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MonTAGe: Dealing with Schools

reprinted from MonTAGe, Volume 1, Number 2, April 22 1996
editor Valorie J. King

click here for...
From The Editor's Desk
Gifted? I See No Gifted Children Here!
Book Reviews
The Fine Art Of Debate
Problem Solving 101: What's Really Going On Here?
Problem Solving 102: Interviewing Techniques
Problem Solving 103: In The Principal's Office

From The Editor's Desk
by Valorie King

This issue of MonTAGe is devoted to information, tips, and techniques that I hope will help you increase your effectiveness when dealing with teachers, principals, and others as you negotiate for the adaptations and changes your child needs in order to be happy and academically challenged in school.

The subject of this issue's Book Review, defense mechanisms, may seem rather esoteric and unrelated to the negotiation process but I encourage you to read through it carefully looking not only at how it applies to others (e.g. teachers and staff) but also in regards to those defense mechanisms that you currently use. Negotiating from a position of strength also requires that we know our own weaknesses. I hope this information will help you to evaluate your own ways of adapting and coping. Are your "coping mechanisms" helping you get what you want? Do they hamper your ability to communicate your needs and those of your gifted child?

Communication is more than simply understanding the words being spoken. It's reading the subtle nuances in the other person's behavior and understanding the mental processes underlying the individual's communication and interpersonal relationship styles. Why does this individual react as he or she does? We need to seek to know not only "what" hot buttons an individual has but also "why" if we are to avoid pushing buttons and getting responses we definitely do not want!

In future issues, we'll revisit the issue of adaptive mechanisms and look at how to help our gifted children develop more appropriate ways of coping with the stressful situations they face in rigid classrooms or in schools which either cannot or will not allow changes to accommodate each child's unique educational needs. So many of our children face lowered self-esteem due to being misunderstood by their teachers and peers. It becomes a downward spiral that, if not caught and reversed, pulls the entire family into the maelstrom. Parents and children become caught in feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Anger, fear, shame, and doubt replace happiness and joy in our homes.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with this quote from the introduction to George Vaillant's book, "The Wisdom of the Ego." Perhaps it will help you to better understand your own reactions to the difficulties of raising a gifted child including negotiating with individuals who seem at times to be less than reasonable.

"Our lives are at times intolerable. At times we cannot bear reality. At such times our minds play tricks on us. Our minds distort inner and outer reality so that an observer might accuse us of denial, self-deception, even dishonesty. But such mental defenses creatively rearrange the sources of our conflict so that they become manageable and we may survive. The mind's defenses ... protect us by providing a variety of illusions to filter pain and to allow self-soothing.

"... our ego's defenses can be creative, healthy, comforting, and coping. Yet, when we are observers -- rather than users -- of defenses, they often strike us as downright peculiar."

Gifted? I See No Gifted Children Here!
by Valorie King

When our family doctor first approached me with the notion that my children were different because they were "gifted" I responded with massive denial. The same scenario played out almost weekly as we waited the required 20 minutes in the office after each allergy shot. I didn't want to hear that my children were different. To me, "gifted" meant different. Different meant no friends, social isolation, and great unhappiness. Using humor and reassurance, our doctor continued trying to reach through my defenses. Notice I said "reach through." No battering rams here. Just helpful comments and pointers about how my children's needs differed from other children.

In time, I was able to put aside my denial. Denial was one of the defense mechanisms that I used to put aside the pain from my own childhood. I used it to hide from the emotional trauma I experienced as a result of being "different." Facing my children's intellectual giftedness has borne considerable fruit for our entire family but, I think I see it most in myself. Finally, I had something to point to, a reason, why I was so different from my childhood peers. I was intellectually gifted too! Other people weren't stupid (projection on my part) -- I was just able to process information in ways they did not. I stopped hiding my creativity and began to express myself openly. Some other "funny" things happened along the way too -- I learned that I had a sense of humor. I began to really enjoy teaching my children at home. Advanced mathematics and creative writing became joys once more instead of things that I rejected in favor of other more traditional female pursuits.

Gradually, the social "puzzle" began to make sense to me. Instead of feeling like a space alien sitting on the outskirts of society I have friends for the first time in my life -- close friends as well as acquaintances. Learning the truth about oneself doesn't have to be all bad!

