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Field Trip: Working with Families in Special Education
As a parent, finding out your child has a learning disability or other special need comes with a whirlwind of emotion. “Who will take care of them when I’m not here? How will I make sure they get the supports they need?” Fear and anxiety rear their heads. Everything you pictured about your child’s life is suddenly in doubt — including what school might look like.
Today, we’re speaking with three current and former administrators — and for two of them, parents of a student with special needs — to get a better picture of what these families experience.
- What parents go through when their child receives a diagnosis
- How these challenges are especially compounded when a family is new to the educational system in the United States
- Why school and district leaders need to be thinking about this issue – not only to avoid litigation, but to achieve more productive outcomes
- Strategies for supporting families as they navigate their new reality
We think you’ll enjoy this article, too! 5 Strategies to Improve the IEP Process with Parent Participation
Let’s be honest: although there are incredible rewards that come along with it, special education is hard. It can be mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically exhausting. And working with the parents of students with special needs can be… tense at times.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: I had been behind the table helping parents navigate through special ed and saying for many, many years that we wanted parents to be partners, and I passionately believed it. I think I treated parents like an obstacle without realizing it.
Sometimes, it’s an issue of communication.
SASHI GUNDALA: Often times I’ve realized that the lingo that we use as educators, as administrators, is not something that people understand.
We’re talking all these big words about what was wrong with their child, but not actually telling them in plain simple English as to what the problem was.
And sometimes, as we’ll get into today, maybe, at least in part, it’s because we need a better picture of what those parents are going through.
SAM HENDRICKSON: I think empathy is difficult to bring into a professional workplace, because it’s hard to force people to get to a place of vulnerability. But until we’re able to do that, I don’t think we’re going to experience true empathy and true connection.
If your child has a learning disability, quite often that process is one of litigation and time and money. it’s a difficult emotional journey for the parents. That’s why I come to the I think we can do better.
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
Last year, in 2017-2018, 7 million students received special education services — that’s around 14 percent of all public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That could include specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, developmental delays, autism, or other physical, mental or emotional challenges.
When the numbers are that large, it can be easy to just think about special education in the abstract. And that’s why we’re talking with Christine Capaci, Sam Hendrickson, and Sashi Gundala. All three work or have worked at school districts in New Jersey: Christine as a Director of Data Assessment and Accountability, and her husband Sam as a former HR director. Sashi is a vice principal.
Today, we’re looking at what it’s like for parents when a child first receives a diagnosis, first gets referred for special education. Sam and Christine know what this is like.
SAM HENDRICKSON: I have a twenty year old son with autism, and so autism has been, and special education in general, has been a passion area of mine and it’s intersected with passion and professional kinds of things throughout my life.
RYAN ESTES: Sam, Christine and Sashi all believe that as school districts work with families with students with special needs, it really helps to understand things from their perspective.
SAM HENDRICKSON: I think there are places in the system that are broken and that I don’t think for both sides work as well as they should or they need to. When I compare special education in particular to other areas of care, we kind of have it backwards in so many respects.
If you had a medical issue and you needed diagnosis and treatment, you would get that quickly. In education, if your child has a learning disability, quite often that process is one of litigation and time and money. It costs a lot of money on both sides. It takes a lot of time. And it’s a difficult emotional journey for the parents. And from the point of diagnosis until the time that the appropriate program that’s making differences is in place, there’s a lot of time that goes by. And it’s just not that way with medicine or other areas of care in our world. So that’s why I come to the table – I think we can do better.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: So for me, I became personally attached and passionate to this issue when as a parent my my life intersected differently than I had expected it to as a professional. And by that I mean I had been behind the table helping parents navigate through special ed and saying for many, many years as a principal and vice principal that we wanted parents to be partners, and I passionately believed it. I want to work with parents. I would invite them to help me with their child and work through things.
