Adversarial Administrators? Advocate for Your Child with Assertive Cooperation


Our middle school experience has been dreadful due to an adversarial relationship with the principal. We had a run-in last year when our son, who was in seventh grade, was incredibly stressed-out (often to the point of tears) over homework.  Many of his friends were getting a head start on their homework in study hall and we asked to have him transferred to study hall from chorus, which he had never signed up for in the first place.  The principal (who didn’t want to create a precedent) refused and, after a number of increasingly hostile meetings, told us to “take it to the superintendent.”  We did, much to our chagrin because the issue was never resolved and our relationship with the principal and much of his administration was severely tarnished. Our son will soon be moving on to high school but our concern now is with our daughter who will be entering the middle school next year.  She’s on an IEP, is extremely anxious and requires a lot of hand holding. Based on our son’s experience we foresee dark clouds ahead.  Short of moving, what would you recommend?


This is a very good and tough question.  It is clear that your expectations regarding your daughter are negatively influenced by your experience there last year.  In light of that experience, and in anticipation of your daughter’s arrival in that middle school next year, I would recommend the following steps:

  1. As soon as possible, request a meeting with the Director of Special Education, during which you share, directly, some of your experience of last year, and also that you have residual and unresolved feelings about last year’s experience that leave you feeling apprehensive about your daughter’s upcoming transition to the same middle school.  Since it is not common practice for the Director of Special Education to meet with all new SPED middle school students, in your meeting, state your appreciation for the SPED Director’s agreeing to this meeting with you.  Since your daughter is already on an IEP, the Special Education Director is, ultimately, responsible for making sure that the specific terms of your daughter’s IEP are met and managed well.  I would consider this meeting essential as you begin to plan for your daughter’s transition to middle school, and as you also try to do that by “getting off on the right foot.”  Establishing a positive and cooperative relationship with the Special Education Director at the beginning could only help to set the right tone.
  2. If possible, request another meeting with the Principal to try to acknowledge the difficult experience of last year, and to try to re-establish a more positive and cooperative working relationship for the future, especially since your daughter is planning to attend this same middle school in the fall.  If another meeting with the Principal would be too awkward at this point, then send a carefully written letter that simultaneously acknowledges last year’s difficult experience while it also states your hope for a positive and cooperative relationship in the future.  You may want to “cc” that letter to the Superintendent, and also to the SPED Director.  If writing this letter would be too difficult, then write a draft of it yourself, and then ask for help in “crafting” the rest of it.
  3. As a preventative measure, find an Educational Advocate who knows you and your daughter’s situation.  Advocates are experts at holding SPED departments accountable, and for “advocating” for an IEP child’s specific needs.  You may never need this advocate, but knowing one well now may give you peace of mind if you need to dispute your daughter’s IEP in the future.
  4. Prior to the start of school, arrange for your daughter to meet all of her new teachers and to become familiar with her new school day schedule.  (Most SPED departments have orientation programs of this nature anyway.  Call ahead to find out what the school already offers in this regard.)
  5. I hope your daughter has a therapist with whom she can discuss and process her “extreme anxiety” and her need for “a lot of hand holding.”  The transition to middle school is difficult for all children, and it may be even more so for your daughter who already presents with a need for extra attention in that area.  Having a skilled therapist for her will also enable you to keep closer tabs on her daily experience.  In addition, that therapist would be empowered to have regular (monthly?) conversations with key adults at the school in the service of coordinating the ongoing communication about your daughter’s experiences.

Mostly, it is your job to try to pave the way with school officials and teachers to work as cooperatively as possible with them in the service of your daughter’s education.  While you have, indeed, had a recent, negative experience of the Principal, it is unlikely that all of the administrators are of the same ilk.  Remember that when “all the key adults in a child’s life are on the same page, the child can’t help but learn in the direction of that coordinated, adult communication” (Parad, 2001).  Work to establish and maintain an open, direct and cooperative relationship with those who teach and work with your daughter.  You may need to find a way to get past the “old wounds” associated with your experience of last year.  I am guessing that a well-planned meeting with the Special Education Director this spring would help to get this cooperative relationship going.  Ask the SPED Director for recommendations on how to continue to develop that working relationship.

Good luck!

David L. Gleason, Psy.D.

Reference:  Parad, Harry W., Ph.D.  “Alternative to Suspension,” 2001.