Dealing with Difficult Parent, Teacher Edition
September 22, 2017 3:18 AM   Subscribe

I desperately need some help in working with a parent who not only refuses to acknowledge her teenage daughter's inappropriate learned behavior, but does not see that she is actively encouraging and rewarding the behavior. Worse, the mom sends blistering emails every time teachers try to help the kid. This parent is sucking the life out of me and my team and I need some help.

I'm a special ed high school teacher and the teen in question is 16 and displays selective mutism. Basically, she talks when she wants to (like to peers and her parents) but when engaged with staff, she won't respond. She literally just stares at people and won't nod, shake her head or otherwise communicate. Additionally, she will not follow directions, instead choosing to silently sit and do nothing or sit on a peer's lap for cuddles (recently, peers have told her to stop).

Years of testing and observations indicate this is a learned behavior that is rewarded by her very vocal parents and the kid's team has suggested outside pysch testing and therapy which has been refused, as the mom believes this is a physical issue. (It is not a physical issue.)

At the kid's most recent meeting, the team agreed the silence and opposition needed to be addressed and a plan was put into place where the kid would be given a minute to respond to a simple direction/question and after a minute, staff would leave her alone and not make a decision for her (we're very concerned about a young woman going into the world thinking silence indicates consent or otherwise allows other people to make decisions for her because she won't speak).

(Here's an example of the dynamic: At a meeting, the kid was asked if she wanted to take a break and would not respond. Instead, she turned and stared at her mother, who took her hands and rephrased the question at least five times as the kid just sat there, staring at her. After a few minutes of this intensely uncomfortable situation as the mom just kept talking, the mom THEN said the kid could go clothes shopping after school but she needed to nod or shake her head. The kid nodded and left the meeting.)

The kid knows about and has agreed to this plan.

In class yesterday, the kid refused to turn her head to watch a TedTalk, would not verbally respond, and tried leaning into a peer for cuddles. The extremely uncomfortable peer suggested she go for a walk, the kid did, and then stood in the hallway, watching the class through the window. She stayed there for 45 minutes, then after two peers refused to go into the room to retrieve her bag for her, came in to get her stuff and she left. Historically, when she did this, kids would go into the hallway to comfort her but they no longer want to do that.

I relayed the story to her mom, didn't emphasize the peer discomfort, noting it was difficult but we were pleased the kid was able to make a choice to come get her things and move on with her day.

Within minutes I got a blistering email cc'ed to all the top admin about my incompetency and her kid's devastation at the traumatizing situation I forced her into, and she's demanding a meeting with me and all the top brass.

From speaking with previous teachers, apparently emails like this are 100% typical and generally, those meetings don't happen. Historically, staff has stopped trying to get this kid to be more independent because of parental blowback, but I feel like this needs to be addressed. FWIW, the kid knows about the plan and has agreed to it.

My question--how to best support a kid whose parent encourages dysfunctional behavior and how to best work with this parent?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes to Education (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a teenager kid with selective mutism, and it's common enough in my country that the general teachers have some training in it so his schools have usually accommodated it, but not to the extent that yours does. Especially around the physical consent issues which is - I'm really kind of shocked the school and parents of the other peers don't have some guidelines there. Change genders and a male 16 year old would not be allowed to without consent "cuddle" peers when they're in distress.

When a teacher disagreed with me about how to handle a kid, what worked was the teacher explaining the method and emphasising that it was school policy, why they'd thought it out related to my kid and what I could do to be supportive. If we still didn't agree, we'd have a trial period and see how it worked.

I have had some shitty teachers and horrendous incidents (including police, firings etc) but it would not occur to me to act like that parent. You need to get the top brass behind you unanimously and be united in a message that during school time, school policy stands for the kid and teachers are backed up. If the dad can get involved, that may help diffuse things a bit, but not if he's as caught up in their family dynamic of the child as helpless victim.

I feel for the kid, but it really does not sound like a salvagable school situation if you have parents who are willingly ignoring what teachers and doctors and therapists are saying over and over.

If you can get the parents out of the school as a safe zone, then you can start setting some reasonable boundaries for the kid to achieve on their own. My kid was able to talk at school way before he could talk at home.

Memail me if you want to talk - my ex is more refusing to believe in selective mutism like the parents, but I don't want to detail that online.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:57 AM on September 22, 2017

Where has the administration been all this time? She's in high school--haven't there been detentions and suspensions and ultimately, expulsion? The physical stuff with other kids is super not-cool because those kids too are learning that it's okay if someone just comes and sits on you as long as they know you or 'really need to' or something and I'd be not cool with the meta messages in that.

Is this a not-public school or something else that is causing this to be a thing where it normally wouldn't ? You're very kind and generous to be putting in this level of work but it seems like you're alone in it and it's not anything to do with your professionalism or skills; it has to do with the parents trying to work (and doing so successfully, it sounds like) outside the bureaucratic framework that presumably exists.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:00 AM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

How much do you really need to work with her parent? Is there an ethical/educationally-appropriate way to cut the mother a bit out of the loop? I realize you can't totally ignore her or refuse to give her information, but can you stop volunteering information?