But often times, I think I treated parents like an obstacle without realizing it and then my child was diagnosed and became a special education child and I can just remember the day that he was not nominated for an award that I believed he should have been nominated for. It was an award about excellence in education, and at the time he was in first grade, and when he wasn’t nominated for this award, the teacher said to me – I hesitated to call him, but the teacher said to me, “Well , I would have nominated him but he’s not striving to be excellent.” And I said, “What do you mean by that? He’s only in first grade. As I understand it, the criteria is he’s friendly, he’s kind,” those were the qualifications for this particular award. And he said, “Well, he can be those things and sometimes I see it, but he’s not those things often enough. I think he should strive harder for that.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness, does the teacher truly and fully understand what I know to be his disability?” I kind of sat back and I thought, “Wow. This is a struggle that my child is diagnosed with and now the teacher doesn’t see it the same way the doctors, see it the same way I see it.”
It was this perfect and imperfect storm of frustration for me. And I think in that moment I said to myself, “Holy cow. Parents, this is what sparks that fire of frustration, where we see our kids very differently as parents than educators see our kids and at the same time neither of us are wrong. But how do we like build a bridge from this impasse of differences of how we’re all looking at the same child?” Because I know my kid all the time. This teacher sees my kids six hours a day. How do we figure out that this kid really is doing the best he can given the diagnosis?
Sashi also cares deeply about this issue, but for a different reason. In her work she is constantly working with special education students, but she also has family and friends with children with special needs, and she’s watched how difficult it is for them.
SASHI GUNDALA: Especially since they are immigrant families and they have very little knowledge about the education system here, let alone the special education system or even the help that the state provides. In talking to them I realized how little information is there for parents of such families. They need someone literally to sit with them, sift through the information, and be able to tell them what applies to their situation, their child, and I felt like on talking to them that there is a need for this. The teachers, the school, often times does not understand how little knowledge they have. They didn’t even know how much help the state offers and there’s so many wonderful services that the state offers and they don’t know where to go, who to ask, what their rights are, what they can utilize, and that is where I think Sam, Christine and I were like, “There is a need for this in the surroundings around us where people need some hand-holding about this.” And we, being in the education field and also having personal connections, we felt that we could be that bridge for them.
RYAN ESTES: Hmm. Sam and Christine, you’ve both spoken a little bit about what this looks like for you having child with autism. Help me see this through the eyes of a parent even more. Let’s say that I have a child who was just diagnosed with special needs, I’ve found out. What would this be like for me? Are there stages that I would go through, or what have you notice to be common in parents when they get this news?
SAM HENDRICKSON: That’s a great question, and I think it’s an important one that schools should ask. I’ve worked with people who don’t ask that question. I think initially, I know it’s the the classic answer, but it somewhat depends on the diagnosis. There are some that are more severe than others. Even the way we think about autism these days, it’s now a spectrum disorder. And you know, I can remember a couple of years ago watching Good Morning America, and there was a basketball team manager as a kid, as a freshman in high school, he was the team manager of his basketball team. The Last game of the season, they put a jersey on him and sent him in and he sunk 13 three-point shots. And they said, “Wow, autism, what a kid.” And not to take away from that, but that’s not the kind of autism I know. You know, I have a son who’s nonverbal who I have guardianship over, who if left to his own devices, would not make it in the world. He needs other people. So I think it depends and it’s different.
But I think all of us, no matter where you are on the spectrum, we enter into the process of grief. And we go through different cycles. Some people have likened that to being in an amusement park titled Grief, and they’re all different rides. There’s anger. There’s denial. There’s frustration. There’s acceptance. Th e mechanism of all those rides is fear. And I think parents enter in and the fear just manifests and comes out in different ways. And it different motivates their decision-making and it gets them to do different things. A lot of parents through fear get angry and they go to groups, special ed advocacy parent groups and things, where they get an education all unto themselves.
So I think they enter in the grief and being able to understand as an educator where parents are, even if they don’t know where they are, it’s very helpful, because you can enter in and learn how to be sympathetic, hopefully ultimately empathetic, towards those parents. And that’s a separate conversation, perhaps podcast in and of itself, is how do we get people to shift and learn. As leaders, especially, how to move from sympathy to empathy. It’s not commonly taught in most traditional leadership programs, quite the opposite, actually. We see empathy as a form of weakness and yet it’s our greatest strength in my belief.