Somewhere along the way to all these realizations, I managed to develop some insight into the defense mechanisms I use to cope with reality. I blame my friend, the doctor. He, putting on his best "southern drawl," kids me that I've done it to myself. Insatiable curiosity has drawn me towards an interest in defense mechanisms. How do they work? How do you get them? Why doesn't everyone use the same ones? Why do we use them if they don't work? In studying about defenses, I've learned about the concept of "second best solutions." We do the best that we can at the time. But, in retrospect, we may very well see that our chosen ways of adapting to reality aren't the best. That we could do better.

Having been through massive denial myself, I am better able to understand teachers, parents, and other individuals who have problems accepting that a given child is intellectually gifted and has different needs. It takes time to identify and work around the other person's defense mechanisms. But, if what you want is worth having -- then it's worth spending the time to figure out how to get it.

Book Reviews
by Valorie King

"The Wisdom Of The Ego" by George Vaillant (c) 1993
published by Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-674-95373-8
"Adaptation To Life" by George Vaillant (c) 1977
published by Little, Brown, & Co., 1977. ISBN 0-316-89520-2

Two books on the subject of how people adapt to life's challenges. Based upon the findings of the longest running study of adult development -- The Grant Study of Adult development. The findings of this study have gradually made their way into common parlance e.g. "defense mechanism", "coping," "rejection," "repression," "denial," etc.

A few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to "Adaptation to Life." Looking for a copy in the local bookseller's I found "The Wisdom of The Ego" instead. Both books are marvelous! Vaillant writes about a highly technical subject, the development of mental processes, in a style that is easy to understand and flows quickly. His writing conveys his attitude of respect and caring towards people as well as his humor and ability to "poke a little fun" at society and life in general.

Why read a technical book about such a dry subject as "coping mechanisms" or "defenses?" If you're like me, the current wave of trendy books in pop-psychology is just too "soft" in background and support for the assertions made. Vaillant backs up everything with examples and data from the Grant Study and other research efforts. He also makes an effort to include the opposing viewpoint as well.

There's a more important reason to investigate the development of defense mechanisms -- your gifted child. We all have and use defense mechanisms. You, your child's teachers, the school staff, even your child -- you all use defense mechanisms to cope with unbearable situations and/or unbearable people. Consider this: every day your child is experiencing biological, psychological, and social-emotional growth. The development of the ego is an important part of that growth. Your child is in contact with many adults and is learning from them. Your child is learning adaptation and coping mechanisms (defenses) while he's learning arithmetic, spelling, and grammar. What is your child being taught? What coping skills or defense mechanisms are being modeled in the home, school, and community environments? Are they helpful? Or, is your child learning to adapt in ways that are labeled immature or anti-social by teachers and such?


The Grant Study Of Adult Development has the distinction of being one of the longest running longitudinal studies of adult development as well as being a landmark study regarding the use of what are now called "ego mechanisms of defense" or, in popular parlance "coping mechanisms" or "defense mechanisms." Vaillant himself, at the thirty year mark in the study, interviewed each of the 95 men in the Grant study seeking to understand how they had grown and adapted to the circumstances of their lives. Vaillant's witty verbal style literally made a dull subject come alive for me and left me with a much better understanding of how defense mechanisms can interfere with interpersonal communications and play havoc in our social relationships.

Ego mechanisms of defense are the mental processes we use to resolve the conflicts that arise, in our inner life, between instincts, the real world, important people, and our conscience (or the internalized prohibitions of our culture). Most of us know them by their more popular names, e.g. denial, projection, sublimation. Using questionaires, interviews, and other methods of assessment, the Grant Study investigators looked at the effects and relative effectiveness of the various "defenses" used by the men in the study over a period of time that spanned from early adulthood through old age. One of the study's primary conclusions was that "soundness [being mentally healthy] is a way of reacting to problems, not an absence of them."

