3, proceed to negotiate.

2. Your initial approach should always be collaborative, as though you’re hungry for help. This should be easy, because it is true. You are seeking answers and help for your child.

The approach:

  • Ask lots of questions about: what is available, how it works, who is responsible for different pieces of the program, how progress is tracked, who decides on eligibility or changes if there are problems or a lack of progress. This allows you to learn a lot about the service provider’s approach AND you gain investment from the provider. The more time they spend with you and your child, the harder it will be for you to become just another number. This works best if the parent already knows what they want for their child and can continue to ask questions and draw out information based on their child’s specific needs. 


  • Once the provider/team has spelled out all the details of what they are offering, if there is something missing that you REALLY want now is the time to negotiate. Mr. Cohen calls it, “the nibble”. Once a provider has spent lots of time (money, and/or energy) with you and they are invested, you can often ask for just one more thing and get it. There is a direct ratio between the extent of investment and the willingness to compromise. Be appreciative of all they are offering and close with something like, “This sounds like a great fit for my daughter. The only issue I think we’ve overlooked is that she will need (fill in the blank), can we add XYZ to cover that?” Usually the provider is now ready to finish the conversation and get back to other work, so they will often agree just to draw things to a close. NOTE: Be sure that all agreements are put in writing. Either in the IEP or in a follow up “letter of understanding” from the parent.

    3. Using Your Parental Power

      The power of the law - I don’t like using threats and I think it’s a bad posture for parents to put themselves into. However, I do think parents need to understand that they do have the power of law and precedent on their side and they should negotiate with that confidence. How you act and carry yourself does influence how you are treated in many situations. If you act confident and knowledgeable you will be treated with respect. If you act like you will agree to whatever the school recommends they may be tempted to take the easiest, cheapest, most convenient way available and it may not be the most appropriate choice for your child. Every parent should be well versed in the basic special education laws and their parental rights.

IDEA 2004 http://www.wrightslaw.com/idea/law.htm 

NCLB - No Child Left Behind http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/ 

Links to Department of Education websites by State http://www.yellowpagesforkids.com/help/seas.htm 

And if you deal frequently with parents facing conflict, you may want to consider offering some group training on effective communication skills in conflict situations. A book that can help you put this together quickly is: 

The Conflict and Communication Activity Book: 30 High-Impact Training Exercises for Adult Learners. It offers practice exercises and role playing activities to do with your group so that parents can approach meetings with confidence in their own skills.

  • The power of togetherness – Parents need to harness the power of group of commitment. The message they need to transmit to everyone involved with their child is, “We’re all in this together” and our goal is a solid education for Joey”. Persuade others to help, get them involved in the planning and decision making, and they will grow more invested in your child’s success. People support that which they helped to create. Gathering allies will probably take 1 on 1 work by parents. Help others get to know your child, highlighting talents, asking questions to draw out the expertise of others and build rapport. Helping out at school to show you’re willing to offer as well as accept assistance.


  • The power of identification - Cost, quality and convenience do not drive every decision. Often decisions are made because those in charge like you and identify with you as a person. You want others involved with your child to have this open and involved approach. Encourage it by being professional and reasonable to gain cooperation and respect. Coming on too strong and acting aggressive always backfires. Instead try to convey understanding and empathy about the providers perspective, approach them as a human being and look for areas of shared interest, common ground, help them solve their problems and they will reciprocate to help solve yours.


  • The power of precedent – One of the responses parents run into most frequently is, “we don’t do that here” or “that’s not the way we do things”. Parents can respond to this argument by coming to meetings prepared. If they are requesting a specific piece of technology, bring contact information for a school that is already using it with a student whose needs are similar to your child. The position “we won’t do it” is much harder to support than “it can’t be done”.


  • Logic Isn’t Enough – The power of persuasion – In an ideal world we explain what’s needed in a concise, logical way. Everyone agrees and the deal is done. In the real world people do things because it meets their own needs and/or desires. So parents need to do 3 things:

       1. Explain what’s needed in a way that makes sense to the audience. For an IEP team this might mean framing requests in Education jargon or using the right phrases from IDEA. This step is all about getting people to tune in and pay attention.


