If your child will soon have a new Individualized Education Program (IEP), you have to ensure it meets all his (or her) educational needs. Ideally, to develop a high-quality IEP, you'll work cooperatively with the school's IEP team members. But what if you disagree with them? What if you believe they're just trying to save money and don't care about your child?

If you're like some parents (and educators) I've seen, you may well erupt with rage. In a raised voice, you might let them know they "don't know anything …don't give a damn … and will sacrifice your child to save a buck."

For a moment, letting everyone feel the intensity of your "justified" anger might feel good — but it usually lasts only a moment. Often, it quickly backfires. And once it does, the good feeling vanishes.

The anger you feel so "justified" about might make those at the school feel "justifiably" angry at you. It might motivate them to stubbornly resist your suggestions, no matter their merit. It might erode their enthusiasm for implementing your child's IEP.

Later, if your child struggles, it might make them fearful of contacting you to make needed instructional adaptations. And if a due-process hearing ensues, they might effectively paint you as bad-tempered, intolerant and uncooperative — which might cause you to lose an otherwise meritorious case.

To prevent these problems, no matter how justified you feel about your anger, you need to focus on being effective, not angry. To succeed, you need to understand why you're angry and employ simple strategies for minimizing or eliminating it. This creates the opportunity you need to advocate effectively for your child.

The causes of anger

As Arthur Shapiro, Gwen Brown, and I wrote in our book: "Anger has many causes. Often, it is an intense emotion generated when one believes the situation unfair and threatening, yet feels helpless to make things right while fearing the consequences of not doing so. It is an acute and often encompassing response by parents to the presumption that unless matters improve, their child will suffer unjustly."

In essence, if you're angry, you feel justified, absolutely justified. After all, you know you've been wronged. Conversely, if school people feel angry, they feel justified — absolutely so. Having two angry parties square off bodes poorly for the child.

Despite feeling justified, your aim should not be to say what you want, not to share your raw emotions and not to scald with "limbic lava" whoever stands in the way of meeting your child's needs. Instead, your aim should be to get your child whatever he needs to have a successful year, one that will likely help him develop the academic, social, emotional, communication, recreational and physical competencies he needs to succeed.

Thus, if you're angry it's wise to use a strategy that will minimize your anger and put you back in control of yourself, so that you can direct all your energy to getting your child whatever he needs to achieve his IEP's goals. Here's the BRRRRR strategy, one strategy that often works, if you can do three things:

  • Practice it for weeks, even in mock situations, well before your next IEP meeting.
  • Believe most people do the best they can, that differences of opinion are often sincere, and that our beliefs about other people's motives are often wrong.
  • Properly prepare for the IEP meeting and send the case manager a suggested agenda before the meeting that identifies your important topics and sets the stage for a logical sequence of IEP development.

The BRRRRR strategy

BRRRRR stands for Break, Relax, Reflect, Reflect, Return, and Repair

Break away physically for 10 to 30 minutes or even more. Ask for a break.

Relax yourself: For about 5-minutes, breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm, as you've practiced for weeks. Focus on your breath or a comforting and frequently-practiced word or a serene scene. Or take a slow walk, in a safe place, outside the building. While walking, focus on the pavement, scenery, sounds and surroundings.

Once you're sufficiently relaxed ...

Reflect on what happened and why you feel angry: Focus on your thoughts, actions and preparation. Be as objective as you can. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Did I get angry because the school's team members saw things differently than me?
  • Were they really ignoring me?
  • Was I fearful they'd do whatever they wanted?
  • Did I accurately understand what they said, or did I hear only my fears?
  • Did I let school people speak without interruption?
  • Did I offer them trustworthy, written information, with critical highlights, that supported my views?
  • Did I prepare for the meeting by collecting, organizing, and streamlining critical information?
  • Did I send the case manager my important agenda items, a suggested sequence of topics I'd like to discuss and vital comments to place in the IEP’s PLAAFP items that will help the team develop relevant goals, services and placement that meet my child's needs?

Reflect again on how to improve the situation so your child gets what he needs.