Ego mechanisms of defense are the the way we react to the problems in our lives. In certain times and situations, a given way of reacting -- a defense mechanism -- may be more or less healthy. A given individual may move from "healthier" to "less healthy" ways of adapting under increased stress. The Grant Study found that certain defense mechanisms were used most frequently by those men who were healthiest both physically and mentally. Some mechanisms were used by both healthy and less-healthy individuals. Other defenses, commonly seen in children prior to the end of adolescence, were rarely used by the healthy individuals yet frequently used by those who evidenced physical and/or mental illness.

"Adaptation To Life" is probably not a book to put on your "must read" booklist due to its highly technical subject area. But, you might want to look at Vaillant's current book -- "The Wisdom of The Ego" -- it's highly readable and, in my opinion, worth the effort.

The Fine Art Of Debate
by Valorie King

What happened the last time you had a meeting with your child's teacher or principal to ask for adjustments, adaptations, or perhaps just a small change in the classroom or curriculum? Were you able to negotiate a solution that everyone walked away satisfied with (Win/Win)? Or, did you find yourself angry at the way the arguments went? Did the discussions and disagreements stay on topic? Or, were a few "red herrings" thrown out to distract everyone from the real issues? What could you do differently next time to help get to a Win-Win or at least a No-Deal resolution (No-Deal, meaning the issue isn't settled and there is no agreement or resolution as yet)?

The first step in arriving at an acceptable solution could very well require an adjustment in your communication styles. Do you argue from your heart with emotionally loaded statements? Have you considered that this may actually weaken your case in the eyes of the person you're trying to convince? What would happen if you switched to using logical arguments based upon "gifted child" research and other factual sources? Using a well constructed, logical argument also allows you to keep your emotions in check -- keeping you from being your own "worst" enemy.

Debating techniques can help you argue your points successfully. So often on TAGFAM, parents report having had the information necessary to make their case yet not being able to convey that information to the school staff in an understandable and reasonable form. Learning to identify fallacious arguments can also help you to counter ambiguous, incorrect, or unreasonable arguments using the information you have at hand. Learning to recognize and avoid common forms of logic fallacies will strengthen your arguments in support of your requests and opinions.

Truth versus Validity

A person's argument may be valid yet contain "false-to-fact" statements. Thus, it is important to know your facts. Strong arguments come from having facts (citations) from the original research or source of the information. When arguing (debating), "truth" comes from the facts and "validity" comes from the manner in which the argument is constructed. Don't be hood-winked by a well-constructed argument based upon myths or false-statements. And, remember, many an argument based upon truth was lost because it was poorly constructed.

Confusion between a valid argument and a "true" argument is common. Consider the following:

Gifted children enjoy school.
Johnny is a gifted child, therefore Johnny enjoys school.

Logically, this argument is valid. But is it true? Not necessarily.

Using logic symbols the argument looks like this: If P then Q.
Therefore Q.

Another form of argument is called "affirming the consequent." It is always an invalid argument whether or not the pieces are true. In symbols it looks like this:

If P then Q.
Therefore P.

Rephrasing our previous statements:

Gifted children enjoy school.
(If gifted child then enjoys school)
Jill enjoys school, therefore Jill is a gifted child.
(Enjoys school, therefore is gifted child)

Fallacies of Form

1. Petitio principii: A therefore A; "begging the question."

The fallacy of using the conclusion as the premise.

Example: Your son will encounter difficulty if he skips a grade because the work will be more difficult for him.

2. Either/Or: Bifurcation; the practice of oversimplifying the options.

When there are many options, the fallacy of bifurcation gives us only two to decide between. Remember, the world is not black and white.

Example: The only options for gifted education are grade skipping or pull-out programs.

3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: "after this, therefore because of this"

Also called "magical thinking" in psychology. Children are good at this. It is the fallacy of thinking that since B followed A in time, then A must have caused B.

Example: John had no close friends after skipping third grade, therefore skipping third grade caused John to not have any close friends.

Fallacies of Distraction

Also referred to as "informal fallacies;" changing the subject in order to keep from losing an argument. The boundary lines may not be clear since in an informal fallacy it's possible to have several fallacies active in a given argument at any one point in time.

1. Ipse dixit: an illegitimate appeal to authority in order to settle the issue in disput. The Latin means "he said it himself."