So anyway, I think the journey begins with grief. Depending on a lot of different details, it can lead to different places. Unfortunately, some people get stuck in stages or on certain rides in that amusement park. They never stop being angry.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: Is that how you started with Liam? Were you angry?
SAM HENDRICKSON: Yeah. I was angry. For me, it was one of those things that shook me to my core. I dreamt when my wife was pregnant of having a stud quarterback, or captain of the team, and I got the opposite. He is a stud quarterback in many ways, just not in football. He’s a great kid. But you know, there’s anger, there’s heartache, all sorts of emotions that parents go through. And a lot of misdirected anger. We like to blame things and find fault. Sometimes those answers just come up empty and you really can’t. You just have to accept it.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: Would you tell them about when you took Liam to the grocery store?
SAM HENDRICKSON: Early on? Well, you know, I did a lot of reading and we try to educate ourselves, and there’s good and bad with the internet. Sometimes too much information is available and too many perspectives are available. With autism, my son Liam is autistic. And he’s, I’d say, somewhat moderate to severe autism. I mean, he’s in a special school. He’s never been in a regular education school at all. It was painstaking. We would go to the grocery store. I tried to work with desensitizing him to things in public. And that would be anything from noises, people, fluorescent lighting, any of those kinds of things and we had a lot of behavioral meltdowns. I can remember being in line and him just hitting me. And it could be for whatever reason: a noise, something he saw, or just the lighting, the frequency, and people looking at me and saying that I’m a bad parent, “You should become an old school parent. Parent him like you were raised, you know, you just need to smack him, put him in time out.” They don’t understand, because autism doesn’t look different. It’s not a disability on the surface that looks different, and let’s just sit and watch behavior.
RYAN ESTES: Sam, you talked about the different rides of denial and anger and guilt. And you said that the mechanism is always fear that comes out in different ways. Fear of what?
SAM HENDRICKSON: Ultimately, special ed parents, there are these moments I think for most of us where we’re lying in bed and our heads are on our pillows, and we’re about to drift off to sleep. It’s in those moments, I think, that a lot of people, whether they admit it or not, it’s probably the most truthful moments in their day. Where they’re processing things, they’re downloading, they’re getting ready for sleep. And it’s you and whatever spiritual thing you ascribe to, you know, those conversations. In those moments most parents of special ed kids fear this: they fear, “Who will take care of my child when I’m not here?” That is something that keeps them up at night. It’s part of the basis of their fear. It’s one of those core fear things, more than just, “I’m walking my kids to the bus stop. I’m getting them on the bus. And I am putting so much trust in this system called school, from every aid, teacher, administrator who comes in contact with my kids. Will my son be protected from other kids making fun of them? Will he be able to say what he needs and get what he needs?”
Those are sort of the daily kinds of fears, but the end of the day, most of the time our kids outlive us, at least that’s sort of the way of the universe, right? Not always, but… So we have this fear of, “Who will take care of my son or daughter when I’m not here?” And that’s something I think lives within everybody. When you hear that your child is not like other children and there’s no cure, there’s no panacea, there’s just trying to get a program in place, trying to day by day get progress, and trusting that all the progress, even though you don’t see it at home and they see it at school, trusting that it’s getting better. All of those things, I think for parents, get at this concept of fear for them. I can tell you that the parents that I know and when we’ve gotten honest about our experiences, from the moment I heard the neurodevelopmental pediatrician tell me that my son had autism, it was almost like the cells in my body changed and got programmed for fear. And it’s hard to reprogram them and trust that things are going to be okay. So you’re driven by fear, almost on a cellular level I would say, and I think that drives a lot of the parents. I really do.
RYAN ESTES: That’s fascinating. Sashi, I’m curious to hear your perspective on this, too. You mentioned having friends who might not be coming from this country, who are walking into an unfamiliar education system, and especially if they’re experiencing some of the challenges that come along with having children with special education issues, not even knowing what questions to ask. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what that really looks like in the day-to-day?
