Saturday, November 9, 2013

5 Best Practices for Case Conferences

I've sat through a lot of case conferences.  All kinds.  Case conferences to discuss initial testing, annual case conferences to discuss progress and goals, re-evaluation case conferences, exit conferences, and conferences to develop behavior plans.  Conferences that were quick, conferences that were joyous, conferences where feelings were hurt, people felt betrayed, people felt proud. Or conferences where people left feeling like nothing was accomplished.

And I know there will be many more to come...of all kinds.

I remember my first days in the world of education and how nervous I was to attend these conferences.  If I'm being honest with myself, I think I probably talked a lot at those conferences.  Too much.  I was eager to show parents how well I knew their child.  Eager to show them how competent I was at my job.  Afraid that they would disagree with my recommendations for IEP goals or services.  Afraid that I would get talked into providing services or supporting goals that I didn't believe were appropriate for the child.  Worried that parents wouldn't take my recommendations seriously or follow through with my suggestions at home.

I don't worry anymore about case conferences.  But I do see a lot of teachers still get very nervous before meeting with parents and students, especially when they feel that parents will not agree with their recommendations.  Lately I've been thinking about how I got over these nerves and what "best practices" I follow in order to contribute to a productive and agreeable discussion with students and parents.  I certainly don't have all the answers, but these are the five practices I try to keep in mind that I think have really helped in a "sticky situation" meeting.  They seem so simple.  As educators we talk about them a lot.  But how often are we, as an IEP team, walking the walk and not just talking the talk?  Things that make you go hmmm....

5. Use language that everyone in the room (or anyone out of the room) can understand.
What's a lexile score?  Pragmatics means what exactly?  OT/PT stands for what, and what is their role with the student?  As educators, we throw around a lot of acronyms and terms that are very familiar to us.  And even if a parent has attended a million case conferences in the past, we shouldn't take for granted that they have learned, remembered, or recognize these terms.  Again, this is something I was very guilty of when first attending case conferences.  I thought that if I provided the scientific terms and explanations while discussing language comprehension, parents would see how much I "really knew my stuff."  And most of the time they just had no idea what I was talking about and how it related to their child.  (Even after ten years of working in the school system, I still don't really understand all the lingo that a school psychologist uses at an evaluation conference.)  I don't like to flat out ask a parent, "Do you understand what I'm talking about when I say ____?"  I'm guessing 9 out of 10 times they will say yes, regardless of whether they actually mean it.  Instead, I paraphrase and explain the terms as I go: "Let's look at your son's receptive language scores, or in other words how much he is understanding and comprehending when others are talking and explaining things to him."  This doesn't put the parent on the spot, it exposes the whole IEP team to vocabulary in your area of expertise, and clearly explains what in the world you are talking about.

4. Listen more than you speak.
Shut up, already.  I wish I could go back and tell myself this on my first or second year of the job.  Ha, probably the first five!  This "best practice" (so to speak) is probably applicable across many aspects of life.  You will learn a lot more about someone and the challenges they are facing by asking some questions and getting quiet.  You will also solve problems through listening, as well.  I think in a case conference we sometimes think that we need to talk, talk, talk because the purpose is to "report" back to parents on how their child is progressing.  It's important to provide feedback.  But this is a collaborative process.  If one person is doing all the speaking, you've got a major problem on your hands.  Why even bother inviting different minds to the table?  Which leads to what I think is another great case conference "best practice"...

3. Respect everyone's perspective.
Everyone at the table has their own agenda.  Everyone at the table has their own special area of concern when it comes to the student.  And everyone at that table will have their own story to tell.  All of our stories are not going to match up sometimes.  If you ask my best friend Sarah what I am like to be around, she is going to tell you that I am hilarious, loud, and have a dirty mouth.  She might tell you that at times I am lazy and too opinionated.  She'll tell you I am a terrible dancer.  If you ask my boss what I am like, he would say I'm a hard worker.  He'd say I am professional, a good listener, sometimes too rigid in my thinking...and let's face it- hilarious.  Two people that spend a lot of time with me, two very different explanations of my personality.  Both accurate.  Different perspectives.  When a parent or student is telling us a very different story from what we see at school, don't discount it.

2. Be up front and honest.
Occasionally we get nervous to recommend a change in an IEP (changes to therapy services, changes to programming, changes to goals.)  In these instances, it's easy to sugar coat the reality of a situation or quickly run through the information in hopes that it doesn't ruffle feathers or raise a red flag.  The trouble is that it can really come back to haunt you later.  Once parents leave the room and really have time to digest what was said in such a rush, read over the paper work, the trouble starts.  They feel as if you are trying to trick them and they can lose confidence in your judgement when it comes to their child.  I think it's always best to be specific and honest about the consequences of decisions being made in a conference so parents are not surprised later down the road with their child's academic plan.  If parents are going to disagree with your recommendations, it is much better to have that happen from the start so you can agree upon a compromise now, rather than doing so later with parents who have lost their trust in you.

After all, you've got nothing to hide.  We are all there to do what's best for the student at hand.  And as long as you are doing right by that child, there's nothing to shy away from...right?

1. Let the most important person in the room speak.
Last but not least.  In fact, I'd venture to say it's the most important rule of thumb to follow.  In the case conferences I have participated in, more often than not, the student is present.

More often than not, the student doesn't say a word throughout the entire conference.  They aren't asked to.

They aren't ignored, per se...often the adults in the room are directly addressing them.  Talking at them.  But in a meeting focused on an individual's educational outcomes, goals and services, shouldn't that individual be the person doing the most talking?  In conferences where the student is asked to talk, usually it is to answer negative questions.  Why aren't you studying more?  Why aren't you turning in these homework assignments?  Why didn't you tell me you were having trouble learning this concept?  Instead, I like to ask the main attraction in the room questions like, "What do you think your greatest strengths are at school?  What do you wish you had more help with?  What kind of changes would you like to see happen?" I also like to reinforce that they are fully allowed to disagree with anything said in a case conference.  This isn't a time for compliance with adults.  It's a time to teach a student to advocate for themselves and how to use their voice in an effective way.

If nothing else, I wish this "best practice" was at the forefront of everyone's mind (parents and teachers) when walking into a case conference meeting.

What are some "best practices" you feel are important to keep in mind during case conferences?  I'd love to know.  Time for me to grow by listening to your perspective.

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