I find the shortage of good advice for parents about managing emotions in the context of special education to be surprising, given that the ability to keep cool is so critical to effective advocacy. Indeed, in law school, at some point we all learn that attorneys should never represent themselves, because generally speaking, we cannot remain objective about matters that are close to our hearts. (There's even an old saying, no doubt uttered by a lawyer -- "he who represents himself has a fool for a client.") When you're too wrapped up in something, you're not objective, and even minor disagreements or misunderstandings can escalate into full-blown legal disputes which you're too irrational to manage effectively.
Yet as parents of children with disabilities in school districts with limited resources, we have no choice other than to become our own children's advocates, which virtually guarantees we'll become overly emotional. It's a matter of biology and evolution; as parents, we are simply wired to protect our children, and if we sense danger, we have a natural tendency to transform into well, I'll speak for myself -- wide-eyed, sharp-clawed, wild animals. From my days representing clients who are not my own offspring, I can tell you that it feels very, very different, which is why, I suppose, as a parent advocate, I became so attuned to how my feelings were getting in my way.
Fortunately, after several years of experience, a few big mistakes, and conscious efforts at self-awareness, I've developed three rather simple guidelines to tame those animal impulses:
1) Breathe. You're in a meeting, and someone says something that makes you unusually angry or upset. ("We do not recognize dyslexia in this state, Mrs. Kasten.") You feel your heart start pounding, you begin to sweat, and your face starts to feel like it's on fire. These are all signs of a physical "fight or flight" reaction. You feel like your kid is under attack -- or you are. In these moments, DO NOT OPEN YOUR MOUTH. You WILL say something you will regret. The science is indisputable: it's literally impossible to think clearly and rationally when you are in this state of heightened physical arousal. Instead, take several deep breaths -- in through your nose, out through your mouth -- until you feel yourself calm down And if you can't chill out, ask to take a short break, leave the room, and collect yourself. Once you have brought your heart rate and other symptoms of stress back to baseline, you probably will be able to discuss matters calmly. If in doubt, before you say anything, ask yourself, "Is what I am about to say in the best interests of my child?"
2) Talk (don't write). If you are concerned about something, try to speak to your child's teacher about it directly rather than letting resentment build up. Whatever you do, do not lay it all out in an email. Of course if the issue is minor ("My son will be late tomorrow because of a doctor's appointment"), email is fine. Otherwise there is simply too great a risk that either your tone or your intent could be misinterpreted, creating unnecessary tension or even outright animosity. Moreover, don't forget that email can be forwarded both instantaneously and repeatedly. The recipient may seek input or support from colleagues, and suddenly your kind little note is all over the school, no one makes eye contact with you in the hallways anymore, and you see people whispering about you in the parking lot. If you feel you must write an email to let off some steam, force yourself to wait at least 24 hours before sending it. Then do the right thing: delete it.
3) Empathize. I've never met anyone who decided to become a teacher because they hated children. And we know they don't go into it for the money. If a teacher does something that you feel is inappropriate or harmful, chances are she is unaware of it, does not understand your child, or is falling victim to pressures beyond her control. It's highly unlikely that she is actually the devil incarnate. Give teachers the benefit of the doubt, and assume they truly want to help. It never hurts to say, "I know you only want the best for my child, and for all your students, and I appreciate all that you do." Not feeling it? That's fine -- just say it anyway, for goodness sake, because you'll probably realize it's true once you cool off.
As a parent, I know firsthand how difficult it is to stay calm when you are worried for your child. I'll even confess right now -- I cried once during an IEP meeting. I did. Someone from the school district actually handed me a box of tissues, and everyone stopped talking until I could collect myself. (Awkward!) But if you work at maintaining your composure and staying civil at all times, you will be so much more effective. And in those moments when you feel most at risk of losing control, remind yourself of this: damage to your credibility or your reputation -- like the unintended consequences of a hastily sent email -- is not something you can easily repair.