SASHI GUNDALA: Ryan, there are actually two issues here that I’ve often seen with these families. One of the major issues is culturally accepting something like this. I’ve seen it in my family with my own cousins, relatives and friends. They are not open to accepting that there might be something wrong with the child and the child needs help. So it is very, very difficult for them South Asian Culture by itself, I’m sure everybody knows that they are so highly academic driven. So for them, they see it as a personal failure If the child doesn’t do good in academics. So they are not dreaming about stud quarterbacks, but they definitely are dreaming about Ivy Leagues, and that is every parent’s dream in a South Asian family. So for these parents to know that their child is developing at a very slow pace is something not acceptable and they make excuses for it. So even if the doctor tells them, “Your child is autistic,” they refuse to use the terminology and they would say, “Oh, he just needs to grow up and he’ll be fine. It just takes time, and he’ll be fine.”
And they would not talk openly about it. I’ve seen some of my friends not bring their child to parties or events just because there will be questions and comparisons with other students, with other kids who are of the same age level. So that cultural piece itself is a big big hurdle.
Sashi said that when people come from another country, another culture, some of these issues are compounded because those families may not have a clear picture of how the education system works in the United States. Even when a family says, “My child needs support,” they often don’t know how to get him the help he needs.
SASHI GUNDALA: So coming from another country, with the education system, it’s always difficult. I did my undergrad in India and then I came here for my Master’s and it took me a long time to understand how the system works. For example, in India, when you take your undergrad classes, it’s pre- proscribed. You have 10 or 11 subjects and you take them for the year and you’re done with it. You have no choices. Whereas when I went in for my Master’s, they gave me three sheets of paper saying, “Here’s all that you can take, and you can design your schedule. You can do what you want. You can take the electives that you want. You can pretty much tailor it to your own timing and your needs and whatever subjects you’re interested in.” I was like, “Wow, really? You’re telling me I can choose to study what I want to study, and what subjects interest me?” So that took some time and now with my kids being in college, I have a better understanding of that. But then, the other parents are not there yet. And that is because I’m in the education field, again, but they are not there, so it’s harder for them. So when I sit with them and talk, they have so many basic questions and they say that, “We kind of feel shy asking these questions to the teachers, because we don’t want to come across looking stupid.” And so I helped them with that, but there are so many who don’t ask these questions, who don’t have a friend who’s an educator. Where do they go? What happens to them?
I think a big chunk of this problem would be solved with creating awareness. Having some outlets where parents can come together, share about this, ask questions, know that there is an expert out there who can help them that they can talk to, and maybe meet like-minded parents who are in the same situation and know that they’re not alone. Know that they can talk to someone. One of my friends is struggling currently because the child is finishing up high school and he doesn’t know what next. It’s like, “Where in college? Where do you go?” The school aid and everything stops, the hand-holding stops at 12th grade. So what about college? It’s all on the parents and I usually come to Sam and ask questions because Liam is older and he’s experienced in that now, so, “Sam, what did you do? What did you do with Liam?” And then I take that information back and I give it to them. So I created the channel for them. But then we think about all those parents who don’t have this.
RYAN ESTES: I’m glad you brought up the question of what you do as an administrator, and regardless of whether you’re a parent coming from outside the US or not, getting that news of, “Your child is going to need extra supports, either has special needs or learning disability,” that’s a long road that the school is going to need to walk beside those parents on for a long time, that those parents are going to be carrying for a long time. So I would love to hear from Christine and Sam as well. What are the most important things for those at the school, whether they be teachers, the special education department, the principals, to do or keep in mind? And are there certain missteps that are often made when working with families at these times?
CHRISTINE CAPACI: So Ryan, I think that Sashi brought up a really important point. In Our school district, we have a majority immigrant population, a lot from Southeast Asia. So I think an important piece in any population that school administrators work with is to really identify the values and needs of your school community and understand that, as Sam was talking about, the emotional process that parents are going through, regardless of what their background is. So for example, Sashi said something that made me think of this, very often our school community, the parents want our students to go to Ivy League schools. That’s their ultimate dream. And so when they notice I was a principal at the upper elementary, that’s when we noticed that the academics started getting much more difficult for students who, let’s say, had a diagnosis with a special need.