2. Ad populum: appeal to popular prejudices, either likes or dislikes.

Ad verecundiam: appeal to something held in high esteem by the populace.

Ad invidiam: appeal to popular loathing.

3. Ad baculum: an appeal "to the stick," an appeal to the listener's anxiety or fears.

4. Abusive ad hominem: making a personal attack instead of addressing the substance of the argument.

5. Bulverism: answering an argument by pointing out the motives or reasons why the one presenting the argument might have for presenting it.

6. Tu quoque: "I did not and besides he did it too."

7. Equivocation: using different definitions for concepts to mislead/evade.

My all-time favorite distractions are:

(1) But, if she skips third grade she won't be old enough to get her driver's license when she's a Junior in High School.

(2) But, what about the prom? Or working on yearbook staff? Or going out for football? Your son will really regret skipping his last two years of high school to go to college early.

(3) What about socialization? Don't children need to be with other kids their own age?

[It's not just the parents of gifted children who get this one thrown at them. Home schoolers have it thrown in their faces too!!!]

The Double Bind

A double bind is an argument for which there is no counter argument. There is no right or correct answer. You can try to make the argument more fair by confronting the speaker with the nature of his argument. But, that has its problems as well. A rather devious individual once said, "the only way to counter a double-bind is with another, perhaps more subtle, double-bind." Done well, this type of double-bind is known as a paradoxical argument -- "heads I win, tails you lose."

Problem Solving 101: What's Really Going On Here?
by Valorie King

You're scheduled to talk with Mrs. Jones, your son's teacher, to "talk about Billy's work." While preparing for this meeting you realize that the last time you met with one of his teachers you came away wondering if you were both talking about the same child. Perhaps you found yourself wondering, "What's really going on here?" Or thinking, "I wonder what's going in the classroom or in the schoolyard that I'm not hearing about."

How do you turn parent-teacher meetings into information goldmines? Interview the teacher. No matter why the meeting was called, you can use interviewing techniques to gain a great deal of information and to make an ally of your child's teacher at the same time. (See "Problem Solving 102: Interviewing Techniques") But, before you plan your interview, let's take a look at the parent-teacher communication process -- at both the content of the communication and the process by which additional meanings and shades of meanings are conveyed.

Content is the literal "what is said," the topics discussed, the order in which subjects are broached, the side-comments and asides, etc. Process, on the other hand, is what occurs nonverbally. Who is saying what via body-language? Does it agree or disagree with the words being spoken?

While analyzing both process and content consider carefully the casual, off-hand remarks -- these may reveal serious underlying concerns that the teacher is not yet able to openly communicate to you. Also pay attention to how frequently or fleetingly the teacher returns to the same topic again and again. This, too, may signal an area which has not yet been fully dealt with, either by the teacher herself or in during this discussion.

The teacher will probably start the conference off by showing you examples of your child's work. Next, she may bring up the main problem that she wants to discuss with you. It's a good idea to let the teacher talk freely, without interruption, no matter how strongly you may disagree with her statements. Take notes if there are items or statements you wish to comment upon. This initial period, when the teacher is speaking, gives you the opportunity to listen for clues as to what the underlying problems might be.

It helps the communication process if, at the beginning of the meeting, you are able to establish an air of mutual participation and rapport (see "Called To The Principal's Office" elsewhere in this issue). Allowing the teacher to speak freely, without interruption helps facilitate the development of rapport. Think: "we're in this together." You need the teacher's input and the teacher needs yours. Once you've listened to the teacher and she has listened to you, then the sharing of insights and possible solutions can be made in an atmosphere that's cooperative and mutually supportive.

While working to establish rapport it is important to remember that each of you brings a full set of baggage with you -- expectations, beliefs, and emotional responses -- your past history, your experiences in life.

What baggage are you bringing? How do your previous experiences both as a student yourself and with your child's previous teachers affect and color your reactions to this teacher? What do you know about the teacher's expectations, beliefs, and emotional responses? What types of "coping" mechanisms do each of you typically use? What role does "blaming" play in how each of you approaches the world?

