Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

Published on June 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Cheerleader”

So, a parent of a child with special education needs arrives at an IEP meeting with a list of serious concerns.  Not infrequently, their child is struggling, and the parents’ disagreements with the program are significant.  There may even be severe academic or behavioral regression at the time of the meeting.  Sometimes the parents have even retained an advocate or a special education attorney to represent them at the meeting.

I ask, is this the right time for a cheerleader?

An IEP cheerleader is a school district employee who takes it upon themselves to focus exclusively on what they see as the positives of the school in general, or the special education programs in the district in particular.  Usually an IEP Cheerleader is not trying to cause harm or even to openly disagree with the parents.  They are just remarkably upbeat people who are faithful to their “team.”  In this case, however, the “team” is not necessarily the IEP Team, but rather, the school district itself.

Loyalty is nice, but for many of my clients, an honest assessment of how their child with special needs is performing would be preferred.

As I have mentioned before, in my experience as a special education attorney in Connecticut for over a decade, parents of children with disabilities are not  fabricating their child’s needs for special education services.  In fact, having to admit that their child is in serious need of help is difficult for any parent.  Therefore, it is at best dismissive, and at worst insulting, to respond to a parents’ pleas for help with a sunny “really, he does that at home?  We NEVER see him try to hurt himself here!  He always seems so HAPPY!”

It would be useful if school district staff would take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be in the parents’ position, before they make assumptions, or even comments.

Like in any other aspect of life, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can dramatically change the way you look at a situation.  Unfortunately, The IEP Cheerleader seems incapable of such perspective.

The worst example of this I have ever experienced was a principal whose bubbly personality was only matched by her equally sparkly MASSIVE rhinestone teddy bear pin that said “HUG ME!”  As she sat in that IEP meeting, with a plastered on smile and her pin glistening, my client shared the heartbreaking news of the serious mental illness which had swiftly taken over his child’s life, leading to the current psychiatric hospitalization.  Even the school district’s lawyer looked on the verge of tears.

And yet the cheerleader, loyal as ever, chose to interject “we have a really WONDERFUL alternative program here for kids who have mental problems!”

I should have known that someone who was genuinely compassionate would not require a flashy pin to advertise it, but still…

It is difficult not to feel outrage when you are seriously concerned about your child’s special education program, and The IEP Cheerleader sugar-coats all that is worrisome and glorifies your child’s few successes.  My only suggestion is to ignore this person; they are usually as harmless as they are clueless.

6 Responses to Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

  1. Jane Chambers
    June 9th, 2009 | 9:02 am

    Even if the cheerleader is cheering about the student rather than the school system, it can be disruptive, when you (parent) are trying to discuss problems that the student is having.

  2. Jennifer Laviano
    June 9th, 2009 | 10:20 am

    Excellent point, Jane, I see this too. That can be especially disruptive when the student is present!

  3. AutismAdvocacy
    June 9th, 2009 | 1:35 pm

    LOL! I recently participated in a case conference meeting where a cheerleader was present! The disguise was pretty good, but after reading this article I recognize her for what she was. Thanks for a great article!

  4. Michelle Bidwell
    June 21st, 2010 | 9:07 pm

    Sadly, I must admit that we have a number of “cheerleaders” in my daughters’ school district. I’m not sure if they’re genuinely “cheerleaders” or have been instructed by administrators to NEVER disclose anything negative about my twins. Doesn’t matter, the result is the same. I have IEE reports, psychiatric updates and letters from their outpatient clinical psychologist, and am reporting a total lack of progress, a total inability to generalize anything they are taught, significant social, emotional, and behavioral issues (at home and in the community) and the school staff are looking at me dumbfounded and saying “we NEVER see that here. They are angels here. They fit in, they socialize with their peers, yadda, yadda, yadda”. But these girls (twins) are unable to reproduce or demonstrate these skills to anyone anywhere (home, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapeutic mentors). Oh, well. Too bad for us. The school’s responsibility ends at 2:30 when the bell rings. To quote our school SLP: ” All we can do is provide them with the skills here in school. Then all we can do is HOPE they can figure out how to use them”. Well, they can’t figure out how to use them… So now what?

  5. Karen Chapman
    September 30th, 2011 | 1:39 pm

    Oh, this ties in with the school psychologist. When I talked to the school psychologist about my child’s regular classroom teacher berating her (and trust me, he was) she said “but he’s a nice teacher.” She repeated that statement to my child. Then at the IEP meeting she’d go on about what a great guy he was and what a great school it was. Yeah, it was a great school – only if you had no special needs.

  6. Barb
    October 6th, 2011 | 7:44 am

    I have a few cheerleaders on my daughters team — they kept changing the topic with their “She’s doing so great!” and “We’re so great!” comments. Finally I said “It seems as if you are dismissing our concerns, we have the data that you provided here that shows real regression, are you saying the data isn’t accurate?”
    That helped for a little while — then I had to resort to “Ok Suzie Sunshine, we all know we have some great things happening but we need to focus on the concerns and how we can help the child and team.”