So parents would come in and they appeared to be in what we would think of as denial. And we would identify this by, we notice on our end, for example, that the student is struggling mightily. They they aren’t reading full sentences. They aren’t able to comprehend paragraphs or words or text and those sorts of things, and we would bring parents into talk about this. The parent very often would deny an Individual Education Plan, an IEP, and we would sit down with the parent and say, “So this is what we’re seeing in the classroom,” and try to describe the struggle, try to help them from the teacher’s perspective, from the guidance counselor’s perspective, and so forth. And then at the end of the meeting when we think we’ve made some progress, the parent would say to us, “Can you just give us more textbooks to work harder at home? We want more homework. We’ll help him with homework, they will overcome this hurdle if we can just work harder with the child.”
Christine said in those moments it could be really easy for an administrator to throw in the towel. They’re trying hard, they’re bringing a ton of expertise to the table, and the parents just want more homework. And that’s where you have to remember that you need to be in this for the long haul.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: You say, “Okay. Well, this is where we are in September. Let’s continue to hold hands with the family, not just the child, and really help them to understand that the child’s struggles are not a source of shame or embarrassment. The child will make some progress, just not maybe at the rate and speed that the family had hoped, and that that’s okay.” I would say that that’s one of the most important things educators can do to work with families, or administrators can, is to have some patience and understanding that this process is going to take a very, very long time depending on the stage that you’re able to work with the family and intervene with the family.
SAM HENDRICKSON: Ryan, the second part of your question I think is a significant one: are there missteps? And I think there are. There’s one that you know has been a reoccurring misstep and I’ve just seen it from parent and administrative perspectives, the parents, the kids, the school. It’s so common, and so about a year or two ago. I was volunteering in my community and I was there as a parent of a special ed parent advisory group. Here in New Jersey, the acronym is SEPAG, but it’s a special ed parent advocacy group – or advisory group, I’m sorry, there are other advocacy groups. And unlike a PTA or a PTO, this is a group of parents who gets together and meets with the administration of the school district to just give advice or to say, “Hey, can we work together? Here are some things we’re noticing.”
One of the reoccurring themes constantly was, parents would come and say things like, “I would like my child to have an augmentative device. I want my child to have an aide, a one-on-one aide. I want my child to have speech therapy by themselves and not in a group. And I know you do it with other kids. I want it for my child, too.” Sometimes administrators would slip up and say, “We don’t have the funding for that. That’s not what your child needs. I can only talk with you about your child,” and all that stuff. And what was happening, I believe, was that, the parents are, again, coming from underneath, even though they’re coming in angry, underneath all that is fear.
And one of the ways I think schools can address fear is by becoming really aware of the places where you can establish trust, but also these missteps or these places where you’re losing trust and you’re not even aware of it. So there’s places in schools where we lose trust of parents and we’re not even aware, and I’ll not explain it this way. Those parents go have coffee with other special ed parents and they compare their children and compare their notes. So let’s pretend for a moment that two kids have the same learning disability and a very similar IEP, Individualized Education Program. And one kid is getting a certain kind of service and another is not. That parent feels left out. “Why did they say no to me? Or why didn’t they even offer to me?” In that moment, the district caused a loss of trust with that parent. That causes more fear and that comes out in more anger . Those angry feelings cause the parent to make more decisions, and they often feel that the only way the district will hear them is if they hire an attorney and all the rest.
So what do you do? How can districts do things differently? So Ryan, I’ll speak in a metaphor here. Let’s pretend you’re not an American, for example, and you’re coming in and you’re visiting me, Sam, from a different country. You’re visiting New Jersey and you want to know what’s special about New Jersey. I don’t know, one of the things that comes to mind, we’re known for diners in the Garden State. we go to a diner and you say me — before we walk in, before you look at the menu, you say to me, “I really, I really want a grilled cheese.” I look at the menu and we’re reading the menu together, and there’s no grilled cheese on the menu. But we’re sitting at the counter at this diner, and the person to our left has eggs with toast and butter, and the persons who are right has a cheeseburger. And you and I, as smart people, are looking… we ask the waitress, “Is there grilled cheese?” “No, it’s not on the menu.” But you and I know that there’s a flattop back there. We see bread. We see butter and we see cheese. Grilled cheese can be made. It’s not on the menu.