Think for a moment about the effects that emotional baggage can have upon the parent-teacher-child relationship triangle. Do you trust this teacher because she looks and acts like the second grade teacher you adored? Do you feel comfortable in her classroom because it brings back good memories? Or, are the memories and reactions to the memories negative ones? How does your attitude towards the teacher affect your child's attitudes? Consider that the teacher may be having similar feelings towards you or your child. Don't overlook the very real effects of one person's previous experiences, emotional responses, beliefs and expectations upon the communications process. If there's a problem during your parent-teacher meeting, consider whether or not that problem might also exist in the classroom from day to day.

Try to put your own baggage aside. Accept that the other person's baggage comes along for the ride and will need to be accomodated. You don't have to like everything the other person says. You don't even have to agree. Listen. Observe. Seek information. The most important piece of advice I've ever received about dealing with my own baggage is:

Forget what I think is going on here ...
What do they think is happening? ***

Problem Solving 102: Interviewing Techniques
by Valorie King

There's more to a good interview than just getting the answers to:

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

If you really want to understand why things are the way they are and how the situation came to be how it is then you need to how to ask the questions that get the useful answers. The first rule of thumb is:

There's more going on here than meets the eye.

And its corollaries:

Never take anything at face value -- question the other person's assumptions and analysis. Get the facts, as close to the original source as possible, and then make your own analysis.

What the other person "thinks" happened is as important to your understanding of the current situation as knowing the actual facts.

Keeping these rules in mind, let's look at some questioning techniques that will help you "get the facts" and "opinions" that you need in order to understand "what's going on here."

The 1-2-3 of Questioning

1. Start with broad open-ended questions (open-ended).

"You said you were concerned about Billy not finishing his work. Can you tell me more about this?"

2. Next, ask for more information on specific topics.

"Is Billy working hard and not finishing or is something else going on?"

3. Follow-up by asking detailed direct questions (closed-ended).

"Can you show me an example of a worksheet that Billy did not finish?"


The purpose of reflection, as a questioning technique, is to let the other person know that you heard what was said and that you understood what was meant. It is an empathic method that subtly lets the other person know that he is being heard and that his concerns and feelings are being understood. Restate what is said, in your own words, and ask for feedback. "Is this what you're trying to say?"

"It sounds like you're concerned that Billy is developing poor work habits."


Nodding your head, saying "um, hmm," and "yes?" are two ways to keep the other person talking. Leaning forward in your seat, towards the other person, is a strong way to say "I'm listening, keep talking." Relaxing your posture slightly and slowing your breathing, allows you to project an air of calm and confidence. A few slow, deep breaths will not only help you stay calm but is also especially helpful if the other person becomes upset or "loses it" during the meeting. Some individuals pause or develop a "catch" in their breathing when considering bringing up an unpleasant topic or relating something with strong emotional content. Facilitation enables you to reassure the other person that you are still listening and it is OK for her to continue.

Don't underestimate the power in keeping your posture open and slightly relaxed and your breathing deliberately slow. Leaning forward is a sign of interest and acceptance. Leaning away or slouching is a sign that you aren't interested or that you disagree with what is being said.


Silence can be used both to express approval and disapproval. A "pregnant pause" inserted judiciously into the conversation can elicit information from the other person that was intended to be left unsaid. Not every moment must be filled with talk. Be careful, however, not to convey an air of disinterest or an uncaring attitude.


Confrontation, used very carefully, is an effective way of bringing to the other's attention something that is being denied, avoided, or "missed." Skillful use of confrontation allows you to help the other person face whatever needs to be faced in a direct yet respectful way. Confrontation done well does not arouse hostility or other defense mechanisms.

"These worksheets are from the first grade math text? Yet, you told me that Billy's achievement tests showed he is performing above the third grade level in math. Why isn't he working from a third grade math text?"


Asking for clarification helps you obtain more details from about a statement that has already been made. Be careful with your tone of voice so that the other person does not misinterpret the request for clarification as a challenge or threat.

"It seems important to you that Billy does the exactly the same work as the rest of the class. Why is this so?


Interpretation is probably one of the most important and effective discussion and questioning techniques. It allows you to give the other person information that he may not have about the situation and allows you to reframe the other's perceptions of the dynamics of the situation. Interpretations help the other to see interrelationships between the pieces of the situation and opens the way for new interpretations of behavior.

"I've noticed at home that once Billy has figured something out he prefers to move on to new things. Could it be that his failure to do these worksheets is due to his desire for challenging work rather than due to poor work habits?"


During the discussion, stop periodically to summarize the topics and information being discussed. This allows you to keep the discussion on course and helps to keep side issues from taking over.

"OK, so far we've talked about Billy's work habits and his need for more challenging math. What next?"


Used judiciously, self-revelation can help increase the rapport between parent and teacher. It is unwise, however, to give too much personal information since that may tend to color the other's impressions and judgements regarding the situation.

"I can understand your screaming when Billy let the mouse out of its cage. I'm deathly afraid of mice, myself!"

Positive Reinforcement

The more comfortable the other person feels during the discussion, the more likely that he will continue being open and honest with you. Positive reinforcement allows you to assure the other that it is OK to tell you everything -- that you're not going to start screaming or threatening or harrassing the other person for what is being said.

"I appreciate your telling me how you feel about having Billy in your class. Can you tell me more about why you feel this way? The more I know about what's going on the better I'll be able to help resolve the problem."


Reassurance can lead to a more productive relationship because it fosters increased trust. The other person may also experience "warm fuzzy feelings" as a result of your empathic response to the situation. It is important to be truthful in your reassurance since deceit, uncovered, may ruin whatever chances you had for a good working relationship with the other.

"I can see that you're doing what you think is best in this situation. I appreciate how you've handled it up to this point. Together, I'm sure we can work something out."


At times, it is appropriate for the parent to give the teacher advice on how to handle classroom situations with the child. The giving of advice should wait until the teacher's concerns have been heard and explored. Why? Who can listen to advice when their own thoughts are on things yet to be said?

"Billy is very sensitive and tends to overreact when I raise my voice at home. I find I get better results if I wait until I've recovered from my emotional outburst before trying to discipline him even if it means waiting until the next day. Sometimes it's hard, though. I thought I would DIE when he put the snake on my kitchen table and asked if he could dissect it."

Problem Solving 103: In The Principal's Office
by Valorie King

The school called today. The principal wants to see you in her office, at a mutually agreeable time, of course, to discuss your child. What now? Or, perhaps, you have initiated the request for a meeting . . . which now seems to have a cast of thousands on the invite list. Sweet Dreams, Daddy! Uh huh, right. Dreams filled with the memories of your own childhood days. Does it ever get any better?

Two recent postings from TAGFAM sum up the response of a great many parents to the "call" to visit the principal's office.

"I'm a bit frightened and intimidated already! . . . I'm trying to work out all my fear beforehand." [Greg]

"The first time I went face to face with the principal my palms were soaked and my heart was about to jump out of my chest! I think it goes back to school days and a fear of being sent to the "principal's office". I went through the same thing the first time I took my complaints to the superintendent. The best thing to remember is that they are only people and YOU pay their salary. In essence you are their employer and have every right in the world to ask for what is best for your child." [Dawn]

Before The Meeting

So, how do you handle YOUR FEARS, YOUR EMOTIONS? Have a fire drill!

First, imagine the situation as you think it will be. Who will be there? Why? What role is each person there to play? Do you know why they are there? What information will each person bring to the meeting? If you don't know, then imagine yourself asking the questions that will get you this information.

Second, reprogram your responses. You are not a little child being called into the principal's office on a discipline matter. Reframe it as being asked to step into your boss's office to discuss a business matter. Or, imagine yourself in the role of a client attending a status review for a contract. Imagine yourself restating the education-ese into terminology or words that you are more comfortable using; words that come from your professional or work environment. See yourself, in your mind's eye, asking the questions and listening to the responses that will give you the definitions and information that you need to evaluate the school's performance in delivering services on this contract.

Third, practice non-threatening ways of challenging or objecting to information that is presented to you. Asking for specific examples or clarification may help. Be careful, however, to not ask so many questions that the others are thinking "tweet! Delay of Game!"

Remember the Zen saying:

All things are true in some sense,
All things are false in some sense,
All things are meaningless in another sense.