Return with the mindset that anger, mindreading other people's motives, and personalizing differences backfires, and that effective advocacy requires you to treat school personnel with respect while focusing relentlessly on your child's needs.

Repair the situation by thinking about your reflections, doing what you think would improve the situation, and focusing relentlessly, but respectfully, on meeting your child's needs. If necessary, genuinely apologize for your actions. What many parents and school personnel don't realize is that genuine, justified apologies can dramatically improve relationships and increase influence.

And, finally, reschedule the meeting if you need more time to gain your composure and effectively advocate for your child's needs.


It's better to prevent anger than to repair its damage. One way to both prevent anger and improve your child's IEP is to first make sure the IEP has a strong PLAAFP and set of goals (and in some states, objectives).

Unfortunately, parents and other IEP team members tend to give short shrift to these sections so they can quickly focus on placement, programs and methods. It's like designing and sailing a boat without a rudder, compass, steering wheel or waterproof hull. Don't bet on getting where you want to go.

To avoid this problem — one that easily fuels anger, conflict and power struggles — make sure your child's PLAAFP meets the CARE standards: Comprehensive, Accurate, Relevant and Explicit.

Also, make sure it specifies all of his educational needs and levels of performance, including his independent, instructional and frustration levels for listening and reading and the content of the writing and mathematics proficiencies he's mastered and the ones most important for him to master. This may require more time than schools usually provide. That's OK. You wouldn't want a radiologist to haphazardly rush through her analysis of your MRI slides. It's that important.

Then, make sure the goals — and in some states objectives — meet the MMM standards: Meaningful, Measureable and (for your child's teachers) Manageable. Also, make sure they address all the educational needs identified in your child's PLAAFP section. This includes his academic, social, emotional, communication, recreational and physical needs.

By carefully developing these substantive sections, you can prevent the conflict, anger and power struggles that often arise from premature discussions of methods, services, placement and program components. Why? Because these tend to logically and readily flow from well-developed, realistic goals and objectives, which logically and readily flow from a well-developed PLAAFP section that meets the CARE standards.

Here are several other ways to prevent anger while effectively advocating for your child. Like all recommendations, they can work, but only if you're strategic and diplomatic in using one or more of them:

  • Ask the IEP team's school members for the full rationale they used to reach decisions or recommendations. If several concern you, focus on one at a time.
  • Ask for the criteria used to reach their decisions or recommendations.
  • Ask about the validity of the criteria, including the research or authoritative opinion that supports the criteria.
  • Ask for the peer-reviewed research supporting their decisions or recommendations. (Such research is usually published in respected journals, after evaluations by anonymous reviewers.) Keep in mind that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004's (IDEA) regulations require that the IEP contain "a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child" and that it's difficult to defend the position that it's impracticable to implement most peer-reviewed interventions.
  • Make one or more proposals to improve the IEP after you understand the full rationale and validity of the decisions and recommendations that concern you. If possible, ensure your proposals address the school members' genuine concerns. Whether justified or not, they're important to the school members.
  • Ask for the explicit, objective monitoring strategies the school will use to measure your child's weekly progress in achieving each of his IEP goals. And ask that every week or two the school send you the updated progress data. Make this part of his IEP, with the legitimate rationale that you need explicit, organized and relevant progress monitoring data to effectively coordinate your in-home support, which is critical for practice, fluency and generalization.
  • Thank the school members for their specific actions that improved the draft IEP. Like most people, school personnel will probably value a genuinely delivered and well deserved "thank you."
  • Ask for a copy of the proposed IEP draft, with all notes from the meeting. If necessary, agree to wait while it's photocopied. Sometimes, it's best to inform the case manager, in advance, that at the end of the meeting you'll request this.
  • Schedule a follow-up IEP meeting to address remaining issues. (After the meeting, email and mail the case manager a summary of the resolved issues, the open ones, and your open requests.)


So, remember the causes of anger. Remember, it's better to prevent than repair. If you fall into the anger trap, BRRRRR can help, but only if you practice it, practice it and practice it. Good luck.