So I think in this metaphor, districts all the time say, “We don’t make grilled cheese,” but the parents already know from their coffee sessions, their advocacy groups, their support network, that you can make grilled cheese, or at least you can offer. And the moment we say, “No, we don’t have grilled cheese. It’s not on the menu,” we lose trust. And I don’t think districts really realize, or administrators realize, in those moments, it’s so subtle, but you’ve lost trust and you just created more anger, and you’re entering into that thing. So I think some advice would be, one, be aware of it. And two, so what do you do? You don’t think it’s right that this kid needs the grilled cheese sandwich, but you can say to the parents, “I have everything to make a grilled cheese. I know it’s not on the menu. It’s not a common thing that we provide. However, if the time is right and you need a grilled cheese, we’ll give you the grilled cheese.”
That’s an easier answer than what parents typically hear. When those parents say, “I want my kid to have a grilled cheese,” the districts often just say, “It’s not on the menu. We don’t make it.” They keep it a secret that they give other people services. So I think that grilled cheese metaphor, for example, is the simple way to think about what’s happening and what continues to happen. And there’s other places like that where trust is just lost, and I don’t think there’s this awareness that in those moments, in those conversations, administrators or districts really realize that they’ve lost trust with a family in that simple moment. You know, just acknowledging it: “Hey, yeah that other person does have the grilled cheese sandwich. Here’s why we don’t think your child needs the grilled cheese, but we could do it.” Or, “Why don’t we make you half a grilled cheese sandwich and just try it? Maybe it’ll work.”
We don’t do that enough and we lose trust, and the loss of trust I think is the number one factor that gets us to our current reality of litigation and expenses and time. It doesn’t have to be that way.
RYAN ESTES: Sure. Sashi, can you speak to that issue from an administrator’s perspective? Do you find yourself trying to work with families and helping them get the grilled cheese sandwich when they need it, and if so, what does that look like?
SASHI GUNDALA: I just wanted to add to what Sam and Christine said. Everything that they said is something that we do see in the school. But there’s one more addition that I would like to add. So continuing with the grilled cheese metaphor, there are people who come in who think that they want a grilled cheese sandwich, but they don’t know how to ask for it. They don’t know the language. So often times I’ve realized that the lingo that we use as educators, as administrators, is not something that people understand.
Sometime back. I remember there was this couple who went in for IEP meeting and then they wanted to come see me about something else, and I just invited them into my office, sitting and talking to them, and they just flat out asked me, “I didn’t understand a word of what was said in that IEP meeting.” They just didn’t understand the language because the people in that room We’re talking all these big words about what was wrong with their child, but not actually telling them in plain simple English as to what the problem was. So they understood the medical terms, but not really what was going on.
So I had to sit down and break it up for them and explain to them what was happening with their child. So that is something that we’ve seen even in a regular classroom. We’ve seen teachers, too, when we have parent-teacher conferences, the parent comes in and I’ve seen teachers, I’ve caught myself saying that, “Oh, your child is very social.” That’s not what I really want to say. I want to say, “Your child can’t shut up in classroom. He keeps talking,” and I can’t say that because I’ve been warned not to say anything negative. You start with the positive. You say positive, you spin a positive way of saying things to the parents, and we’ve been taught this. So somewhere in that, the message is lost. So I am not able to convey the message to the parent that, “Your child is very talkative and that stops him from focusing in the classroom and listening and being on top of things.” So sometimes maybe educating the teachers and also, as administrators, trying to understand where other person is coming from. What is their background, so that we can come down to their level and explain what they need to understand? I think is very important and which we completely lack, I think.
RYAN ESTES: Well earlier, Sam, you mentioned the idea of moving to sympathy, and then moving from sympathy to empathy. I’m thinking that empathy, that probably not only is important for people in your positions for administrators. But also for teachers, also for paraprofessionals, also for everybody who is interacting with these children and with these families. So how do you either work with yourself or work with the people in your schools to have that kind of empathy and to make sure that they’re invested in giving these parents and guardians the support that they need?
