Relationships and Blame in Special Education


A complicated and often tense set of relationships is necessary for special education to have a chance at being effective. The roles vary, but the principle players in this dynamic are typically teachers, school administrators, and parents. Notably, students seldom have a role beyond receiving services. The key adults involved in each student’s education form a triad. If those in this triad can work cohesively, they can establish and effectively implement plans for meeting the student’s needs. This happens well enough in most cases. When the corners of this triad are at odds, they allow some of the most profound failures in education.

The education business sometimes resembles an exercise in blame. A consensus that public education is lacking, maybe even failing, exists across several disciplines. Proponents of reform need targets. Those targeted need scapegoats. Criticism begets defensiveness. On a large scale, such castigation and refutation might amount to little more than a clashing of rhetoric. In some instances, however, it might lead to changes in policy and practice. At the school level, the cycle of blame rarely results in anything other than delays and frustration.

Identifying where blame begins is next to impossible. Teachers are most often in the middle of school level conflicts, so beginning with them makes sense. A common coping mechanism for teachers is to pass blame for the various obstacles they face. They can criticize insufficient funding, arbitrary requirements, and even questionable evaluation practices. Attacking systemic inadequacies can be cathartic, but this can’t fix much of a teacher’s work experience. Their more immediate patsies are school administrators. Troubled teachers regularly blame their administrators for making poor or self-serving decisions while harboring unrealistic performance expectations. The sentiment colors interactions and could possibly undermine the will to invest in a school’s mission.

Cynical teachers sometimes hold the parents of their students in contempt. They become exhausted with perceived lack of support. Some cite conditions in the home lives of their students as being insurmountable impediments. Though often correct in recognizing this, teachers too frequently let observations morph into condemnation. Contrarily, teachers might curse parents whom they consider to be too involved. Many teachers grow weary of pressure from parents they feel are combative or excessively demanding. Whether parents seem detached or overzealous, teacher perception can sour the relationships needed for successfully planning and providing effective programs.

Administrators take part in this cycle. When teachers place blame, they usually do so to cope with troubling but immutable situations. Principals, directors, and other administrators have more responsibility and consequently have more to lose. They might feel compelled to finger-point when a conflict or failure threatens the school. Certainly, teachers need to cover themselves as well. Much of what special education teachers do is for the sake of self-preservation. For administrators, the scope of problems is wider. The stakes involved are higher. Thus, administrators might have this vested interest in assigning blame. Not all will do this. Some administrators will stand by their teachers during strife. They might feel professional camaraderie, or they might need to preserve teaching positions as cuts loom. Support and loyalty aren’t necessarily the norm. Many administrators are more than willing to sell their teachers up the accountability river.

Before blaming anyone else, administrators might defend themselves. A common defense is the lack of time needed to address every issue before them. This might be legitimate. School administrators also have the built-in excuse of having to answer to district administrators, many of whom they deem out-of-touch with school issues. The passing of blame doesn’t end with district administrators, as they can cite having to answer to state mandates. They also can abstain from action while claiming school personnel have to resolve their own dilemmas. Again, these excuses have varying degrees of legitimacy.

Questions of legitimacy are more troubling when parents are involved. When facing skirmishes with parents, school administrators regularly choose the least threatening path. They often feel they have to side with parents. They might do so simply because challenging the parents could become a public relations fiasco. Administrators don’t want to appear unsupportive of parents or given to protecting those in the wrong. Because of this, parents have a way of forcing the hands of teachers by pressuring administrators. This might be beneficial sometimes, as some teachers might need a nudge. It also might obliterate morale.

Being within the triad but not on the payroll, parents can blame everyone. Parents of students with disabilities might be in a defensive mode from the start of their relationship with schools. Their own negative school experiences might influence their outlook. They could be frustrated from years of dealing with the perceived shortcomings of other care institutions. Living with and caring for a young person with a disability might have them feeling drained and bitter. A select few might feel some sense of guilt about their situation and might be guarded or prone to lashing out. All of this could strain cooperation with school officials.

Some parents will fault entire school districts for apparent failings. They might view districts as homogenous entities rather than as groups of individuals attempting to fulfill specific roles. Teachers become the face of these entities and the first in line to receive criticism. Parents might blame teachers for everything from poor care to ineffective instruction. Their criticism might be justified, but their expectations might also be unreasonable or tainted. Parents might further criticize or even refuse to work with administrators. As they interact with school personnel, they might favor some over others. They might attempt to play them against one another, worsening everything by doing so.

The role of parents is unique in the triad. The other members readily can be fired or otherwise replaced. Parents tend to be in for the duration. They’re also the wildcards. Though they might be educated and sensible, they’re the least likely team members to have formal training while being the most likely to have histories of mental illness, drug addiction, or legal issues. Finally, in matters of education, they have the most rights and the least responsibility according to the law.

While the triad members shuffle blame, students might suffer. Some students with special needs are highly involved in their educational planning. Due to the severity of their disabilities, others can’t be. They have to rely on the adults in their lives to make sound decisions on their behalf. When adults disagree, crucial programming can be delayed. Useful ideas can get lost amid shouting and petty insistence. Genuinely foolish ideas can end up in programs out of concession. Parties might refuse to act out of pride or stubbornness. Everyone might suffer indirectly when disputes become costly due process battles. Blame can have casualties.

As stated, the triad operates harmoniously most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s most likely to be disrupted where and when it’s most needed, such as in urban schools or with students who have highly exceptional needs. Special education requires more reliance on more parties than general education does. To use an antiquated analogy, the more moving parts a machine has, the more likely it is to break. A preferred contemporary analogy suggests the crowd is able to solve problems more efficiently than the individual can. Repeatedly, case law in special education indicates the first analogy is closest to the current reality of the field. Continuing towards the field’s future, all might be wise to remember the point is to appropriately support students. Special education isn’t an arena for the proud. It’s a service, but this service requires cooperation. Achieving this is up to each individual in each triad. Much like other situations in special education, this can be an asset or a detriment.

Relationships and Blame in Special Education

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