2. Present overwhelming evidence. Parents need to back up each request with more than “I think this would help”. Why do you believe that... bring work samples, test scores, doctorsrecommendations, research studies, whatever evidence you can gather to support your request.

3. Give them a reason to agree. If the group isn’t already agreeing because your argument makes sense and feels like the right thing to do then you will need to do step 3 and give them a reason to agree. Usually this means pointing out that all of these supports are required for your child to have the free appropriate public education provided them by law.

4.         Caring too much can hurt you – One of the things that makes parents passionate advocates is that they are so invested in their child. Unfortunately this puts them at a disadvantage. Providers are calm, cool, and collected and can think clearly because they have much less at stake. Parents who allow their emotions to take over will rarely get the results they want and will usually be dismissed as emotional and unreasonable. Rather than putting intense pressure on any one meeting, parents are better off thinking of services as a puzzle or a process. Where they get a good basic plan the first time out and then work to improve it each time they meet. This approach is less stressful because the focus is on steady, gradual progress rather than “do or die” today, showdown at the OK corral.

5.    Make sure time is on your side – My Dad use to tell me “decide in haste, repent at your leisure”. Perhaps you’ve heard that saying before. He was reminding me that decisions made on impulse are usually ones I’ll have plenty of time to regret later. This can hold true in meetings as well so remember:

      - Most decisions and compromises are made as time is running out. If your hour of meeting time is about to run out without a plan in place, stay calm and be patient. If you’re not sure what to do, the best thing is usually nothing. Don’t sign an IEP you aren’t happy with, instead if the meeting must end on time request a 2nd meeting to continue the discussion and come to agreement. Don’t be pressured into something that doesn’t feel right.

Remember the school has firm deadlines under IDEA. They must evaluate your child within 60 days of your written consent. They must have an IEP in place for your child with a disability at the beginning of each school year or hold a meeting to develop an IEP for a child within 30 days of a determination that the child needs special education and related services. And implement the plan as soon as possible.     

-Parents should only act or make decisions in haste when they are CONFIDENT that it will be to their child’s advantage.

6.    Information really is power – I know it’s an old cliché, but it really is true. And the best time to gather information is BEFORE there is conflict or even formal planning for your child’s services. Gather information hypothetically or in general terms and people will share more openly without feeling like they are making a commitment to providing a specific service. And don’t come on too strong. The more confused and humble you are at this point, the more people will want to offer you information and advice. Simply ask questions and listen. Ask questions you already know the answers too and you can quickly determine which people are credible to listen to.


7.       No is a reaction, Not a position – We ask, they say no, we give up. What we should do is be more like our kids. Think about the first time your teen-ager asked you to do something new, something that involved a little risk on their part and a little trust on yours. As a parent your first reaction was probably “No way”. But if your teenager was smart. They immediately began a campaign to bring you around. Using time to build familiarity in the topic, using togetherness to offer safety in numbers (“all my friends are going”), offering your precedence (“Joe went last year and it was fine”), bringing overwhelming evidence that they have thought of everything and will follow every safety rule you’ve ever asked of them (seatbelts, curfew, etc.) If you are a typical parent, your no eventually becomes a “maybe” and sometimes even a “yes”. The same process applies when we negotiate. Our presentation may be more professional (and hopefully a little more subtle) but the outcome can be just as positive.

People change their minds when they:


·           Receive new information

·           They get used to what was originally a new (and therefore risky) idea.  

8. The process – Herb Cohen believes that you build allies with the process you use. Basically that you get what you expect. If you enter a situation expecting to receive little cooperation or help and show with your words, attitude, and actions how you feel, the results are easy to predict. If you approach people more moderately, admit freely that you need their help and expert advice and convey positive expectations that you know they want to do everything they can to help your child succeed, then even the most contrary provider will try to play the role he/she is given. It’s human nature. Just remember: how you say it (words, tone, body language) is just as important as what you say!