SAM HENDRICKSON: I think you’re right. It’s a big topic and you know, it’s a popular topic now, from Dr. Brené Brown from her breakout book Daring Greatly. So a lot of the work she’s done around empathy, her TED talk, connecting with Oprah, becoming part of her network, it’s really brought to the surface the reality about empathy and some new thinking about empathy that was always there but we just haven’t thought of, for example, that it really is a strength and not a weakness. I think a lot of people perceive it as a weakness and don’t go there because in order to be empathetic, you need to be vulnerable. And it is difficult for people. It’s also oxymoronic. As I was saying before, a lot of leadership programs, you get into this place and I forget who was that says “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That’s a severe statement, but I do think people get kind of intoxicated with their power and titles. And that’s sort of the opposite of getting vulnerable. Leaders aren’t naturally vulnerable people, because I think they fear that people will see them as weak. Yet it’s what I think we need in education to really start moving this in the direction that it needs to be moved in.
So I think the hard work is, you can’t just force people into a place of vulnerability. But it’s really how you become empathetic. So in other words, sympathy on this continuum, if you will, sympathy is that I can say a sentence like, “I’m sorry that this has happened to you.” I can feel sorry for you because this has happened. There’s no connection in sympathy, really, minimal connection. People don’t feel connected when we when we are sympathetic towards them. They feel really connected when we’re empathetic, when there’s the sense that they have that we get what they’re going through. And I’ve been able to do that because I’ve been open to parents that I have a son with autism. I’ve been in the places, but I know the feeling, I know the energy, I know the stage that… You know, I can identify. And that’s served me well, and I’m not suggesting that all parents or only the parents of special ed. kids are going to be the best administrators to connect with these parents, but I do think it’s possible for any administrator to say…
Well, I’ll give you a perfect example. I don’t know how to train this necessarily, maybe it’s by example and sessions, and I think it can be trained. But one exercise that I would offer is simply this: I had a teacher come into my office years ago and sat down at my table and started to cry, and explained to me that she had a miscarriage. And this is, Ryan, after she announced her pregnancy to the whole school. The sunshine committee had bought gifts and we had the sheet cake and all that in the faculty room, and they know the gender and everything was decorated in blue. It was really difficult for her as a mother, as a woman, and her family, much less her professional family. I had never experienced that, not only as a man but I just hadn’t experienced that. But I have experienced loss and I’ve experienced deep loss. So I found myself in that moment kind of like, “Okay, can I identify what she’s experiencing? It’s loss. That’s one of the things she’s grieving. Where in my own life can I connect to that feeling, that memory? And what I found coming out is, I said to her, “I don’t know that there’s anything I can say that will make a difference, and I feel bad about that.” And I just sat with her, you know, I didn’t try to fade or fix it, because there’s really nothing you can do to fade or fix it. Sometimes we overtalk things because we’re trying to be sympathetic, but when you get to a place of empathy, I knew, in the times that I’ve lost great things, it was just people sitting there that made the difference. Talking sometimes made it worse. So I said that to her and years later she came back and thanked me for that moment and some of the moments after, because just being there and saying, “Look, is there anything I can do?” and then just thinking of things but…
So anyway, getting back, I think empathy is difficult to bring into a professional workplace, because it’s hard to force people to get to a place of vulnerability. But until we’re able to do that, I don’t think we’re going to experience true empathy and true connection. And if we can begin to kind of make ways there with these parents, I think the parents are going to feel connection, and when they feel connected, they’re not going to be as afraid. That’s when the partnership will really start to begin and take off, where we can come to a table, talk about our needs, talk about our fears, what we think we might want even if it’s the grilled cheese or not the grilled cheese, but just say those kinds of things, I think things are going to get better. I think it’s the long road though, but I think that’s the sort of the case.
So I would do empathy training. I think it would be a very powerful thing. I know that Brené Brown has recently just started an empathy building program for teachers that she’s running online right now, I’m interested in doing that. But the work is just beginning, truly. But I think especially with this population of parents, it needs to happen.
RYAN ESTES: I’d love to hear real briefly also from you Christine and you again, Sashi, from your perspective, what can leaders in schools do? What what are some tangible things that they can do to better support these families and to help their teachers and staffs better support these families who are in the middle of this really difficult and challenging process?