A therapy professor once said that when working with teenagers with bad family situations, sometimes the only thing the therapist can really do is model for the teen that there are stable, functional in the world and not everyone is like their parents. This seems potentially like a situation where a message of "Even if your parents let you do this, your teachers are not going to allow it" might be helpful.
posted by lazuli at 6:22 AM on September 22, 2017 [23 favorites]

I'm curious why you think that the "selective mutism" doesn't exist. This child clearly has a number of issues so I don't understand why this would be a sticking point and it sounds like a stumbling block to reaching some resolution or at least a mode of working. I get that it can be infuriating when a kid pulls out the stops to get their way, but most kids have a limit and this one goes way beyond that. Which is, in itself, a likely kind of illness.
posted by amanda at 6:23 AM on September 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

That is to say, maybe it's time to stop focusing so much on changing the parents' behavior?
posted by lazuli at 6:23 AM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is way outside my realm of expertise so I don't have much to offer you here. One thing seems clear to me though: you are not going to get anywhere as long as your relationship with the mother remains adversarial.

Somehow, you need to get on the same side with her and create a positive relationship based on shared goals and mutual regard. That may feel unfair given the way she's acted and the degree of difference between you regarding what's best for her child, but it is literally the only productive way forward. This can't be a battle; if it's a battle, the mother will win and the child will suffer. If you care about the child, you must win over the mother.

I think the "kill them with kindness" approach is probably your best way forward here. You need to court her regard, show respect for her feelings, go the extra mile to show that you really like her as a person, even if it feels false. Remember that both of you vehemently want what is best for the kid—you just have a serious disagreement about what that is. Take that as your common ground and build from there, while also being really, radically kind and loving toward her. A sustained campaign of open-handed kindness is your best path toward the reconciliation that needs to occur if you're going to progress.

Also, you may find that you end up having to settle on a compromise plan of some kind that isn't what you think is the absolute best for the child, but which is the best plan that the mother is willing to support and participate in in good faith. You are never going to be able to just write her out of the equation, so you must get her on board, period.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:26 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm curious why you think that the "selective mutism" doesn't exist.

I didn't say that. The staff definitely DOES see behaviors consistent with selective mutism; it's the parents who disagree and believe it is a physical issue, but have not ever found a professional willing to agree.

What we see is the behavior is rewarded by her parents.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:45 AM on September 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

Does the student have an IEP? I've found those meetings helpful for getting everyone on the same page and getting everything in writing. Then there's a document to refer back to when there's a disagreement.
posted by Biblio at 8:13 AM on September 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Can you just ignore the mom? I wouldn't respond to her emails. Pretend like she's a non-entity. Her daughter already does that. The mom isn't going to change and until the daughter gets out of the house, I don't see much changing for her either. The daughter is 16 and knows exactly what she is doing and how to manipulate others. I think the best way to address it is to just stop engaging with the daughter too except to enforce the "no cuddling" rule. It seems like it's a control issue for both the mom and daughter. Ignoring both takes away their power. The person with selective mutism is always going to win unless you stop engaging.
posted by parakeetdog at 8:41 AM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does the student have an IEP?

Yes, I'm her liaison/case manager and have been purposely assigned to her because I get the "harder cases." Her parents have never once agreed to any psych testing or clinical school support; this is the first year the parents have agreed to addressing the issues. We agreed to address the silence by ignoring it; that's why the mom is now upset. I now see the value in ignoring her, though.

This is a very wealthy and entitled parental community; the mom is a serious fundraiser for the district.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:41 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

A lot of times, kids with disabilities "agree" to plans like this because it gets them out of the meeting and/or makes the adults stop badgering them temporarily. It doesn't usually mean that they are capable of functioning within the constraints of the plan.

I think you and mom actually agree that student has selective mutism, but mom believes she cannot will herself out of it ("there's a physical issue") and the school believes she can ("she talks when she wants to," "opposition needs to be addressed").

There's no FBA? Parents won't agree to an SLP or audiology assessment? What about an augmentative technology assessment? Can you get parents to sign a records release/observation release so the district can bring in an expert on selective mutism to consult and train staff? Will parents agree to a "fade-in" plan for her preferred adults in the classroom? Does student have anxiety accommodations and strategies in her IEP (since SM is an anxiety disorder)?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:57 PM on September 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's no FBA? Parents won't agree to an SLP or audiology assessment? What about an augmentative technology assessment? Can you get parents to sign a records release/observation release so the district can bring in an expert on selective mutism to consult and train staff? Will parents agree to a "fade-in" plan for her preferred adults in the classroom? Does student have anxiety accommodations and strategies in her IEP (since SM is an anxiety disorder)?

No to all of the above. Parents will not agree to any of this.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:37 PM on September 22, 2017

So you have a possessive, dysfunctional, wealthy donor parent who only wants you to follow the diagnosis she prefers.

So your problem is about managing a rich and egocentric person in order to help her kid.

You have to find a way to earn her trust. Are you good at flattery? Allying with people she does trust? Is there anyone at the school who is good at "getting round" her? She might agree to evaluations if you could convince her it was her idea.
posted by emjaybee at 7:04 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another path to take would be convincing the parents of the benefits of an assessment. If it could lead to increased services and support, maybe they'd agree.
posted by JenMarie at 8:50 PM on September 24, 2017

« Older Earphones Question for the hard-of-shopping   |   Is it any wonder that i feel like Audrey Hepburn... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments