A Seat at the Table Is Not Enough: Making Purposeful Space for Parents

María Cioè-Peña is an assistant professor in Educational Foundations at Montclair State University. As a bilingual/biliterate researcher, she examines the intersections of disability, language, school-parent partnerships and education policy. María focuses specifically on Latinx bilingual children with dis/abilities, their families and their ability to access multilingual inclusion within public schools.

In my article “Planning Inclusion: The Need to Formalize Parental Participation in Individual Education Plans (and Meetings)” in this issue of Educational Forum, I explore the tensions culturally and linguistically diverse mothers encounter during Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings and the possibilities that can come from reimagining them. This work emerged from my own experiences as a bilingual special educator and resulted in uncovering tensions between mothers’ intentions for IEP meetings and their actual experiences. Specifically, mothers spoke about how they intended to engage with the rest of the IEP team, how their expectations related to the realities they experienced, and factors they felt facilitated and/or impeded their participation and ability to enact their agendas.

As a teacher, I understood the importance of IEPs; a legal document that I was beholden to, reporting student progress and outlining new goals.  I spent hours crafting these: administering assessments, meeting service providers, and conducting observations. However, I did not give as much thought to the meetings. While I knew IEP meetings were valuable for parents, they also felt disruptive and inconvenient. Because of limited coverage, I was often expected to hold these meetings during my lunch hour or my preparation periods leaving little time to regroup between teaching blocks. The meetings were hard to schedule because of parents’ work commitments and because sometimes they wouldn’t show up. This was also an issue with service providers and district representatives. Imagine coordinating the schedules of five to seven adults on any given school day. It’s a very delicate and intricate process. So, when meetings did happen, they felt rushed. I would pop into the room, greet the parent, breeze through “on the fly” translations of the plan and wait for a series of service providers to mill in and out of the room. By the end, we (the service providers and myself) would have fulfilled the legal requirements of informing the parent of their child’s progress and of the upcoming goals. There was rarely ever time for thoughtful discussions, even less time for questions and concerns. Case in point, we never really discussed the parents linguistic, social or long-term goals for their kids. Nor did we discuss how they felt about their child moving to a new setting or remaining in the same one. It was an experience in unilateral information dumping.

Still, I was lucky. I was a self-contained teacher who spoke the same language as my families. I could check in with them often, they were highly engaged in the classroom, and we built community. I felt like I had an understanding of who they were and what they wanted for their children. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I did not admit that the way that meetings were run at my school, and the way they continue to be managed at schools across the country, actively deny parents a seat at the table. We expect parents to speak up, without accounting for how intimidating those meetings can be or recognizing cultural differences in communication. It wasn’t until my dissertation that I got to hear just how alienating those meetings can feel; how mothers come to the meetings planning to ask questions, to share, to be heard and seen. It wasn’t until I interviewed mothers pre- and post-IEP meetings that I really started to pay attention to the ways in which educators, in checking off their own agendas and expectations, rob parents of the opportunity to be agentive beings who can advocate for their children. It wasn’t until I analyzed that data that I began to notice the ways in which we ignore the rich contributions parents can make. In making sure the parents knew what I was doing, I failed to acknowledge their expertise. In denying parents agency, we deny children agency. It is for this reason that my article explores why educators must create meaningful and purposeful inclusion of parents in IEPs and in the meetings. We will never attain true inclusion while continuing to exclude children’s first and most constant teachers: their parents.

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