Factors Contributing to Parent-School Conflict
in Special Education
Researcher Jeannie Lake interviewed 44 study participants
including parents of children with disabilities (22), school
officials (16) and mediators (6) who had taken part in a
special education appeals process in the state of Massachusetts
in order to identify factors that escalate and deescalate
parent-school conflict. For purposes of the study, conflict
was defined as real or perceived differences that arise from
specific educational circumstances that engender negative
emotion as a consequence (Deutsch, 1873).
The participants were asked questions that primarily
dealt with the following concerns:
• critical incidents prompting requests for mediation
• actions, if taken, that could have reduced the conflict
• factors other than the core issues that inflamed the conflict
why the conflict wasn’t resolved at the school level
• in hindsight, different steps that should have been taken
before and during conflict
• other possible options for resolving parent-school conflicts
The study found eight categories of factors that have a bearing
on how parent-school conflict intensifies or cools down:
differing (discrepant) views about a child or a child’s
• service delivery
• reciprocal power
• trust (this is the basis for many of the conflict-related
In any given conflict, more than one of these categories
can be operating simultaneously in ways that escalate,
de-escalate or limit conflict. Here are the study findings
for each category.
views of a child or a child’s needs
Ninety percent of participants identified this as a factor
that causes or fuels conflict. Parents thought that differing
views happened for two reasons: either the school did not
view their child as an individual with unique talents and
abilities, or it saw their child through a deficit-model
perspective, focusing only on the child’s weaknesses.
School officials reported that parents would become “single-minded” about
what was right for their child and, therefore, reject good
programming suggestions. One mediator perspective was that
students may display a skill outside of school, but not
in school, and that parents may see only the former while
personnel see only the latter, so each side draws different,
Parents, educators and mediators all cited the lack of
two things – problem-solving knowledge and communications
strategies – as conflict-escalating factors. One school
official’s suggestion was that special education directors
and school personnel ought to readily provide that knowledge
to parents, lest they seek it from outside agencies. Parents
lamented that an “imbalance” of knowledge – where
parents lack the information that school officials already
have – makes it very hard to advocate on behalf of
their children. All three groups said parents are unsure
if the knowledge they have is sufficient to make sound judgments
about the evaluations and services their children are receiving.
Too often, parents discover their lack of knowledge when
the first conflict arises over their children’s educational
Parents, educators and mediators all touched on the lack
of programming options that existed, along with the inability
to effectively anticipate and plan in advance for what
children with disabilities need. Giving parents a role
planning made it more likely that parents would buy into
programs. Two mediator viewpoints were noteworthy: schools
should continuously reassess their program options for
relevance, and when parents want a private placement, school
should have a supportive dialogue with them to determine
why they want that outside program. Parents reported the
use of independent advocates and evaluators to assist them
with the “gray areas” of disagreements over
quality of services, definition of inclusive services,
programs and case management.
Resource constraints – on time, money, personnel and
materials – are factors affecting conflicts. Finances,
in particular, made conflicts worse, according to parents,
special education directors and mediators alike. They tended
to create “turf battles”, where parents of
children with severe disabilities feel too much money is
serve mildly-disabled children, while parents of less severely-disabled
children think the funding bias goes in the other direction.
Suspicions could arise about money being the unstated,
hidden reason to deny services. School principals also
allocations between general and special education funding.
It was important to both sides to be considered partners
in the relationship. Devaluation happened when either party
felt lied to or suspected the other party withheld information.
Parents felt devalued if they believed that school officials
shortchanged or underestimated their children. School officials
noted that conflicts got worse if parents were not entirely
honest with them or open about their feelings. Parents
were sensitive to perceived condescension from school officials
and felt let down if they thought the school system could
not properly serve their children’s needs.
Parents and school administrators engaged in power plays
to get the upper hand in conflict, either consciously or
unconsciously. Parents had to be more tenacious to get
their way, but whoever won, the struggle took an emotional
on everybody involved.
When communication was lacking, misunderstood, untrue,
deceitful or withheld, conflicts tended to escalate. The
same was true
if people felt they were not being heard or listened to.
Parents felt intimidated from communicating when the schools
brought too many officials to team meetings. On the flip
side, parents and school officials alike praised mediation
with a neutral third party for allowing them to feel safe
and comfortable, open up, and achieve true communication
about their needs and feelings, often for the first time.
If parents felt they could trust school personnel, it was
much easier to tolerate small glitches or minor mistakes.
When that trust was broken or lacking, parents lost faith
in the process and school officials and disdained suggestions
from them. School officials were, in some cases, unaware
of the point at which a parent chose to stop trusting or
believing in the school’s ability to make things
right for the student. In time, parents who did not trust
stopped hoping for good outcomes or mutual communication,
and started asking for out-of-district placements, changes
of schools, mediation or due process hearings.
Some basic conclusions could be draw from this study, among
• When factors that lead to conflict are identified, it is
easier to understand the conflict.
If school officials can identify what parents need, and separate
those needs from the parents’ positions, they can bridge
gaps between parent and school perspectives. The same thing
happens when educators take seriously the parents’ long-
and short-term goals for their children.
Educators must pay attention to the whole child – strengths,
desires, needs and goals – and not just the child’s
Financial constraints can impede the ability of IEP Teams
to make important decisions about a child’s educational
• Parents cannot advocate for their children if they do not
have enough knowledge to understand if particular service
offerings are appropriate.
• Power struggles between parents and schools can be defused
when educators develop strong, reciprocal relationships
with parents and children. Good communication, problem-solving
and negotiating skills are vital to these relationships.
• Both parents and educators are responsible for building and
maintaining trust. It is up to both to have conciliatory
and collaborative attitudes when disputes happen.
• Conflict is not necessarily bad if both sides view it as
an opportunity for growth, change, creative problem-solving
and improved self-assessment and skill testing.
As the researchers who conducted this study noted, too
little is known about how parents involved in special education
conflicts view the dynamics of those conflicts. The Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promotes early resolution
to special education disputes. Understanding the parental
perspective, especially on the handling of situations that
escalate conflict, is crucial for developing effective
The Research: An Analysis of Factors That Contribute to
Parent-School Conflict in Special Education, Jeannie F.
Lake and Bonnie
S. Billingsley. Published in Remedial and Special Education,
Volume 21, Number 4, July/August 2000, Pages 240-251.
Useful Ideas for Special Education
Advocates and Parents: A Mini-Guide to Alternative Dispute
Resolution, The Advocacy