A statement is true for the person who says it. The statement represents the person's opinion. For you, the same statement is false if you disagree with it. But, in the end, the truth or falsehood is meaningless because regardless of who is right and who is wrong . . . the physical reality does not change. Charges and counter-charges only heighten the emotional responses and prevent the transfer of information which is necessary to achieve your goals for the meeting.

Finally, practice keeping yourself calm no matter what. Restate, reframe, review. Don't let your emotions hijack your efforts to listen. Take notes. Keep a professional demeanor about you. Take another person with you who can take notes for you and watch for clues that you may miss.

During The Meeting

If you want these professionals to do their best then make sure that you are the type of client they want to work for. Be fair. Be reasonable. But, don't accept shoddy workmanship or overcharging. You wouldn't accept it in business ... don't accept it here.

Establishing rapport with the principal, teachers, and staff members is one of the most important steps you can take to insure a successful meeting. It can be difficult to build rapport when the other parties are attempting to use a "fear" or "authority" model of interaction.

1) Be at ease and put the others at ease.

Use body language to show that you are here to listen as well as talk. Smile, introduce yourself to everyone at the table, listen to their introductions in turn. Make a seating chart on your notepad listing each person's name and role.

2) If they called the meeting, expect them to tell you what the problem is.

Don't be suckered in by questions like "Mrs. Jones, do you know why we asked you here today?" Listen with compassion. Being a school teacher is not easy. Make allowances for fatigue, overwork, and burn-out. Turn-off your emotions while listening to the staff's presentation no matter how much you disagree with what is being said. Think of it as a mystery novel and watch for clues both in what is said and what is not being said. Who is nodding yes? No?

3) Evaluate their insights into the situation.

Where does their evaluation or assessment of the situation match yours? Where do you have a different view of the situation? Is it a substantial difference or a minor variation in opinion?

Develop your own "insight." Insight is the ability to understand the true cause and meaning of a situation. What information is lacking? Set yourself up as an ally rather than an opponent if at all possible. "I know that we all want the best for my daughter, Sue, and I can see that you've given her situation a lot of thought." Affirming the good in a situation is one way to gain allies.

4) Establish your expertise.

You are the person who knows your child best, in all situations. The staff knows about pieces of the puzzle and may in fact know the individual pieces better than the parents. Parents are the generalists. If you're not an expert on your child, become one. Use the guidelines found in this issue of MonTAGe to assess your child's development and needs.

Quote outside authorities as needed. You may need to bring letters, testing results, journal articles, etc. One TAGFAM reader suggested that it is better to send background information ahead of time to each of the meeting participants because "there's never enough time to read all that stuff during the meeting."

5) Establish your authority.

You are responsible for what happens to your child and you have the authority to make the decisions for her. If the school's decisions are not in your child's best interests then you have the obligation and the right to challenge those decisions. Emotional outbursts are not going to get you what you want. Knowing your rights under the laws of your state and the policies of the state and local school boards are essential! Remember, the law doesn't require that your child be in a specific school -- only that he or she be receiving an education that meets certain minimum criteria.

There are many, many parents who are exercising creativity in how their children are educated. Which options are you willing to consider? Are you willing to use those options as leverage to encourage the school to make changes in your child's educational environment?

6) Balance your roles as listener, expert, and authority (parent).

Be assertive rather than aggressive or confrontational. State things clearly and ask for feedback. If there are two of you, then perhaps double-teaming (good-cop, bad-cop) may be an effective approach to balancing the roles that you must play during the meeting. Be aware that the staff may also use this approach. Defer judgments and opinions if you feel like you're being pushed or rushed into making decisions or agreements.

Wrap-Up and Afterwards

Establish action-items and the name of the person responsible for each item. After the meeting, send the participants a letter containing your summary of the agreements reached, the actions taken, the action-items to be done, and the names of the individuals responsible for each item. Make sure that the agreements include specific dates by which each action will have been taken. Live up to your side of the agreement.

Be sure to thank each person for taking the time to attend the meeting even if you did not agree with what that person said. Momma always said "please and thank you are magic words that open doors and get you what you want." This is one form of magic that still works in the world of adults. Please. Thank you.

MonTAGe: The TAGFAM E-Journal 1996 Valorie J. King

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