Denial and fear: Why do parents resist Special Education services?

Josie Tipton

Josie Tipton, PEDALS Coach

By Josie Tipton, PEDALS Coach

It has become apparent to me, especially over the past year, that teachers are facing increased challenges when it comes to having students with special needs in their Head Start/ Great Start Readiness Program classrooms. These challenges are exacerbated when parents resist or refuse to allow their child(ren) to be evaluated for services like speech therapy, special education or Early Childhood Special Education programs that may give their child(ren) their best opportunity to succeed in school and life.

What is challenging for teachers who have requested that students be referred and evaluated for special services is when parents refuse to have a conversation about it. What happens when parents will not consent to evaluation or refuse to create Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals? This is the question that I have been pondering for a while. 

I implore teachers to show an abundance of empathy toward parents who are facing decisions and ultimately, acceptance that their child(ren) are differently abled. Through some personal experience, I have come to believe that parents resist services because once they do, they must admit to themselves and their families that the child(ren) will not have the kind of life that they anticipated. “Just do it!” you say?  That is easier said than done.

I believe that educators and administrators need to show compassion and patience for parents who grapple with these decisions. Offer opportunities to observe how children appropriately placed in the properly supported environment can thrive in different ways. Accepting that a child might have cognitive or emotional challenges means that their dreams for the future must change, sometimes drastically. The parents may have to accept the reality that their child(ren) may not ever be able to live on their own, hold down a normal job, have a family or be a version of the adult that the parents expected.

Put yourself in their place and imagine how hard it is to come to the realization that things are changing. With your guidance, parents can leave any guilt/apprehension behind so that they can help their child(dren) succeed in a way that is different but no less rewarding. 

Other reasons parents may resist the conversation include: 

  • Distrust of the school system 
  • Having to admit their child is getting worse or needs more intensive intervention 
  • Panic/vulnerability causing indecisiveness
  • Fear of criticism from family or society
  • Resistance due to difference of opinion with recommendations
  • Fear of the unknown 

As a special educator and a social and emotional learning coach, I can attest that the differences between a 4-year-old who is developmentally on track and a 4-year-old who is delayed by 2 or more years are drastic. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers develop at such a rapid rate that planning for the challenges of managing a Head Start classroom can be difficult. A classroom that includes severely delayed preschoolers makes it an almost impossible task for teachers, most of whom do not have the proper schooling for children with cognitive or emotional challenges. 

Most teachers can manage one or two children with IEPs to give children every possible chance to succeed. Asking teachers to manage more than a few children with IEPs can change the entire dynamic of a well-run classroom for the negative. Special populations require so much of a teacher’s attention that it presents an inequitable learning environment for children who are on track developmentally.

I have had teachers report that they have been directed that their job is to manage the child who needs more support and “leave the others for the assistants to manage,” Children who are improperly placed can cause learning to stall in a general learning environment that is too advanced for them. Or the learning environment may not be engaging enough if the content is not developmentally appropriate for all the other children and, if this is the case, other challenging behavior can arise because the other children are bored. This presents a whole new set of problems.  

Real change must begin with teachers and support staff showing care and empathy for parents and children who have to contemplate educational changes. Empathetic guidance can mean the difference between acceptance or resistance.  

Whatever the service, many parents may be resistant to any changes for a variety of reasons. It is very important therefore that you become aware of the possible motives behind resistance since with some guidance and the right approach you may be able to get the parents to agree on your suggestion,” according to the National Association of Special Education Teachers in the article “Parent Conferences with Parents Who Resist Services.”