CHRISTINE CAPACI: I can think of two things off the top of my head. The first is to build relationships. It sounds cliché, but that would look like reaching out to call a parent who may have just pitched a fit in your building, just to call and make it okay, you know, like, “Hello Mrs. So-and-so, how are you? I know yesterday was a rough day. I’m still here to listen. We all get angry sometimes, I understand that. But I want you to know I’m still here to listen and parenting is hard. I’m a parent, too.” Just to reach out and to keep that relationship going and keep that relationship strong by doing unconventional things like a call when calling isn’t something you might do normally. Sometimes we have these parents who hire legal representation and we’re afraid if I have to be in my corner and you have to be in your corner, and we can’t bridge in between, but really those are just manufactured ideas of how the relationship ought to be sometimes .
SASHI GUNDALA: I agree with Christine I think building relationships and listening are very, very important. They are the two main things. And along with that, I think I would just add one more thing, which is offering workshops and meeting places for parents. Just invite them, have them come over have your CST team talk to these parents and educate them, and tell them about the process and what is going on, and even what their rights are, what they can get from the state, how the school is helping. All those things just for them to see it laid out in front of them and for them to see, here’s what all is available. Here is the buffet. It’s not just grill cheese. And here’s how we are helping you.
Because honestly speaking, schools do a lot. They do do a lot. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t reach the parents in the right manner, and sometimes it feels like we are not helping them, but they don’t see everything else that is being done. So sometimes just telling them, “Here’s what all we did. Maybe we are refusing this one thing, but there are 23 other things that we’ve done for your child.” Sometimes that also goes a long way in just making them feel better that, “Okay things are on the right track, and eventually it will get there.” Maybe explaining that “no.” Why are we saying “no” right now? There is a reason, and sometimes just being open and sharing that out and explaining why would make them feed better than a plain denial. It’s like when you tell your child, “No, you can’t have that candy.” “Why can’t I have it?” So it’s hard for them. So I think just that one piece, along with what Christine said.
SAM HENDRICKSON: Ryan I can offer one other thing. I can’t remember when or if I’ve ever heard a leader or maybe a child study team say to a parent, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what it is. If it’s just the culture, as educators a lot of us were former teachers and teachers are supposed to have all the knowledge, right? And I’ve seen people, more often their Achilles heel with it is they filibuster. They will say something when they really don’t know and then I’ve been witness or blind copied or carbon copied on emails where we have to go back and say, “No, here’s what it really is.” We provide clarity, when in the moment, if you’re a parent and you’re filled with fear, and you’re trying to get empathetic connection, if somebody says to you, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I’ll figure it out.”
To say “I don’t know,” as a professional, feels unprofessional. It feels like I should know everything, or I’m too new, but it’s an expression of vulnerability. To get up in front of people, to be in a group of people with parents who you know might take what you say out into a support group or the public, or might circle back and get to your boss, but to say “I don’t know” is an expression of vulnerability. And everybody has been there. Everybody has not known something. So it’s a place for connection to say, “I don’t know. I’m sorry I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” I can’t tell you the last time I’ve heard it, if I’ve ever heard. It’s rare, but yet I think it’s something that we can do is just to train people, “I know you don’t know all the answers. And when you don’t know, just tell them you don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no shame.” Again, it’s all those feelings come up for professionals when they’re about to say that. They’d rather, I think, filibuster something and then provide clarity or defend what they said later on, and it just gets them jammed up a little bit further down because the parents know you don’t know and that causes more anger. So that’s one thing I would offer: say you don’t know when you don’t know. And get the answer and just go forward that way. It’s a way to kind of connect with people and I think it works.
RYAN ESTES: That’s great. Christine Capaci, Sam Hendrickson, Sashi Gundala, I want to thank you all for your time and vulnerability here in sharing your stories. I really appreciate what you’ve brought to this conversation. Thanks for talking with us.
CHRISTINE CAPACI: Thank you so much.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, offering Frontline Special Ed & Interventions. It’s software that helps schools manage programs for special education and special student populations, making it easier to work with IEPs, RTI/MTSS programs, English Learner programs, Section 504, and more. To find out more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.