As a School Psychologist I often find myself pulled between different roles. As an advocate for children, a consultant to teachers/schools and a perceived gate keeper for extra services my roles in an educational setting often blur the reality of any given situation. On top of this, schools are microcosms of society; and as such, they often house varying opinions, cultural values and social norms, which impact the dynamic and flow of collaboration. As a stake holder in this system it is imperative to find a balance between the myriad of factors at play. This balance helps to foster meaningful growth and change. This is especially true with regards to children who need extra assistance or are receiving specialized services. Academic Support Team, Special Education Eligibility and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings are often charged with frustration, misunderstandings and varied intentions, which lead to angry parents and disenchanted teachers. As a member of these meetings I often focus on different ways to balance the multiple dynamics at play. By merging the cacophony of opinions into a symphony of support, our team is usually able to come to a plan that we all agree on. Although written from the point of view of a School Psychologist, these 5 recommendations will help anyone find balance when heading into a difficult meeting or decision.
1.) Establish Your Intention- No matter what your role is on the team (parent, administrator, advocate, teacher), there is a reason that you were asked to participate in this meeting. Before any meeting I ask myself why am I here and what do I intend to bring to this meeting. For the most part my intention in all meetings is to help a child be successful. I typically have some familiarity with teacher concerns and background history before the meeting. From this information I ask myself "How can I full fill my intention to help this child?" I don't always have the answer; however, this question creates a positive and goal oriented mindset for the meeting. It also creates a nice filter to screen out extraneous information others may add. For example if a teacher starts talking about other students or confronts parents on their parenting style, I can notice whether or not this is consistent with my intention. I can then choose to engage in the conversation or remain silent on the topic. Knowing your intention will help from having to choose sides at a meeting. I usually tell myself, "I am not on the parent's side nor am I on the school's side. I am on the child's side." This typically helps me keep my actions rooted in my original intention.
2. Practice Non judgement and Compassion- As earlier stated, school meetings often have a variety of opinions and feelings that create a dynamic and tense atmosphere. Each of the these opinions are important in that they inform decision making and utilize the expertise of well trained personnel. However, when there are too many "hens in the hen house"...well, you know the rest. It is important to practice non-judgement to others' opinions and exhibit compassion for their current state. For the most part, all parties want what's best for the child involved; therefore, even if you don't agree with their opinion, you should have compassion from where they are coming from. This compassion can be fostered through the practice of non-judgement. Through my daily mindful practice I have cultivated an ability to notice my thoughts and feelings as they are. Although difficult, as I notice these thoughts and feelings I try to not place a judgement upon them. Good or Bad, Angry or Aloof, Wrong or Right these are all labels we add to our thoughts that cloud how we see a situation and perpetuate unfavorable inner dialogues. By just acknowledging our thoughts as thoughts and not attaching a judgement we are able to clearly process what is happening in the moment and bring ourselves back to the original intention we set at number 1. Another reason I find non-judgement to be so important is that I don't always have all the information or answers in a meeting. Parents, teachers and administrators often bring valuable information to meetings, which help to fulfill our intentions. If we immediately judge or label what someone else is communicating we can't internalize the personal knowledge and expertise that they are bringing with it.
3.) Practice Perspective Taking- I have found that trying to take the perspective of another to be one of the most helpful things I can do when collaborating with a team. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone else helps you understand where they are coming from and makes practicing non-judgement that much easier. Before a meeting think about who is going to be there and what their role is. Think about what their intention may be. Think about how they feel about the issue at hand. Try to imagine what they may feel when they come to the meeting. For example I often try to think about how a parent would feel when they walk into a meeting with 3 or 4 school officials around a table with laptops open. Would they be anxious, scared, or paranoid that they were being talked about. Think about how they feel when they sit down on the other side of the table with all school personnel facing them. I try to choose my seat at the table to balance out the dynamics. If all the school personnel are on one side I try to sit on the side with the parent. This may help to prevent the illusion that the meeting may be one sided. I also take the perspective of the teacher, which is not always clear. Are they frustrated with the student ? the school? themselves? It is important to take perspectives and feel empathy; however, one must not create preconceived notions. Practice non-judgment when perspective taking. If during the meeting you realize that your perspective of the participant was inaccurate, be open to creating a new perspective. Put yourself in their shoes regarding what they are saying right now in the present moment.
4.) Ground Yourself when Necessary- School Meetings can be emotional and stressful. At times people become angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed by what is being presented. Meetings can also be cathartic, creating a new found respect and camaraderie for team members and the agreed upon plan. It is imperative that participants stay mindful and aware of the feelings they are having and ground themselves in the moment they are experiencing. Recognizing emotions and grounding yourself when necessary creates balance and helps to build space between thoughts and feelings. This space will help you when practicing non-judgement as well as aligning with your primary intention at the beginning of the meeting. If you feel overwhelmed, begin focusing on your breath. Focusing on your breath has been shown to help with stress management. Feel the air come through your nasal passage on the in breath and the rising of your diaphragm. Feel your stomach go down as you exhale. Notice any shortness of breath or elevated heart rate. Don't label these things as negative, just notice how they feel. You can even chose an anchor word to bring you back to your sensory experience and away from negative thoughts that may be occurring due to your elevated emotional state. If you are angry or frustrated just label the feeling as that... a "feeling". Breathe in and breathe out and repeat the word "feeling" in your head as you do this. When I feel this way I am able to bring myself back into the moment after about ten breaths.
5.) Check in- with your intention during and after the meeting- As any meeting or discussion progresses topics change, people go on tangents and new ideas are thrown around. It is important to check in with yourself and observe if you are still acting or speaking from your original intention. One way of doing this is to set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes. As it vibrates in your pocket notice where the topic of the meeting is and how you have contributed to taking it there. Is this consistent with your original intention? What do you need to change in order to get back to your original intention. Notice how you feel about this. It is also important to check in with yourself after the meeting. Did you meet your intention? Did you achieve what you set out to do at the beginning of the meeting? If not what things could you do different next time? After the meeting is over, leave it in the past and focus on what is next. What are the next steps that YOU need to do to continue with your original intention.
Not all meetings go as planned and there are often situations that are not solved or wrapped up by the time the meeting closes. Nonetheless by following these steps and creating balance you are better preparing yourself for the collaboration and open mind necessary for future discussions. Whether it agreeing on IEP goals, negotiating a house closing, or working on a marketing campaign, creating balance is important for us to achieve our goals as well as work together smoothly as a team. As Special Educators we have to share our ideas opinions and expertise together as a team. By creating a balanced and focused team we are ultimately creating better service delivery for the child at hand.