Student Rights

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How to resolve disputes at school

Dispute resolution is when two parties try to resolve an issue between them. For example, when a parent wants to talk to a teacher about classroom bullying, or when a principal organizes a meeting with a student about a stand-down.

There are many ways to approach these kinds of disputes. This section will give some tips for getting the best result at school.

Get to the heart of the issue

What’s important to you?

Before meeting with the other person, you should try to think about what is really important to you. Is it staying in school? Feeling safe? Getting more help?

For example, you might feel very angry at a teacher and want to make a formal complaint. However, try to get to the heart of the issue. Why are you angry? Are you feeling bullied by the teacher? Do you not feel heard? Sometimes making a complaint is not the best way to resolve these kinds of issues. Perhaps you could speak to the teacher and explain how you or your child is feeling. Try to think about what is best for the student-teacher relationship.

What’s important to the other side?

Also, try to think about what is important to the other side. You might even want to ask them why they are taking a position. For example, if the principal wants to punish your child for bullying, you could ask them: “What’s your basic concern in wanting to stand my child down?” Perhaps the principal is mainly concerned about keeping other kids safe. You might be able to think of ways to ease this fear. For example, if your child is willing to go to anger management counseling, the principal might not think a stand-down is necessary.

Foster relationships

Remember that there is an ongoing relationship between parents, students and the school. The way that problems are dealt with can have an effect on these relationships going forward, and might have consequences for the way problems are treated in the future. It’s best if you can deal with issues in a way that helps, rather than hinders, these relationships.

When meeting with a teacher or principal, it’s a good idea to build a good relationship as soon as possible. For example, you could call them before the meeting and ask if there’s anything you can bring or do to help the meeting to run smoothly.

Don’t blame

When talking about a problem, try to separate the symptoms from the person you’re talking with. Try not to blame the other side for the problem. This can be very difficult. But even if blame is justified, it’s usually not very productive in getting to a solution. Try to stay focused on the result you want.

For example

NOT

INSTEAD

“You’re not protecting our child from bullying. You’re failing your duties.”

“Our child has been bullied three times this week. We want your advice on how we can stop it. Do you have any ideas?”

“You’ve been mistreating our family, and now we can’t trust you.”

“We feel very upset. We’re worried that an agreement won’t be kept even if we reach one. Rational or not, that’s our concern. Do you feel the same way?”

Acknowledge emotions

With school issues, you’re likely to be dealing with difficult and frustrating situations, where emotions are running high on all sides.

If you become emotional in a meeting, it can help to ask to take a break. You can call someone, go for a quick walk, or sit outside until you feel better. For this reason, it can be very helpful to have a support person with you, who can remain calm and take control if you need them to.

If the other side is becoming emotional or frustrated, you could also suggest a break. Even though it’s hard, it is also helpful to try to listen quietly while they describe their grievances. It helps to keep frustration from building, and hopefully they’ll do the same for you.

Educate

If the principal, teacher or board has the wrong idea about something, you can look for ways to educate them. Their fears, even if mistaken, are real and can influence their decision. It’s good if you can get them on the right track.

For example, if your child has ADHD, the board might be worried about the effects. It could be useful to bring information from your doctor, so that they have accurate information.

Make decisions easy

After you’ve tried to get to the heart of what the other side wants, it’s very helpful to make your suggestions consistent with their values. They might be worried about being inconsistent with past actions, so it’s a good idea to show them that the decision is good for them.

For example, a school might be known for its zero-tolerance policy on bullying. It also has a duty to keep other students safe. In a meeting, recognize this and make suggestions that will ensure other students’ safety while keeping your child in school.