9.    Successful collaboration means finding out what the other side really wants and showing them how to get it, while you get what you want. You have to find the “win-win” scenario. That means sharing information, looking at the situation from their shoes, and understanding the role each person is supposed to play. (i.e. The inclusion specialist should offer suggestions on how to modify assignments for your child and the regular ed. teacher should point out any parts of the support system that are going to be tricky to implement in a classroom of 20 kids. Only when everyone offers the information they have, can successful creative problem solving really begin).

10.    Collaboration is a process not an event. Successful parents will begin talking with team members and building relationships long before the actual IEP meeting. You have to plant seeds of trust and information sharing before they can blossom into collaborative brainstorming at a full group meeting. Stay away from comments that have a “my way versus your way” tone. That encourages people to take sides and conflict is inevitable. Instead look for the solutions that get results and that we can all live with. For example, your child needs a way to take notes in class without writing. A laptop is too costly, but an Alpha Smart accomplishes the same thing for just a couple hundred dollars.

11.      When you run into a brick wall – Sometimes parents find a provider or administrator that absolutely will not listen to their requests, their evidence or their arguments. The answer is simply “no”. Instead of giving up or continuing the head on assault, a better solution may be to tap into the person’s sphere of influence. Everyone has a web of relationships – people they talk to and people they listen to, whose opinions they respect and value. So find out who is important to your particular “brick wall”. Gain the commitment of these individuals and they can help you influence the person saying “no”. In a school situation that might mean teachers, principals, special education directors, superintendents, school boards, PTA presidents, newspaper editors, etc., etc.

12.    When you agree on the goal, but not how to get there. Sometimes everyone agrees on the ultimate goal but there are several options on how to get there and it’s hard to get agreement on the how. Try to step back & use synergy. Instead of forcing people to pick between your way and Sally’s way, look for a way to combine the best of both strategies into one that everyone can claim. The final product may be better than anyone expected.

13.    Don’t make emotional enemies. Emotional enemies are those people who feel you have publicly and personally attacked them. They will remain your enemy long after the current issue has faded from memory and no facts, logic, ideas, or evidence will sway them back to your side. You must be able to make your point and state your case without publicly attacking those who oppose you. If they feel they must “save face” they will never be willing to compromise or agree to your position. The simplest strategy... make I statements not you statements. “I” statements express your personal feelings, reactions, and needs without sitting in judgment on anyone else.

14.    Personalize your child and his/her situation. As important as it is for your to present yourself in a professional way, it’s also important for you child to be seen as a unique, flesh-and-blood, 3-dimensional individuals with feelings, talents, and needs. Everyone involved needs to like, care about or at least feel obligated to your child in order to want to do something for him/her. It’s easy to ignore a number, a statistic. It’s hard to ignore a child. Bring pictures, bring your child, make a Life Book. Bring your child’s dreams and desires to life in the meeting room.

15.      Phone calls, emails, personal visits. Phone calls and emails are great ways to maintain connections and share information with service providers AFTER the relationship is established. If you are requesting something, meet in person. Calls & email lack visual feedback, the other person can’t see your body language and it will be easy to be misunderstood. It is also too easy for someone to fire off a quick “no we can’t” in a phone call or email. So if you are serious about making a request, make an appointment and go in person, well prepared to make your case.

16.    Be the caller, not the receiver. By initiating action, you ensure that you have all the necessary information at your disposal for the call and aren’t simply reacting. If a call comes in and you aren’t prepared, ask for a convenient time to call back, end the call, make preparations and then call back. What you need:

  • A checklist of the points you want to cover during the call.


  • Think through how you expect the conversation to go. Anticipate objections the other person might make to your request.


  •  Gather all the relevant facts you may need while on the call.


  •  Don’t fabricate. If something comes up you aren’t prepared for, admit you don’t have the information and provide it as follow up material. At least agree on how you will get them the requested information.


  •  Give the call your undivided attention.


  •  Takes notes of any facts or figures provided by the other party.


  •  At the end summarize what has been agreed to and then follow up after the call with a letter or email of understanding to get things “on the record”.


For more detailed information on negotiating, read “You Can Negotiate Anything” by Herb Cohen.


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