“Divide And Conquer” And Your Teenager with Disabilities

Published on May 4, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

Ah, teenagers.  They do keep us on our toes, don’t they?  Having represented scores of teenagers with disabilities over the years, I can tell you that designing an appropriate IEP for a teenager can be a challenge.  Regardless of what special education eligibility category your child falls into under the IDEA, adolescence can thwart the best laid educational plans.  That heady cocktail of hormonal changes, increased social and academic demands, and physical (if not emotional) growth spurts create difficult years even for students who do not have disabilities.

Add special education needs to the mix, and it can be a perfect storm.

One of the biggest problems I see when discussing special education programs for teenage students is that the kids with disabilities become increasingly aware of how they differ from their “typically developing” peers.  Middle and high school are often the years where these contrasts become most apparent, and where students who have been holding it together in a smaller elementary school environment “fall apart” in the bigger, louder, more academically challenging next step.

I often hear frustrated parents complaining to me that their teenage child is starting to refuse the special education support they are offered.

How to handle it is a tough call for parents to make.  When clients ask me how they should handle this with their child, I tell them that I think this is a decision for them to make as a family, depending on their priorities and values.  I mean, I was told when I was a teenager that I didn’t get a vote in what happened in my life until I paid the mortgage, but that was how my parents chose to raise me.  Some families don’t subscribe to this view.

What I can tell you is how to handle the “divide and conquer” approach if your school district is trying to use it.

The “divide and conquer” approach is where the school is acutely aware of how resistant your child is to availing himself of help, and they exploit that to their own advantage at IEP meetings.  As an example, parents might be battling with their school district because they believe their child needs another hour per week of resource room support, and at the IEP meeting to review this request, the school asks the student directly whether they want to be pulled out for more resource room time.

You can be sure that if your teen-aged child is already avoiding special education support, your school district will use the IEP meeting to ask them:  “so, Danny, this meeting is about you, what do YOU want?”

Often what teenagers want is not what they need.

For most teens with disabilities, anything that makes them feel “different” from their peers is undesirable.  So, the student responds, as expected, with something to the effect of “I don’t want to leave my class anymore” or “the special ed services don’t help me anyway,”  just because they don’t want to be further isolated from their peers.  Some administrators will exploit this vulnerability in the IEP meeting, and will respond to the parents’ requests for additional services with “we’d like to help, but if he isn’t going to take ownership of his program, then I don’t see why we should be wasting our time.”

Ugh.  If I have to hear “if he isn’t going to take ownership of his program” one more time…

But I digress.  Here is what you need to know if your school is playing this divisive game with you.  While your school district is required to invite your child to be part of his or her own IEP team “whenever appropriate,” and different states have different ages at which they expect a student to be invited, until your child has reached the age of majority, you as the parent get to decide whether or not they attend.

If you feel that having your child attend his IEP meeting will give your school district opportunity to avoid providing necessary services, consider not having him or her attend.  Or, as I often do, have the student come at the beginning of the meeting to discuss their concerns and requests, and then excuse him or her so that the adults can discuss how to address programming.  In the alternative, you can have the student join the IEP meeting at the end of the meeting, after decisions have been made.  In addition, consider that it’s hard enough to be a teenager with special education needs without having to hear your parents, teachers, and administrators discuss your needs and fight about how to meet them.

If you think your child’s attendance at their IEP meeting will do more harm than good, and he or she is still a minor, then consider limiting their involvement in the meeting.  Otherwise, you may find that all of your hard work to get your district to help your child is undermined when he says “no, I really don’t need it.”

One Response to “Divide And Conquer” And Your Teenager with Disabilities

  1. Diane Willcutts
    May 9th, 2009 | 5:22 pm

    “But the student doesn’t want special instruction! We can’t make him do it if he’s not ‘buying in.'”

    “Well, the student doesn’t want to take math either. So are we going to not make him take math?”

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